Change, Not Charity: Bread & Roses Is Not Your Typical Funder

At its peak, the Funding Exchange—a network of social change funders born in the late 1970s—had 16 members across the nation. Participating groups shared the desire to advance causes deemed too radical by mainstream philanthropy. Among them was the Bread & Roses Community Fund in Philadelphia. And while the Funding Exchange recently ceased operating, Bread & Roses is still making a ruckus. Or, rather, funding one.  

Since 1977, Bread & Roses has supported the “fundamental daily work of organizing, dissenting and resisting," in the words of its most recent newsletter.

At first, its grantmaking was somewhat primtive, such as "dropping bags of money in front of the Black Panthers' headquarters," according to executive director Casey Cook. Bread & Roses listed government overthrow as an organizational goal on their first application for a charitable tax exemption. (Bet that went over well with the IRS.)

Today, the fund continues to challenge both philanthropic form and function. Rather than assuming people with money know best what others need, it organizes a 20-person committee to set priorities and make grantmaking decisions. The committee includes people from the involved neighborhoods and those most directly affected by the grants.  

We don't see that every day. In fact, we hardly ever see this kind of process among mainstream funders. But Bread & Roses is not alone in practicing this kind of participatory grantmaking, which is also embraced by select other social change funders who believe it's critical to reduce the class and power imbalances which are often inherent to philanthropy—and mirror the broader inequities of society. If philanthropy replicates the same problems it seeks to resolve, goes this critique, how successful can it be in achieving real change? 

The decision process for Bread & Roses begins as a series of site visits with applicants. It culminates about four months later in a meeting during which the committee prioritizes the candidates' projects and decides how to divvy up funding.

Cook calls that final convergence “the coolest day of the year.”

There are also some hard parts to the process, however. Cook called the most recent assembly of this type “especially painful. We had an unprecedented number of groups among whom we had to divide the money. But we came out of it determined to raise more for next year.”

Bread & Roses holds about $1.6 million in assets and makes around $200,000 in grants a year. Its interests include affordable housing, public education, LGBTQ interests, Latino organizing, living wages, and incarcerated populations. 

Recent years have been a good period for grassroots activists in many cities. The Occupy movement created new energy around economic justice concerns, and many cities, including Philadelphia, have seen new worker organizing efforts gain traction as unions target low-wage employers in the fast food and retail sectors. Meanwhile, the tide on other issues, like LGBT equality and criminal justice, has also been fast changing and moving in a progressive direction. 

To name just a few of the recent victories Bread & Roses grantees and trainings have produced, Asian Americans United organized victims of several 2009 assaults against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School. The efforts precipitated a Department of Justice investigation and two successful lawsuits.

In 2013, another grantee, Campaign for Working Families, helped push an amendment through the Philadelphia City Council that provides mandatory sick-days for workers subcontracted by city government.