Donor Organizers: Behind an Inclusive New Approach to Social Justice Funding

“How did it feel to grow up knowing you had everything you needed?” That was a question put to Beckett Koretz by a fellow Giving Project participant who grew up without the kind of economic security Koretz enjoyed. And although Koretz has spent the last few years grappling with class privilege, the 26-year-old said, “I couldn’t answer that question.”

Rarely in our society do ordinary people come together to talk about money. Even more rarely does a diverse group—people of color, white people, wealthy people and cash-poor people—gather to talk about race and class. And almost never does such a group jointly raise and distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But that’s exactly what happens in a Giving Project.

To date, Giving Projects have raised more than $5 million from 8,000 people. This innovative model is energizing groups of people who are not generally well-represented in philanthropic decision-making—namely, young people and people of color. And the money raised and distributed by Giving Projects is providing necessary funding for grassroots, community-led organizing that’s underfunded by larger foundations. Taken all together, the Giving Project model holds the potential for revolutionizing funding for emergent social justice work across the country.

Core practices

First developed by Social Justice Fund Northwest in Seattle, the Giving Project model is currently being implemented and honed by six funds that share resources, best practices and lessons learned.

While each Giving Project is tailored to the specific context of the local fund, there are several core principles and practices. All Giving Projects are made up of a multiracial, cross-class group of about 20 people. All participants commit to making a meaningful gift—whatever that means to the individual. And together, participants embark on a six-month process of learning, fundraising and grantmaking.

The first half of the program is educational. Participants are trained on issues of social and racial justice, systemic change, and principles of funding community organizing. Additionally, they learn skills to fundraise from their networks.

In the second half, Giving Project participants go out and raise money, and then come back together to distribute the funds to grassroots community organizations. During this phase, they do site visits to learn more about the applicant organizations and their work. All grants are awarded through a consensus-based decision-making process.

Racial justice front and center

The explicit focus on racial justice in a cross-class setting and the commitment to community-building are what set the Giving Project model apart from other philanthropic models such as giving circles.

Participants “have difficult conversations about inequality and justice—conversations that they might have had before, but now money is literally on table,” said Zeke Spier, former executive director of the Social Justice Fund Northwest. “It’s not academic; it’s practical. They are actually taking steps together to address the injustices they’re discussing.”

And while this is a fairly unique model in today’s professionalized philanthropy, Spier points out that the Giving Project approach taps into a long history of self-resourcing by communities of color and low-income communities.

This is a critical component to the success of Giving Projects. People of color and low-income people “assert their leadership in the decision-making process,” said Aarati Kasturirangan, director of programs at the Bread & Roses Community Fund in Philadelphia. “They are valued for their contributions and analysis, and are able to help direct where funds are distributed.”

The Giving Project enables white and wealthy participants to be public and accountable in ways they haven’t had a chance to before, said Spier. “It breaks isolation; they find community in giving.”

Donor organizers

It also changes the ways many wealthy participants think about philanthropy. The conversations they have with their fellow participants during the first half of the program, and the questions they grapple with, as Koretz did, inform how they fundraise from their friends and families. When they ask for $100, $1,000 or $10,000 to fund social justice organizing, they are doing so with a deeper understanding of the desires and needs of the people most directly impacted by racial and economic inequity.

In fact, those involved in the Giving Project eschew the term “philanthropist” in favor of “donor organizer.” All participants are trained and supported in how to have honest and intimate conversations about why they are fundraising, why the issues they are working on are important, and why the person should also get involved. In some ways, the conversations these donor organizers have with their networks are as important as the outcome of the ask.

That was the experience of Katie Goodman, a white, wealthy participant in a Giving Project run by the North Star Fund in New York City. She held a dinner party for a dozen friends with whom she hadn’t necessarily engaged on political issues. She talked about her experience with the Giving Project and why grassroots organizing was so necessary in today’s political moment. “I was definitely nervous beforehand, but it turned into a really great discussion,” she said. “A lot of my friends were asking, ‘What can I do to get involved, even beyond giving money?’ I think it opened the doors for some of my friends to think about themselves as potential donors and potential donor organizers.”

Of course, the money matters, as well. “Part of the way to get to real conversations is by making big asks,” said Spier. “People might give 10, 20 bucks to a friend’s campaign and not think much of it, but you ask them for $2500, that opens up the possibility of not just raising more resources, but also having a different, meaningful conversation.”

New money for the movement

Giving Projects consistently raise significant funds from people who may be new to giving. Goodman’s group had an initial goal of raising $160,000, but ended up raising $210,000. “That’s $210,000 that wasn’t in the movement before, and now it is,” said Cori Parrish, deputy director of the North Star Fund. “Most of those donors were new to North Star, and many of them were new to social justice giving. So the Giving Project participants definitely reached beyond the choir.”

Bread & Roses Community Fund has also seen a dramatic increase in raised funds thanks to the Giving Project. In 2015 and 2016, the fund experimented with running one Giving Project a year. But when the 2016 presidential election energized progressive activists and donors, they scaled up to three Giving Projects a year. According to Kasturirangan, this has increased their annual grant-making from $180,000 to $380,000.

And in the first four years that Social Justice Fund Northwest ran Giving Projects, they grew their donor base from 300 to 1800—mostly people under 40—and doubled their income.

For all of the participating funds and their grantees, the Giving Projects are bringing in a whole new generation of donors and leadership. “People are finding a political home at the foundations,” says Spier. “They see their role in the movement as donor organizers.”

Scaling up

Given the success of these projects, the staff across all participating funds are interested in scaling up the model so that eventually, “people can plug into a Giving Project anywhere in country, and there is a national infrastructure to move resources to organizations on the front lines of social change,” says Spier.

But there are many challenges to be met and questions to be answered in order to make such a vision a reality. For example, the intensive nature of the Giving Projects requires a significant amount of staff time and resources—including the emotional and mental output it takes for facilitators to hold the space for the difficult conversations around race and class.

So Spier and others are currently engaged in a process to investigate what it will take to scale it up. They’ve received a multi-year grant from the Ford Foundation to learn from each other and share best practices. In this final year, they are looking into what systems they need to put in place to expand the model.

Spier believes Giving Projects could activate millions of people across the country and leverage hundreds of millions of dollars. “So much of the conversation in philanthropy has been centered around ‘us versus them,’ and has been based in scarcity. This model changes that by changing the power base. It demonstrates that communities have the power to get the resources they need in alignment with their work and vision. It has the potential to completely change the way we think of philanthropy.”