How 300 Wealthy Progressives Connect to Make Green Grants

How would you like to be in the room with about 300 wealthy liberals as they meet twice a year in exotic locales to discuss their philanthropy? Well, you can’t. But this network of donors does have one way in via an annual grantmaking program.

The Threshold Foundation is a donor network of progressive philanthropists administered by the Tides Foundation and making grants to two programs — justice and the environment. The group started in 1981 in the mountains of Colorado with a new-agey spiritual gathering that led to the formation of something called the Doughnuts. The group was convened by wealthy heir Josh Mailman, who would go on to also be a leader in impact investing and venture capital.  

Over the years the group grew, and became (somewhat) less based in spiritual concerns, forming what’s now known as the Threshold Foundation. There are two components to Threshold, the community and the grantmaking program.

Related - Threshold Foundation: Grants for Conservation

The community mainly involves the two annual meetings, in which the group (whose members are kept secret) gathers in rotating locations to talk philanthropy, politics, and otherwise soak up some good vibes, out of the public eye. But the community members also pay membership dues and donations, which they then channel into the grantmaking program. There are also a few funding circles that group members convene to direct funds to specific causes or strategies. 

While the Threshold has that whiff of the Illuminati that sets off conservative conspiracy theorists the way that Democracy Alliance does, it’s not too different from your typical donor circle. They get together, they share ideas, they discuss their giving priorities. 

One thing that sets them apart, however, is that their grantmaking is surprisingly transparent and concrete. Two “core committees” make giving decisions— Justice and Democracy and Sustainable Planet. These committees operate on annual grant cycles with deadlines, application guidelines, etc. The cycles are invitation-only in some cases, but not as a rule, it seems. And all past grants are posted online, along with annual reports.

In terms of the environment, the current cycle is themed around climate change, but historically, it’s a mix of conservation and sustainability. One element running throughout its environment grants is that Threshold prefers to back programs that work with local or indigenous communities. Grants run around $30,000 to $50,000 and total about a million a year, with almost $400,000 in the Sustainable Planet program last year. 

Related - Threshold Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

The network hasn’t entirely abandoned its hippie roots, however, as members approach both the gatherings and the grantmaking as freeform learning experiences for community members. The gatherings in particular are focused on self-discovery and growth, and the grant committees are volunteer-driven and “non-hierarchical.” Sounds a lot like those shindigs that the Koch brothers put on... right? 

Of course, the other compelling thing about Threshold is what’s happening outside of the structured channels. While they say they don’t pair individual donors with causes, you have to imagine the tremendous giving going on among the 300 wealthy members they cite, beyond the relatively modest $1 million in organized grantmaking.