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« Donor of the Day: How This Former Goldman Sachs Chairman Does His Philanthropy | Main | The Politicians May Be Quiet on K-12, But Foundations Are Busier Than Ever »
Tuesday
Feb022016

The Chorus Foundation's Radical Philanthropy

Farhad Ebrahimi would like to see philanthropy as we know it, and the inequality that created it, cease to exist. His Chorus Foundation's climate justice program and otherwise edgy approach to giving suggest he's quite serious.

Chorus is carving out a radical path among environmental funders, combining a spend-down plan, long-term general support grants (really long-term, like a decade), divestment and mission investing, and a heavy emphasis on community and justice groups. Sure, the Boston-based family foundation is relatively small, giving around $5 million a year, but Ebrahimi’s ultimate goal is to bring other foundations along with him. 

“They’re definitely on the cutting edge in several areas; they’re experimenting and taking a pretty interesting approach,” says Rachel Leon, executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. A lot of foundations might try out one such unorthodox change, she says, “but the fact that they’re doing multiple approaches just shows that they’re really serious about trying to have a different model.”

Other funders are spending down, for example. General support is gaining ground. And inequality has become a top priority among some of the country’s biggest funders, like the Ford Foundation under Darren Walker. 

Related: At Ford, the Revolution That Wasn’t

But it’s the aggressive combination of these tactics, combined with the way Ebrahimi is highly involved in the philanthropic community in spite of his disagreements with it, that makes Chorus such a compelling member of environmental philanthropy’s left flank. Ebrahimi sat down with Inside Philanthropy recently to discuss the foundation’s plans, and where he hopes philanthropy overall is headed. 

“The kind of future that I hope we’re supporting is one where foundations don’t exist as we think of them now, because we don’t accumulate huge piles of capital and then have small numbers of people decide what should happen with it,” he says.  

“It’s easier for me to say… because I’m not a philanthropic professional, in the sense that I applied for this job and if I make my board uncomfortable they’ll fire me. I was gifted more money than I thought I should have, right? So it’s a wealth redistribution project for me.” 

Protests, Policy, and Power

At 37, Ebrahimi is open about his initial discomfort with the wealth he acquired when his father, former owner of software company Quark, gave him a chunk of the family’s assets. (Quark wealth, we should note, is also the basis of the Gill Foundation, which was created by Quark founder Tim Gill and focuses on LGBT rights.)

When he was younger, and figuring out exactly what he wanted to do, Ebrahimi got a mathematics and computer science degree at MIT, and spent some time playing in bands and participating in lefty activism. He still identifies as an activist as much as a philanthropist, having been involved in Occupy in 2011 (he landed a spot in an NBC online feature “‘Occupy’ protesters find allies in ranks of the wealthy”), Keystone pipeline and coal plant protests, and Black Lives Matter.

In 2007, he founded the Chorus Foundation to carry out his philanthropy, always with a focus on climate change, but agnostic as to the strategy at first. Ebrahimi and trustees, having mostly science and investment backgrounds, spent the early years exploring the field. The foundation's current board consists of his sister Sasha Ebrahimi, brother-in-law Eric Griffith, and investment manager Nina Ross.

Chorus’s team, which includes Mott Philanthropic’s Cuong Hoang, explored common climate strategies such as market-driven energy efficiency and national policy. “Let’s just say that the results were mixed — and that’s being extremely generous in some cases,” Ebrahimi wrote in a Medium blog post describing the foundation’s process and early mistakes.

Over time, Chorus began to settle on place-based funding to support the country’s transition away from fossil fuels. Their current strategy is based on the “just transition” framework, an environmental justice approach that employs a bunch of tactics to ensure that the economy breaks from fossil fuel reliance in a way that doesn’t further concentrate wealth and power, or leave workers jobless. 

A Big Bet (No, Seriously)

Toward the end of 2015, the foundation announced that it would be focusing on four locations where this work is happening, adding three places to its existing, long-term program in Eastern Kentucky. From here, those four places—Buffalo, NY; Richmond, CA; Eastern Kentucky; and Alaska—will receive about 60 percent of all future grantmaking. Most of that will be in the form of general support to a few anchor groups in each place, continuing for the remaining eight years of the foundation's existence.

The term “big bet” is way overused in the context of foundations, often in reference to pretty standard 5 percent payout that takes little actual financial risk for the institution. But given the no-strings nature of these grants over the rest of the foundation’s lifespan, this program actually qualifies.

“It was just the realization that we really love these groups; we have a lot of confidence in them,” Ebrahimi says. “There are other conversations that I think both the groups, and us as a foundation, would rather have than doing that kind of ritual reapplication.”

Related: The Chorus Foundation Looks to Communities to Take the Lead on Climate

While the clock started ticking in 2013, Ebrahimi made the decision early on to spend down down the foundation’s assets, which are now approaching $40 million. Other donors like John Hunting of the Beldon Fund were a big influence, Ebrahimi says, but the threat of climate change also played a factor in the decision.

“This is urgent, so we shouldn’t try to exist in perpetuity, but we should come up with a timeframe to move the assets that we have at our disposal and do it in the most strategic way.” 

Ebrahimi's fierce sense of urgency is good to see at a moment when many other funders talk of a climate crisis, yet are unwilling to raise payout rates or otherwise change behavior in ways that align with the threat at handa point we've made often lately. 

Related:

In the meantime, Chorus’s team is also trying to be strategic about how to invest its assets. Ebrahimi had abandoned fossil fuel stocks by the time he founded Chorus, meaning the foundation was divested from the start, and long before the movement started picking up steam. 

But the funder is also pursuing mission-related investments, like backing clean energy companies and financing worker-owned cooperatives to secure local ownership. For example, the foundation supported a lending project by the Working World that allowed workers to purchase a closed Chicago window factory and run it as a co-op. 

Risky Business

Some of the tactics Chorus is taking on will not appeal to many foundations. This is especially the case with larger funders that priotize long-term financial security, or the metrics-obsessed effective altruism crowd.

While Ebrahimi doesn’t come across as particularly worried, he’s well aware of some of the risks involved in Chorus's giving strategy. 

First, there’s the delicate political dynamic of an entity from another city making large, long-term financial commitments in often tight-knit communities—the “bull in a china shop” factor. The possibility of being a wealthy party, swooping into low-income communities where he might not be not wanted is “one of the things that keeps me up at night.”

Ebrahimi expresses a lot of confidence in these anchor groups, but you can’t help but think of the possibility that they might not realize the progress they are going for in the next eight years. And then the foundation is done. That’s part to the risk involved with spending down in general.

“There are really great organizers who have pushed back on that. When we talk about it, [they’ve said], ‘Listen, I’ve been doing this work for decades. Somebody’s going to be doing this work for decades after me.’” Ebrahimi says. “But I think what we’re hoping with Chorus is to demonstrate an approach where we view ourselves as a transitional form. And part of the goal is to help all of these communities, not just the organizations but the communities themselves, build their own economic power.”

That sort of effort to not just fund programs and campaign victories, but instead to fund movement building and creation of wealth and power, is something he hopes will catch on among other foundations. A big part of the strategy at Chorus is to organize the rest of the philanthropic community, to position itself as an activist member in its ranks. 

Playing Well With Others 

One important thing to understand about Ebrahimi’s philanthropy is that, even though he takes plenty of shots at the standard philanthropic model, he’s not some pariah or curmudgeonly anti-philanthropist.

“They’re definitely a fun, exciting member to have, because they like to shake things up and to really raise new approaches,” says EGA’s Leon. “And they put their money where their mouth is, in the sense that they really come in and engage and actively volunteer.”

Ebrahimi co-chaired EGA’s 2015 flagship retreat, which featured Black Lives Matter’s Alicia Garza as a speaker. He also sits on the board of the Democracy Alliance, and participates in a number of other philanthropic networks. He says he gets into surprisingly few heated arguments in all these gatherings.

“Not as many as I feel like I should,” he says, noting that while Chorus is being intentionally provocative, the goal is not to attack, but to get people discussing what’s problematic. 

“I’ve actually found that within most philanthropic spaces that I’m in, institutional or individual donors, I think for a lot of folks it’s refreshing to have those conversations.”

Even if he’d like to see it out of business one day, Ebrahimi is a part of that philanthropic space, and he likely will be even after the spend down. It’s feeling right these days, he says. It also turns out wealth is hard to shake—there will eventually be some sort of additional inheritance coming to him down the line. When that’s the case, he’s suspects he’d pursue a similar approach as with Chorus, hopefully improving based on lessons learned. 

“The fact of the matter is, I come from a certain context of class privilege that is never going to go away. So I’m always going to try to leverage it in the best way possible.”

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