Weaving Networks: One Funder's Model for Bottom-Up Grantmaking

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Spurred on by tense national politics, movement building is enjoying a moment in the sun. Whether it’ll last, especially among funders accustomed to bankrolling more incremental and quantifiable causes, is still an open question. But as left-leaning philanthropies shift to prioritize structural change, it’s worth keeping in mind that some grantmakers have been at this work since their inception.

The Marguerite Casey Foundation is a case in point. The foundation got its start in 2001, born out of Casey Family Programs shortly after UPS went public. From the get-go, MCF embraced many of the strategies that have dominated conversation among progressive funders since 2016—things like inclusive grantmaking, intersectionality, general support, and bottom-up movement building. 

At Marguerite Casey’s helm is Luz Vega-Marquis, a longtime community organizer, founder of Hispanics in Philanthropy, and former program officer at the James Irvine Foundation. Vega-Marquis has been MCF’s president from 2001 through the present, steering a fairly straight course through the political ups and downs of the past 17 years. “We’ve adjusted our strategy here and there as the external world changes,” she told me, “but our core belief has been steady. Engage families and help them own their agency for change.”

Vega-Marquis leads an organization that makes $30–35 million in grants per year. That’s nothing too extraordinary in the wider philanthropic universe, but it is a fair bit of cash in the shoestring world of progressive movement building. Like some of its larger counterparts—Ford comes to mind—MCF funds across a wide set of issue areas. But according to Vega-Marquis, “issue areas” aren’t the best way to look at what Marguerite Casey does.

Instead of funding predetermined issues from the top down, MCF prioritizes the cultivation of networks composed of families and local organizations. The hope is that by empowering grantees and beneficiaries to organize on their own, relevant issues will come to the fore and guide the foundation’s allocation of resources. 

The term “network” is often bandied about among the social change set, but MCF takes it very seriously. For example, while the foundation has long been a leader when it comes to offering general operating support, it does impose one big stipulation on grantees, Vega-Marquis said, which is that “we expect they come together in a network with other grantees we fund and set an agenda together.” 

MCF’s grantees convene in Equal Voice Networks that operate on the regional level to identify shared concerns and coordinate advocacy strategies. Those networks, and the name, trace their roots to around 2007, when Marguerite Casey’s Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign brought together over 30,000 families over the course of a year to hammer out a National Family Platform that continues to inform the foundation’s work.


MCF provides funding for its grantees to hire “network weavers,” community leaders tasked with building connections between network members. While the network weavers report to the regional networks, not directly to MCF, they are a conduit providing the foundation with “windows into what’s going on in communities.” The idea, which Vega-Marquis attributes in part to the Barr Foundation, is to find ways to connect grantees together without imposing a view from the foundation.

Over a period of trial and error, this model has allowed MCF to foster relationships based on trust. Those relationships form the grounds for the foundation’s general support funding model, in which the average MCF grantee gets backing for eight years. While Vega-Marquis spoke about “being around for many of the mistakes” during her tenure as president, she says the vast majority of grantees ended up “making the right choices for their organization.” That belies the common fear among grantmakers that relinquishing control and micromanagement will mean that things head off track. 

There has been a definite uptick in general support funding in recent years, but its share of the total pie remains small. Along with peer organizations like the Sobrato Family Foundation, MCF is eager to share its positive experience with general support and encourage more funders to embrace it. Interestingly, we’ve found that funders from the business world seem to be more willing than most to offer general support, taking venture capitalism as their model. The Ballmer Group is a case in point, embracing such funding as a core operating principle. For more activist-oriented grantmakers, general support is seen not just as a way to share power and build trust, but also as critical for organizations that must be nimble as they respond to fast-changing developments.


Marguerite Casey’s bottom-up funding model has pulled it in many directions over the years, but bolstering the democratic process is one standout right now. Starting in December of 2017, the foundation awarded $4.1 million to boost nonpartisan voter engagement ahead of this year’s elections, as well as to shore up the vulnerable 2020 Census. 

Grant recipients ranged across the nation, from Greater Birmingham Ministries in Alabama to Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education in Los Angeles. “Sometimes, foundations wait until the last moment [before elections],” Vega-Marquis said. “Organizations that educate and register people to vote often can’t get that funding until election years. We counter that by making sure they get funding in time.” 

The same goes for the census. As 2020 looms closer, progressive funders are racing against time to ensure that marginalized communities—immigrants in particular—aren’t undercounted. It’s a vital leverage point: In addition to determining Congressional representation, census results underscore how federal social services are allocated. They also form the basis for research and reporting that guides how nonprofits carry out their work. 

MCF is also among the foundations experimenting with program-related impact investments, a strategy it ramped up last year with a $1 million investment in the Self-Help Ventures Fund. While Vega-Marquis cautioned that this aspect of MCF’s work is still very new, the foundation is leaning toward organizations like Community Development Financial Institutions that work in low-income communities that too often are either starved of capital or preyed on by usurious lenders. Indeed, protecting communities from predatory lending is high on Marguerite Casey’s PRI agenda.

In the end, all of this goes back to the issue of trust. Can communities trust local financial institutions? Can vulnerable populations trust the democratic process? Can grantmakers trust nonprofits to make the best use of finite resources? Looking at philanthropy through the trust lens, as it were, offers a clearer picture of why the folks at MCF and elsewhere talk about helping families so much. After all, especially for vulnerable populations, family networks are often the sole support system available. 

Technocratic policymaking tends to fixate on isolated individuals (or at best, “households”) for quantification’s sake, and that practice extends into philanthropy. But for almost all of us, close interpersonal bonds and informal family networks have a huge effect on how stable or precarious we perceive our lives to be. They also form the root structure of any mass movement. Marguerite Casey’s quest is to build bridges between that intimate sphere and the traditionally top-down world of philanthropy, where the families most talked about are those with the highest net worths.