Shared Power: How One Rapid Response Fund Defies Philanthropy's Hierarchical Streak

  Yevgenij_D/shutterstock

 Yevgenij_D/shutterstock

When it became clear that Donald Trump would be president of the United States, left-leaning funders braced for a tough road ahead. Throughout 2017, many defied the traditionally plodding nature of grantmaking by offering rapid response grants to specific communities and organizers. On its face, the Emergent Fund is yet another one of those efforts. But a look under the hood reveals an intentional departure from grantmaking as usual, rooted in a critique of hierarchical power.

Now just over a year old, the Emergent Fund is a collaborative brainchild of the Women Donors Network (WDN) and the Solidaire Network, with additional support from the Threshold Foundation and the Democracy Alliance. It’s unabashedly progressive, and has disbursed over $1 million in rapid response grants so far. As we wrote in our original coverage of the Emergent Fund, one of its primary characteristics is speed. A quick, user-friendly application process, combined with an innovative method for allocating the workload—we’ll get to that in a bit—made for plenty of agility.

Related: Strength in Numbers: The New Donor Fund Resisting Trump

But the Emergent Fund’s most interesting feature is how it cedes decision-making power to the communities it supports. It’s no coincidence that the two founding organizations have the word “network” in their names. Networks, especially those developed by women, tend to be more collaborative and less hierarchical. The result, in this case, is a rapid-response fund that is something of a maverick.

According to Donna Hall, who leads WDN, “When I worked in big foundations, we often turned to consultants. But they were never given a vote. In the end, foundation staff made the decisions. In this case, we empowered a group of national experts who we have known over the years, and told them that ultimately, the decision is yours to make.”

The fund's approach comes at a moment of rising interest in participatory grantmaking in the world of philanthropy. Handing the keys to outsiders is hardly unheard of, and we've written about a number of efforts that empower affected stakeholders to determine where funding goes—including the Bread & Roses Community Fund in Philadelphia. But participatory grantmaking, which can take various forms, remains an outlier idea—one that can seem radical and scary to many funders.

The Emergent Fund’s model, detailed in a report released in December, is unique. To begin with, staff from WDN and Solidaire “curated” a group of decision makers to serve as an Advisory Council with actual power over where the money goes. Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, Vice President at WDN, highlighted the deliberate way her colleagues went about that process. “We were thinking about who we know in the progressive world who’s connected in a deep way to the exact communities we want to support though the fund."

The Advisory Council includes a mix of donors, fundraisers and movement leaders including Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream, Lateefah Simon of the Akonadi Foundation, and Shireen Zaman of the Proteus Fund’s Security & Rights Collaborative. In addition to the Advisory Council, the fund’s founders assembled a larger group of movement leaders into a nominations network to engage the field more broadly.

While staff from WDN and Solidaire worked with the Advisory Council to create criteria to judge incoming applications, the Advisory Council members had final say. One result was that grants didn’t just go to the most visible, funder-friendly organizations. According to Ancona, “Often, because [the Advisory Council members] were so connected, an unlikely group would get money. We were able to vet applications by applying the knowledge of the network on the ground.”

We’ve often pointed out that it can be hard for funders to back movement building in real time, especially when donors are so far removed from the communities they’re trying to support. The most impactful organizations and leaders in the movement may not be the most well-known. The Emergent Fund’s model is one way to begin closing that gap. 

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As we mark the one-year anniversary of 2017’s historic Women’s March, it’s also worth noting that the Emergent Fund was a female-led initiative from the get-go. Hall sees this as prescient. “Together,” she said, “WDN’s members distribute over $200 million a year in grants. The assets women will come into over the next 20 to 30 years are pretty staggering.” 

While traditional philanthropic power is still dominated by men, Hall sees women donors’ clout continuing to rise. And many of the more collaborative and participatory models for philanthropy—including giving circles and initiatives like the Emergent Fund—are headed by women.

At the same time, Hall and Ancona are only cautiously optimistic that more funders will try out non-hierarchical grantmaking models in the near term. For those who are willing, Hall says, the first step is to grant operational support with no strings attached. Making the application process easier for grantees is another must. When it comes to rapid-response giving, a streamlined process is even more crucial. It may also help to get a bit more generous with the grants: $25,000, say, instead of just $5,000 or $10,000.

The Emergent Fund plans to continue giving on a similar scale in 2018. Many of last year’s grantees spent their grants on alliance building, planning events and leadership training, and Ancona wants to balance rapid response with more long-term support for those movements. But it still remains to be seen whether bottom-up, participatory grantmaking will catch on more broadly.

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