Radicalization, nourished by a critical spirit, is always creative.
– Paulo Frieire
Lessons Learned In Year One
I thought it would be an interesting experiment to invite peers in my larger social network, whose activist work—in anti-prison, education, media, LBGTQ health, and community arts circles—I admired and respected, to join me in devising a process that would fund informal, creative social change projects. At the time, I had just finished devouring Robert Putnam’s investigative sociology book Bowling Alone (2000), which traces the decline of Americans’ social connectedness since the early 1900s. I, too, feeling isolated in my work, was intrigued by the idea of participatory grant making since I had had various experiences working in philanthropy over the years, and was drawn to the idea of building support for work that was happening off the grid (or under the radar?).
I invited peers to join a giving circle – a group of people that pool their money together to give it back out again. Partly out of fear that no one would join me, and partly because a public foundation would honor people’s tax-exempt contributions, including my own, I decided to partner with the Crossroads Fund. My intent was to experiment with giving and learn through doing since most of us were new to the decision-making side of grant making. I also wanted to try out a grant-making project where, regardless of how much money members could contribute, the decision-making process would be totally collaborative.
Trusting one another’s decisions was crucial for the cases in which some of us had ties to groups that were not favored for funding. Bias was inevitable, especially since part of the motivation to start a special fund like this was to help support individuals or groups whose work I thought important and under-resourced. By assigning members to review the grants who were unfamiliar with the applicants’ work, we were able to maintain a certain level of objectivity while being realistic and honest about the nature of our relationships to some of the applicants – which we discussed, openly, at our final decision-making meeting.
After the first-year decisions were made, I ruminated on the kinds of projects we ended up funding and which ones we did not. It was not surprising -since we were funding projects initiated by younger artists, activists and educators who were under 35 – that a majority were hip hop arts projects. The fundamentals of social justice are naturally woven into Generation Y’s approach to arts and media making, and they’ve done an impressive job at wedding artistic output with engaging communities (predominantly of color), critiquing mainstream culture, and bringing ingenuity and honest dialogue to their work. I took a mental inventory of Fire This Time members’ backgrounds – keeping in mind that these were the people who had wanted to get involved – and realized that a majority of us were more social justice-oriented than artistic-oriented. I thought that if we were truly dedicated to supporting creative “radical ideas and models of action” (as we restated in our second year guiding principles), then we needed to balance the strong social justice make-up of the group with people who were über-creative.
The giving circle came together for a retreat after our first year and deliberated over potential individuals who would bring this über-creativity to the group for the second year, while keeping in mind our desire to be as racially and geographically diverse a group as possible (we’re also all – but one – female and about 50% queer). I also thought it would be important and constructive in our second year to do a better job at pairing up the social justice old-timers with the artistic newcomers for our review process. Evaluating art projects – be they exhibitions, performances, or sound pieces – alongside community organizing or education projects proved to be a hard comparison.
What I hope happens this year is that we have a more balanced conversation about the role of artistic practice in social justice work, and that the types of applications we get are more nuanced and challenging as well. We are doing more person-to-person, network-to-network, targeted outreach this year. At our retreat, some people voiced their interest to do away with the application altogether and invite groups to write us a more open-ended letter explaining why they love what they do. But how would we compare and qualify such varying applications? For a small decision-making body that might work, but for a group of eleven, certain questions provide a baseline understanding and platform from which everyone can review and weigh the applications. We also considered what it would be like if we just gave money to groups whose work we were really excited by – no application, no site visit. But then that potential process started to look like an award or fellowship program, which is not open, democratic or transparent. At the end of the day, we kept the relatively formal, but concise application.
Supporting informal projects that are not 501c-3s has proven to be incredibly difficult for Fire This Time. New groups working ad-hoc, collectively, or unincorporated are at a disadvantage if they want to open up a bank account in the post 9-11, Patriot Act era, AREA Chicago included. A group can get their fiscal agent to sponsor them to open up a bank account (however, the fiduciary responsibility still lies on the fiscal agent) or the group can sign incorporation papers and pay around $20-$50 to the bank/state. Doing Business As (DBA) accounts no longer exist.
On top of that, Fire This Time, as a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) housed at the Crossroads Fund, has been subject to more stringent rules according to the new Pension Protection Act of 2006 stated in Section 1231 of the IRS code. Due to corruption through the squandering of money in scholarship funds and other DAF vehicles, granting awards to individuals (even with fiscal agents) are entirely prohibited. We are able to grant projects, initiated by artists, activists, and educators, as long as they apply as a group and have a fiscal agent or bank account.
I started the Fire This Time Fund because I craved a community to connect, strategize and critique the art of philanthropy with. At this point, it feels more like a voluntary job and less the social group I had first envisioned. True enough, we are all busy people, strapped for time and energy. It has been thrilling to build a new “social capital” network and to bring amazing people together who didn’t know each other before, but many questions still remain. Should Fire This Time exist as its own entity? Would people still donate money even if they couldn’t get a letter that states their contribution is tax exempt? My hunch is yes, they would. The movement desperately needs more autonomous funding streams for individuals and groups working outside of any institution or sector. Eric Tang and Paula Rojas sure argue this case in the recently published The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. After just one year of lessons learned with Fire This Time, I feel more compelled to research the mechanisms by which philanthropic models operate and to strategize how to best fund independent artists, activists and educators – the creative social change makers of the progressive movement.