thoughts for foundations and major donors

in my work as an organizational healer, facilitator, and coach, i regularly support, both formally and informally, lots of movement leaders. one of the major trends i’ve seen over and over is folks struggling because they can’t get consistent long-term funding. if you work for a foundation, or sit on a foundation board, or even consider yourself a major donor, i would love to share some thoughts with you on ways you can shift this trend.

for years, leaders have been told that y’all don’t want non-profit organizations to become dependent on you.

in the general meta sense, i agree with this sentiment. it’s tragic, and not accidental, that work for change and justice is so dependent on resources generated by the system it most needs to change.

however, that dependence is a given, it’s how the system functions. breaking that dependence won’t come from cultivating constant financial instability amongst the groups. it will come from getting in the work with them, being in relationships that are accountable in multiple directions over time, being part of the success of the movements themselves, and i daresay being willing to be transformed yourself.

(if you are a foundation or donor who already engages in long-term [5 year +] funding processes, then yay to you! i know y’all are out there going against the grain and you thrill me. you can stop reading this, and just toast yourselves.)

i am an abundant-minded person, and i have done fundraising work at multiple levels in movement. i’ve learned that there are finite financial resources for social justice, which tend to lessen as the work gets more specific, local, and/or radical. finding foundations and major donors like you, who actually align with the work, and are willing to fund it…let’s just say that every time it’s a major relief and a victory.

the finite-ness of the funds deepens when that funding is only offered for a year at a time, or for a limit of 1-5 years, because you don’t want to create dependence.

now one move might be to grow the pot of funds to draw from. when i was an executive director i remember wondering why social justice foundations and major donors weren’t just automatically responsible for growing the pot of resources for social justice work, instead of, or at least with, the organizers and activists. why did we all spend so much time writing, reading, submitting, and rejecting/approving grants for people who agreed with us, at least on paper? why weren’t we all mostly organizing, movement building, and resource building as a team, with folks playing a variety of positions based on access to resources and the skill set to inspire and direct giving?

to be fair, more and more foundations see this and are shape shifting and making commitments to build the relationships and do the peer educating that will grow the amount of money social justice can access through foundations and major donors, as well as shifting the power dynamics with which resources are redistributed. brava!

but growing the pot doesn’t actually liberate us all from the dynamics of privileging money over time in movements, which is what happens when foundations keep movement leaders in cycles of asking, rather than engaging in partnerships.

and there are so many foundations and donors who are still engaging in super short-term funding, some doing so even when the program officers are longing for deeper longer-term work with their grantees.

in some cases, i get it – common sense says if an organization you are funding is being mismanaged, isn’t effective, or doesn’t align with your strategy, it’s worth developing the capacity to have the hard conversations demanded in those situations. and if you can’t get to a place where your investment feels like a great choice, sure, stop funding, with clear communication to the organization.

or if you are the group’s only funder, or primary funder, and your funds aren’t in a stable place…then by all means encourage resource diversity.

but if that isn’t the case? if you are financially sound, inspired by the group’s work, think they are being well-managed or doing great self-management, and their work is strategic, if you have a relationship with them that is rewarding to you?

go deeper.

first, realize that you are one of the relatively few people/institutions that is funding this work. yay – you have the privilege of being a conscious good person with resources of your own or through your institution – and you want to use those resources in the best possible way, to support social justice. you are rare, a liger in the rough!


realize that it impacts leaders to constantly be in proposal mode about their work, trying to come up with new projects and milestones or reframes of their work, instead of getting to focus in on sustaining and growing the existing work.

realize that the moment you place a time limit on your funding (as opposed to having the future determined by the work and the relationship), most strategic movement leaders have to place you in a limited investment category of relationships. because they have to begin planning how they will sustain the work your gift helps them create.

but most importantly, realize that you could have more – you could have more authentic relationships with the people who are changing this world, if you didn’t set up temporary conditions on the front end.

you wouldn’t begin a relationship with a potential co-parent by saying ‘basically i’ma love you and the baby for 12-18 months but once that baby needs consistent sustained care? you will have to find someone else. someone just like me, who loves y’all, who really understands you and the life you want to create for this baby, but is not me. for your sake. for your independence.’

that wouldn’t go over well with most humans who want to parent.

these movements are our babies, or rather our co-creations – at least, that’s the invitation that awaits you. there is greatness, life’s work, possible for all of us, regardless of how much wealth we carry.

without the time limits and constant reapplication process, there is room for movement building. there is room for reality-based adaptive engagement and assessment of the resources needed over time.

there is room for sharing lessons from both successes and failures, without the fear that every proposal has to be flawlessly achieved. there is room to move beyond proposal thinking and into sustenance thinking.

there is room for foundations to be in community with other foundations and with movements, to co-fund efforts, to strategize over how to support thriving movements as opposed to competing organizations.

and…if you still want to see the organizations you fund pursue independence from foundations and major donors (which should be a radical intention and not the inevitable result of short-term funding) then support all of your grantees to go through the GIFT program, or something similar, which grows their capacity to generate support in other ways. and invest in those other efforts.

work is always happening on multiple levels. in the longest run, i hope we continue to fundamentally shift what movements are, how they work, how that work is measured, how we live every day and resource that living in ways that feel impeccable to our souls.

but in the meantime, it would definitely help if more foundations and donors would fully commit to what you feel is important. lengthen your attention spans, be in and of it all.

and stay open to learning. i’ll do the same.

p.s. i’d love to hear strategies from funders who have actually made this shift! or any other feedback 🙂

raising tomorrow

Pt 1

I wish I didn’t have to ask
I wish you believed
Wanted it as deeply as I do

The longing for that
other way
Throbs in me
Pulses and quakes
Moves me

Don’t you feel it?
Don’t make me carry it all
And you too
Don’t you feel it?

Are you sleeping?
When I’m so tired
Are you sleeping
on my chest, in my arms
When I’m so tired?

Pt 2

in everything
You have enough

What is extra
We will put into our new world
Where there will be a room for you
And your enough
And anything more that you need
And nothing that will empty you
Of yourself

‘we will live
And not die’
We won’t sit in the death
Of false love
We won’t sit in the death
Of greed’s dream

We wake up
We choose to wake up
That is our power

We only have a lifetime
An entire lifetime
That is our power

making money make change keynote

here are the notes of the keynote i gave at the 12th annual making money make change gathering. these are notes, which i referred to and riffed off of, so it may not have come out exactly like this :), but still wanted to document it all.

(before i spoke, disability justice organizer mia mingus got up and gave us a short awareness practice around able-ist language – noticing when we say crazy, lame, crippled, blind, deaf, cut off at the knees, insane…this was a powerful learning, not only to notice when we say it, but also learning to say what we actually mean, instead of reducing ourselves in ways that dishonor the experiences of others.)

good evening. i’m adrienne maree brown – i work with the ruckus society, and am now a national coordinator with the us social forum.

first of all, everyone please get up. i am placing this (balloon) down here in the center, and let’s say this represents the center of impact – economic and environmental impact. this can be nuanced – being hungry for food, or hungry for the attention and love of parents obsessed with accumulating money. furthest from the center are those with the most privilege – meaning love, safety, access to nature. ok. now look at each other – this is reality – our lives and experiences are more complex than we give ourselves credit for – what looks like privilege can be loneliness, what looks like suffering can be happiness. who is missing from the conversation and the leadership? those MOST impacted. that’s who we have to learn to listen to. but look at us – we are all in this together, interrelated, on this earth island hurtling through space.

now sit down.

i want to start by saying that i feel this space, and this undertaking, are incredible. i have never had a lot of money, but the exposure i have had to luxury and comfort have taught me that it is addictive. hot tubs? travel? having anything you want? it’s nice – it’s amazing to me that y’all were born into that and opt to be in a space like this, thinking about redistribution. and it’s an approved addiction – if a baby is born addicted to crack because of the practices of its mother, it is pushed through an abstinence program immediately. if you are born to a family addicted to luxury and comfort, you are considered lucky. but here y’all are, in this money-addiction harm reduction program…you’re even telling your stories like a 12-step program! so, i honor you and this work.

i also want to say that in the effort to combat celebrity organizing culture, i didn’t create or come up with any of the stuff i will share with you tonight. i hope i am a conduit of ancient ideas trying to find their way home. i honor my ancestors, those who have thought and realized and remembered and dreamed before me.

first, i want to share some of my own story. i’m bi-everything…biracial, bisexual, cross-cultural, grew up half in the u.s. and half in germany. i grew up loved grew up a military brat, and i think my experience of learning what the military really did is the closest thing i have to what you all are going through as you learn how your family accumulated it’s wealth. when i learned the history of the military, i felt betrayed and hopeless. responsibility for the suffering of others is unbearable. i think this is why we try to numb it, ignore it, not teach our children…but that allows the suffering to continue. waking up, we can acknowledge and eliminate our capacity to create suffering.

i learned about the military in college – i was able to get into columbia university. i was a gifted child because i was told i could do anything i set my mind to. that encouragement was my greatest privilege. i organized on every kind of issue in college, always drawn to to the point of greatest impact. my experience with sexual assault shaped who i wanted to organize with, guiliani’s mayoral reign of terror shaped the issues i organized around – hiv/aids, police brutality, women’s sexual health and education. as a military brat, i was drawn towards organizing for peace. in the years i have organized, i worked in the fields of harm reduction, electoral organizing, and direct action. i was doing harm reduction work just fine till bush cut that budget to send the money into the wars in afghanistan, then i was marching in the streets and doing electoral organizing – trying to see if it was possible to do that kind of cyclical, reactionary work with integrity. the jury is still out for me. someone approached me as i did that work and said i was too radical for electoral work, and that’s how i ended up at the ruckus society. all of my work has been national and cross-cultural. the values that i have accumulated:

– decentralization! of power and resources. at ruckus we are finally a flat pay scale organization, and are practicing real decentralization of decision making, including our network.
– actions speak louder than words. it is wonderful to articulate a commitment, a vision. it is powerful to act on it, change your behavior as a person, as a worker, as a donor, as a family-member.
– our survival requires prioritizing self-determination and sustainability. this is the vision of ruckus, that all communities have both. they have to go hand in hand…one community cannot sustain itself at the expense of another, one community cannot practice self-determination that harms another, this has to work locally, globally. this necessarily includes restorative practices that sustain each person.
– we must move from a dependency model of raising funds to a grassroots fundraising model. this means that those who need an organization should contribute to it, and those who are major donors and foundations should support in a consistent and ongoing way based on the real work and expertise, not on theories and strategies. the work of creating a new and equitable world cannot depend upon the gifts of those most benefitting from the current world.

so those are some values i hold. based on that, i was asked to think about things to share with you all as young donors. here is what i have to offer, as lessons from being human and organizing:

– there is no end to this work. my mentor grace lee boggs speaks of the process by which human beings cycle through the sam contradictions throughout life, growing and comprehending more each time, but still engaged in the process. dialectical humanism. if we only think of hard outcomes, we miss the growth of the process – the process is where we must embody the practices of the future. let our visions show up in our every action and every step.

– we can’t see the future…actually – who here can? ok. other than you, the rest of us can only predict. we are all doing our best. for this reason, i wish we would stop engaging in the debate of reform vs revolution, inside strategy vs outside strategy. we don’t know. we aren’t going to convince everyone to do it one way. that said – choice is a privilege, and in our work we should constantly strive to increase the choices and freedoms of others, because hopefully part of our long-term vision is self-determination.

– truth should be a goal of story-telling. today i witnessed as you each shared the stories of your wealth. i am glad you called them stories, because they are only part of the truth – i hope someday we can engage in developing shared histories, where you can see how your history impacts mine, how mine impacts yours…we are bound to repeat what we cannot say and face. it is time to humble ourselves to the histories of the majority of the world.

– a key element of that truth is that money isn’t magic. a participant said it well earlier today – money doesn’t come from investments. money doesn’t come from money. all money comes from work, or natural resources. most comes from the combination of work to extract and apply natural resources to the needs of human beings. we are ALL brainstormed to have faith in money, and in materialism. we share the same illusions, whether we have money or don’t. we even believe that the problems of capitalism and materialism can be resolved by capitalism and materialism…this shows up as micro-loans and micro-enterprises where the source of funds is outside the community. my new friend paul haible (of the peace development fund) recently said “to end poverty we must end greed,” and i add, accumulation and ownership.

– to that end we must be aware of the values we are spreading. most of philanthropy is moving money that was earned on the value that “competition is good.” and yet, philanthropy aims to offset the hardships of communities who have long held the value that “cooperation is good”. the value that is embedded in our philanthropy can actually shift the foundational values of communities we want to support…modern philanthropy might (unintentionally) actually kill the value of cooperation, which many of us are realizing is the essential value of ALL of our long-term survival.

– in terms of our survival – we have been thinking of this as a dark economic moment, a dark time, possibly a recession, possibly the moment before a great depression. but perhaps this a darkness more like the womb. we have been contained and dependent, and now we have outgrown that world, and are being pushed out into a new one…we have to be interdependent and learn to walk and breathe. it is real. can we value that new world, if it is closer to our visions?

– we must be conscious of the values we spread. we must also be conscious of the work we create for those communities we calim to support. get to know local organizations and leaders and communities. and if you truly believe in their work, become a regular monthly donor so they know they can depend on your support instead of spending a large part of each year asking and asking and asking.

– support work because you believe it contributes to all of our survival, not because you want a big thank you, because you need to assuage something, or create further dependence of communities on your money. dependence is deadly, independence is a myth, interdependence is life.

– interdependence is possible when you approach everyone as a teacher. then you are placing yourself in the space of student – acknowledging our helplessness and inability to do things gives us space to learn.

– experience yields strategic minds. ooh – this is big: i don’t believe in strategic plans! please let’s stop making them. in the long run, strategic minds are so much more effective. strategic structures, processes, practices. but plans are inflexible, the terrain is always changing.

– look for organic formations, rather than (starting new organizations based on) your theoretical formations…it is not your right to experiment with people, and given the state of the world, none of us are experts at ending poverty, at peace, and ending inequality…

– what we are doing is what we are supposed to do. none of us are without history, without relationship to somewhere…we have to remember who we are, and how we are supposed to steward this place. this is our practice: (boggs center quote) community building is to the collective what spiritual practice is to the individual. what are you practicing?