RSF Promotes Innovative Grantmaking Through Fund Sharing

In late 2010, an RSF staff committee selected the first class of grantees for our Food & Agriculture Focus Area Fund utilizing a fund sharing model in which grantees collectively determine how to use a pool of grant money in the spirit of collaboration and community. Next month, the 7 selected grantees will gather here at RSF Social Finance to do just that—collaboratively decide how to share this $50,000 fund.

This innovative approach to philanthropy is modeled on the Mid-States Shared Gifting Program (MSSG), an RSF grant-making program supporting Mid-State Waldorf Schools through a process of group study and participatory granting. The following story is abridgment of an article by Merrily Helgeson, an MSSG participant, sharing her experience with this program.

Mid-States Shared Gifting: A Circle of Generosity

By Merrily Helgeson

The well-being of a community of cooperatively working beings is the greater the less the individuals demand the proceeds of their work for themselves, or in other words, the more they make over these proceeds to their co-workers and the more their needs are met not by their own work but from that of others.

—Rudolf Steiner

Waldorf schools teach creativity, community and cooperation. They teach that human beings are much more than the money they make and spend.

How, then, are school leaders to handle it when they are required to compete against each other for money? For Waldorf school leaders in mid-America, Elise Ott Casper’s generosity created a learning experience that has led to an understanding of how the human transaction of exchanging money can lead not to discord but to understanding.

It was not an easy thing to learn, said Candyce Sweda, a Detroit Waldorf School administrator who advises the Mid-States Shared Gifting Program, the fund that Casper created. “This isn’t something that comes naturally to people,” she said. “I think for everybody it’s sort of a threshold to go beyond the competitive model to the cooperative model.”

RSF Social Finance is the mission aligned steward of the funds. John Bloom, who supervises the Mid-States Shared Gifting Fund at RSF Social Finance, reflects on what it means to convert greed to generosity.

“Western money culture, the world in which we live, and the context in which RSF operates, has to work very hard to reinstate a sense of gift culture, a sense that has been overshadowed by the rise of materialism and the accumulation of wealth,” Bloom wrote in an essay titled “The Social Heart of Generosity.”

“Many indigenous cultures world-wide still practice a gift culture, especially where the community has remained intact. In those cultures, no one lacks for food or shelter. They are generally cultures that have an awareness of the inter-relationship of all aspects of life that leads to a feeling of abundance, as opposed to the constant refrain of ‘never-enoughnesss’ so prevalent in our present culture.”

Shared gifting

Mid States Shared Gifting conferences start with an exchange of stories. Individual schools’ problems, triumphs and wishes are shared.

The money these Waldorf schools must divide up has been granted annually since 1995 in amounts ranging from $25,000 to $60,000. Under the terms of Casper’s bequest, it must go to no more than 12 Waldorf schools from throughout the Mid-States region, which she defined as the watershed of the Mississippi River: Wisconsin and Minnesota south to Texas and New Mexico, east to Ohio and Tennessee, and west to Eastern Colorado and Montana.

For schools running on perpetually tight budgets – tighter in the current economic downturn – this free money is worth some effort. And, yet, the people who have participated end up saying that the money is the least beneficial thing that comes from the annual Mid-States Shared Gifting gatherings.

Mid-States Shared Gifting at its current stage of evolution works like this:

  1. Participating schools submit budgets, narratives describing how the past year has gone, and a grant request, being specific about how the Shared Gifting money would be spent.
  2. Through meetings over three days at one of the schools, participants get acquainted or get caught up with each other. They read each other’s budgets and reports and hear presentations on each grant request. They work together through educational exercises, eat together, play, sing and even dance together.
  3. On the third morning, the advisory group tells the gathering how much money will be granted that year by the Mid-States Shared Gifting Fund. Total requests almost always exceed the amount given, so school representatives begin by paring down their requests. Gathered in a single room and working as a group, they work quickly and cooperatively to bring their grant requests within the given budget. Then comes the truly innovative part.
  4. School representatives begin giving money to each other. From a school in Detroit might go $500 to a sister school in Austin, Tex. Ann Arbor might donate $300 to Milwaukee. Minneapolis might give $500 to Cincinnati. And Cincinnati might give $500 back to Detroit. With each gift comes a comment about why it’s being given, and why the recipient deserves the money. Because, by this point, all the participants know and can speak to each others’ hopes and needs.

The end result, each year, is that a few school representatives leave with more money than they asked for, while most leave with a little less. All, however, have been through an experience that most find transforming.

“It seems to be about money but it is a pool of sharing our thought, ideas, just a chance to talk with each other,” wrote one participant in 2006.

“This process totally transforms something that is inherently competitive. We begin giving, and give more, until this spirit of giving is actually there.”

From a strictly practical standpoint, the Waldorf schools are benefitted by all this face-time, Bloom said.

“Geographically, they’re pretty spread out, and the schools are always in different stages of maturity,” Bloom said. “Just meeting face to face and operating in a community of trust, where they can actually share the strengths and weaknesses, that builds a trust relationship, so that if one school has a need, there’s no hesitancy in picking up the phone and calling.

“The relationships are warm and more fluid, and they’re based on a common understanding. To me, that’s the foundation of community.”

Beyond this, though, there seems to be a more mysterious dimension. What happens when people give each other things, particularly when they deliberately shift focus from getting to giving? Our society commonly posits greed as our most powerful motivation, but what if it’s generosity that actually makes the world go around?

The human nature of money

Questions about the basic role of money engaged Casper, Bloom said.

“Elise was a researcher, and she wrote and thought about the role of money. She also practiced the whole notion of self-development and reading (Rudolf) Steiner’s work, and trying to see how it could benefit the world.

“Steiner looked at money in quite an innovative way. He said there are actually three kinds of money. Purchase money goes to buy things; it’s a trade exchange. Loan money creates a relationship between the lender and borrower that lasts for the life of the loan. The third kind is gift money, and it has a relationship to the whole economy because it creates future capacity. When you give a gift, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Another aspect of this, Bloom said, is the role played by surplus capital. “What Steiner said was that surplus capital is a wonderful thing. But if that capital is owned by an individual and gets put into land, for instance, the money actually stops moving and gets stuck in the land, leading to an incredible appreciation of land value. The rightful use of surplus capital is actually reinvesting in the cultural sector, in renewing human capacity. We won’t have a living economy unless we have people who are being educated in such a way that they understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur – to have tools and the capacity to organize around that, that’s what an education is for.

“I think Elise was very involved in the giving process. She knew how important it was to get the money back into the cultural sector.”

Casper began her own philanthropy with the help of a few friends.

Waldorf schools, which are founded on philosophical insights of Rudolf Steiner, were an early focus. To help her make funding decisions, Casper brought in advisors. Candyce Sweda was one.  “When I came into the group, there were four advisors and I made a fifth,” Sweda said. “She wanted a liaison between the fund and the schools groups.”

After her death in 1997, Casper’s friends transitioned to a more formal role. They now serve as a board of Advisors to the fund, reviewing grant applications and helping direct the fund’s activities.

Taking (giving) time

In November 2009, Mid-States Shared Gifting participants gathered in Viroqua, Wis. They began arriving Thursday evening, worked together all day Friday and Saturday, sharing many meals and socializing. Finally, on Sunday morning, they tackled the work of divvying up $30,000—the step that makes this process distinctive. School representatives began granting each other money. And each grant was accompanied by praise and support from a peer.

From Chicago to Detroit went $500. “Over the years at our school, we’ve all been so impressed by the challenges you’ve faced,” Colleen Everhart told Linda Brooks. “It’s truly remarkable what you’ve faced.”

From Cincinnati to Four Winds went $400. “Please send us the date” of the fence-building, Geralyn Sparough asked Marianne Fieber. “We’ve got a lot of brush and I think we have people who’d like to learn.”

From Detroit to Four Winds and its fence went $200. “No one knows more than Detroit about the importance of safety,” Brooks told Fieber.

This is a drastically shortened description of what happened. In actuality, 284 separate transactions occurred—284 gifts of cash and kindness from one school to another.

Merrily is a freelance writer in Wisconsin who RSF commissioned for this piece in 2009. Read the full article.

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