Some of the boldest players in philanthropy are often relatively small, in terms of wealth and grantmaking. They can still be quite impactful with their funding, of course, but ultimately, they bump up against the limits of their own dollars.
For some facing that challenge, such as the Massachusetts-based Solidago Foundation, the answer is to go beyond grantmaking into organizing other funders and experimenting with new ways to move wealth and build power.
“Even as tiny as we are, we're sitting in the same room and at the same table with people who have a lot more dollars at their disposal,” says Sarah Christiansen, one of two program directors at social justice-focused Solidago. “And for better or for worse, we're shameless in feeling like our ideas are just as good and as important as anybody else’s.”
Some of those ideas have led Solidago to co-found a growing climate justice fund, create new models to channel investment into communities, and set up avenues of giving that allow organizations to engage in important political work. By driving edgy approaches and being a vocal presence among other foundations, Solidago is influencing how philanthropy supports issues like climate change, the environment and economic justice.
“The way that they show up and the way they think about philanthropic spaces—they're among the few folks in philanthropy who I think have a long history of thinking about this like organizers," says Farhad Ebrahimi, president of the Chorus Foundation, another influential, scrappy funder in the progressive space.
A Foundation’s Evolution
The Solidago Foundation was established in 1996 by the late Joseph Rosenmiller, who gained his wealth from a chain of radio stations and early investment in cable television. Rosenmiller spent much of his life working on and donating to social justice causes, and later turned over operations to son David Rosenmiller, who co-founded Solidago and now acts as an advisor.
The foundation is based in Northampton, a small, artsy community in western Massachusetts, but it works well beyond its own backyard. It was initially a private foundation intending to spend down its assets by 2020, but later shifted to an ongoing public foundation (David Rosenmiller still has a private foundation). In 2017, Solidago appointed longtime progressive leader Elizabeth Barajas-Román as CEO.
All of its work focuses on countering injustice and structural inequality, with the belief that the way to make that possible is to build collective power. The foundation currently has a few program areas, including climate and environmental justice, workers’ rights, and supporting sustainable local economies.
But Christiansen says its varied priorities all center on the concept of building “independent political power” and backing groups that are doing so. That means power that’s grounded in the priorities and leadership of low-income and communities of color, and isn’t reliant on political parties or other dominant institutions.
Christiansen came on board in 2006, along with fellow Program Director Guillermo Quinteros, both of whom had organizing backgrounds. Along with some other key staffers who have since moved on to other roles (including Juan Leyton, Laine Romero-Alston and Aditi Vaidya), she says the team started to explore ways they might be more influential, beyond only grantmaking.
“I think all of us feel like, wherever you sit, if you've got an organizing mentality, you have both personal and institutional agency, and there's a responsibility with that role in what you do with it,” she says.
A foundation’s decision to incubate its own projects and take on an organizing role can be a source of tension, given the power dynamics in philanthropy. Christiansen says that’s something Solidago definitely grappled with, as the board wasn’t always entirely comfortable stepping outside of a pure funding role. Could the foundation pursue a more proactive stance, while still abiding by its core principle of allowing the field to lead?
“How we've evolved as an organization is to say, we can actually still be deeply principled in having the work that we invest in be driven by the grassroots and be driven by real communities,” Christiansen says. “That could still be our MO for how we operate, but that we need to really start owning that we can be using our small amount of dollars to leverage much bigger ideas that move larger dollars.”
One of the biggest breakthroughs in this shift was the foundation’s role as a co-founder of a now-independent entity called the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund. The pooled 501(c)(3) fund supports grassroots climate justice work at the ground level in key states, working in parallel with a sister 501(c)(4) fund.
As an ardent supporter of climate justice and the idea that the climate movement needs to build power at the grassroots level, in 2013, Solidago incubated a pooled fund called Powering Change. It was an early effort at creating a collaborative fund to support grassroots climate work (now more common), and while it had some success, didn’t get the traction they’d hoped, Christiansen says.
Solidago’s team would later work in collaboration with a group of other players, including Lee Wasserman of Rockefeller Family Fund and Josie Mooney of NextGen Climate, to set up something similar—this time housed at the Democracy Alliance, a heftier, more mainstream platform than Powering Change. It’s since gained notable momentum, picking up some major environmental funders and spinning off from the DA.
The Equity Fund was a donor organizing success story, and encouraged the team at Solidago that such efforts could really pay off, Christiansen says.
“What if we got a little more intentional about creating projects and initiatives that would explicitly test some of these ideas and actively bring in more resources, with the whole long-term arc of moving larger funders?” she says.
It wasn’t the first time Solidago had tried to break out of traditional philanthropic boxes. For example, the foundation’s CFO Jeff Rosen was one of the architects of a creative investment fund in Western Massachusetts with a network called PV Grows. The fund layers philanthropy and community investment in order to finance local agriculture projects. That basic model influenced similar community investment vehicles like community-run Boston Ujima Project, and is currently being replicated elsewhere.
Solidago is also a big proponent of grassroots funders and grantees stepping outside of 501(c)(3) funding, which has greater limitations on lobbying and election activities. If community groups are restricted from engaging in the political process, Christiansen says, they’re basically sidelined during election cycles. Back in 2006, Solidago started a 501(c)(4) fund, now called the Solidago Action Fund, to help independent organizations expand their toolboxes.
Next up, the team is experimenting with the concept of a grassroots political action committee that would be network-based and led by community-rooted organizations. It’s early days, but they’re calling it LEAD PAC (Liberation, Equality and Democracy), and exploring how they might get this often-problematic lever of power into the hands of communities.
The ‘Beautiful Chaos of Social Change’
The foundation has incubated a number of other projects, including issue-based donor circles and recent communications work around climate funding and mobilizing frontline communities. It’s also working to raise its public profile, fundraising, hiring a partnerships and communications director, and revamping its website.
One of the compelling things about Solidago’s work is the organization’s apparent comfort with the nonlinear nature of the kinds of changes and innovations it’s trying to advance. Often, funders want to back a project and watch direct results roll in.
But in some of its biggest innovations, Solidago’s initial efforts didn’t make huge splashes themselves. The ideas instead became parts of larger collaborative efforts, or were adopted or replicated by others.
As Ebrahimi at Chorus puts it, Solidago tends to be out on the leading edge, but it also builds bridges, working to move ideas into more mainstream circles. “They're going to be one of the first voices that people hear, and then it's inevitably going to be a larger effort to get more folks organized around it, which they will also be part of.”
Sometimes, an idea may come too early, or it takes multiple attempts and collaboration with other parties before it takes hold. That’s all part of the “beautiful chaos of social change,” as Christiansen says.
“As long as we're doing it with the field and in support of what the field needs and wants, and we're using our philanthropic agency, then we should be taking risks and trying things that might take two or three times.”