Changing the Status Quo: Inviting Artists to the Philanthropic Table Using Flow Funds

What would happen if more people had the power to decide what money was spent on? How would this change the traditional power balance within the world of philanthropy? What would happen if these new decision makers were artists? What unusual projects, creators and ideas would be supported if grantees and awardees were at the wheel? And, importantly, what ripple effect might all of this have?

We’ve noticed that all too often traditional philanthropic approaches don’t allow the flexibility, room, and spirit of experimentation that make space for exploring and answering these important questions. Similarly, grantees and the communities they work with and within are often left out of funding decision-making altogether, deepening the schism between those with power and those without.

There is no shortage of analysis and commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the world of philanthropy and charitable giving at large, and sweeping generalizations rarely hold up to scrutiny. However, one thing that does seem certain is that philanthropic giving operates with power dynamics not dissimilar to other systems of resource provision: power rests with a select few. At worst, this power imbalance can materialize as corruption and what may be termed as charitable-colonialism. At best, it means that decisions are fashioned by the situational, political, and social lenses decision-makers inevitably carry. Furthermore, there is some degree of merit to the argument that profits gained through the status quo are likely to be distributed in manner that maintains the status quo. It therefore seems only logical that a collaborative and democratized approach toward giving is the healthiest approach, and in order to do this more people need a chance to be at that decision-making table.

This is an issue that has been on our minds for a long time and while we’ve always strived to ensure that our grantmaking programs and processes worked to level the often imbalanced power dynamics between funder and grantee, we have wanted to push the boundaries of this to the next level. Kindle Project has been experimenting with Flow Funding since our founding in 2008. Essentially, Flow Funding is very simple: move the decision-making process to others who are outside of traditional philanthropic institutions, like artists, organizations, or individual changemakers, and empower these Flow Funders with funds to be reallocated to communities and organizations of their choice. Flow Funding allows resources to move to unlikely and unusual places—places we can’t always reach or even know about when we (the funders) are the only ones making the decisions.

Recently, we decided to give this approach expanded berth and see where it takes us. We have called it Boomerang. Echoing the fluid and somewhat unpredictable movement of a boomerang, this program releases an opportunity, allowing unlikely and unusual partners and projects to return with solutions and initiatives that address issues we didn’t have on our radar, that voice what we weren’t listening for, that shift the spotlight to those we weren’t seeing. And in doing so, more individuals are empowered with resources to be changemakers in their own right. In order to continually address the creep of imbalanced power dynamics in the funding world, we need to take a whole systems approach to our grantmaking. Flow Funding in particular requires trust, great relationships, and a spirit of experimentation. In order to maintain any of those things, it is important to have a ‘beyond-the-money’ approach to grantmaking. This means learning from one another through meaningful dialogue and being open to risk and uncertainty. It’s an experiment that we’ve crafted with the care and engineering of a boomerang which we’re now tossing to the winds to chart a new course in grantmaking.

This year Boomerang is a collaborative effort with our seven 2016 Makers Muse Artist Awardees. We are offering them each a Flow Fund to recommend be reallocated to an organization or project of their choosing. As excited as we are to be sharing Flow Funds with artists, we are equally as excited to have conversations with our artist Flow Funders beyond the subject of money. We encourage participants in the Boomerang program to stretch their imaginations beyond what is expected in the funding world and we’re thrilled to do the same, in partnership.

One of the ways this imagination stretch is taking place for Boomerang is through our focus on storytelling. For nearly a decade we have been passionately promoting the unique stories of our grantees on our Nexus space on our website. However, for our Boomerang participants we are using this platform to put the focus on storytelling around the questions and themes that are central to our efforts in reframing what support and experience beyond money can look like.

So often, the stories of how funding decisions are made are left out of the public conversation in philanthropy. We think that diversifying decision making is critical to democratizing philanthropy and the storytelling of those experiences is core to moving that needle. We are taking this head on by working with both our Makers Muse artists and the groups they recommend to share their perspective on the Flow Funding experience. We are asking the artists to reflect on the experience of being in the position of philanthropic leadership. In turn, the nominated grantees are invited to highlight what it meant for them to be nominated by an artist to receive support from Kindle Project. A recent interview with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a new grantee that came to us via a Flow Fund, shows just how powerful this experience can be for everyone involved.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANTA FE DREAMERS PROJECT, A FLOW FUND RECIPIENT GRANTEE OF KINDLE PROJECT.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANTA FE DREAMERS PROJECT, A FLOW FUND RECIPIENT GRANTEE OF KINDLE PROJECT. 

Why do we think it is important to stretch our imaginations? Because it all comes back to that fundamental premise: if we don’t actively and consistently seek to reimagine our approach (our optics so-to-speak) of decision making, we risk falling into a ‘power dynamic rut’. This rut in turn can contribute to the very problems we seek to address. So it is part of a larger mindset, a purposeful shaking up of our perspectives that can really only be achieved by encouraging participation by a wider variety of people at this decision-making table. We’ve seen through our work and through the work of our Flow Funding friends and collaborators that the ripple effects of this process are worth the extra time that this approach takes, and the acceptance of risk and uncertainty that it requires of us. It is encouraging to hear that this approach has resonated with other organizations as well. Here is a great article by RSF Social Finance which delves into the topic further and reaches many of the same conclusions.

What do you think are the possibilities of giving artists power with resources? We’d love to hear from you and be in conversation! For more information on Boomerang or Kindle Project drop us a line at: connect@kindleproject.orgTweet at us: #boomerang #flowfunding @Kindle_Project

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