For six months in 2020-2021, I worked with a group of 20 people to raise over $180,000 and give it all away.
I grew up in a church where people would regularly talk in front of the congregation about tithing – in that context, it meant giving away a percentage of your income to the church, most often “10 percent of your income.” When I started working in high school, I would sometimes give out of my paycheck from working in a kitchen, and would be the only teenager in Sunday School who gave (for me, $15-20) to the weekly collection.
I’ve long been interested in philanthropy and giving, but some of my dabbling (attending “Young Friends of” events for a museum, etc.) led to disenchantment with the cycle of what seemed to be rich people getting write-offs and not caring. At one point, I mentioned this interest in what seems to be a simple question, but is complex in a world made of systems: “how do I give money away?” (Non-profit industrial complex anyone?) He pointed out that we knew the Bread and Roses Community Fund in Philadelphia ran giving projects to train people in just that while raising money for social justice organizations.
A giving project consists of a group of cross-class, cross-race, gender-diverse, intergenerational people who come together for a common interest, raise money, and then give it away.
For six months across 2020 to 2021, I participated in the Environmental Justice Giving Project with Bread & Roses. Over Zoom. We met a couple times per month, which was a very achievable time commitment for me especially while doing all events from Zoom/online.
We had trainings in racial justice, class, environmental justice, grant-making, fundraising … we covered a lot of topics in those six months. As well, we had authentic-feeling discussions about class and money that I really appreciated, talking about how much money we had (or didn’t) in our various life situations.
Being in a giving project was like I imagine temporarily being on a foundation might feel like (except maybe not at all, because we had a lot of support). We had money to give away, based on how much we raised, and organizations applied to that pile of money.
Reviewing & Interviewing
Reading applications was … like reading applications. Bread & Roses provided a helpful rubric and framework for reviewing the applications, making the process easier from that standpoint. It was so interesting to read about all these organizations in/around Philadelphia focused on environmental justice.
We interviewed applicants by splitting into smaller interview clusters to cover the number of interviews and time slots needed, while also having three interviewers on an interview panel to have more and balanced perspectives. For me, interviewing was the moment where it felt like I was part of this decision making, gathering information I could help present back to the rest of the group when it was time to make decisions.
Deciding who gets the money (and who doesn’t)
Our fund nearly had enough to fund every project that applied, which would have been great since all could merit support. However, I really valued that we couldn’t so that we as a group could discuss which projects to fund, and was a really valuable learning experiences. There were tensions over class-based assumptions some were making, or challenging different viewpoints.
For example, someone objects to one project over another because the leadership “doesn’t have as much experience” – but what experience is being valued? What kind? Why? And if someone doesn’t have that experience, how exactly are they supposed to get it without having the space for a chance?
I’d highly recommend participating in a giving project as a way to connect to organizations in your community doing great work, learn about another approach to philanthropy, and to challenge yourself to give what you can.
If you’re considering participating in a project and reading this, I would say I found the time commitment reasonable (my biggest concern before participating). Bread & Roses was also very clear from the outset that there was respect for everyone having lives and obligations outside the project. Being so human-centered made it seem much more reasonable to participate and contribute.
This essay is also a thank you to those donors who gave. I want to say thank you to the donors who gave to this project over a year ago, and share the organizations that their gifts supported:
Camden for Clean Air
Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living
Energy Justice Network
Human Rights Coalition
Mill Creek Urban Farm
National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces
Neighbors Against the Gas Plants
North Philly Peace Park
One Art Community Center
Philadelphia Jobs with Justice
Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower & Rebuild (POWER)
Sappho and LaRoyce Foundation
Urban Tree Connection
Workers Revolutionary Collective