What is Indie Philanthropy?

2014 marks 7 years since 3rd Creek Foundation (3CF) was first established and represents an exciting time for growth, strategic planning, and deepening partnerships. As a foundation that tends to feel just a little too small, we are taking this year to think big and build organizational systems and structures that will leverage the resources we do have in order to increase our impact and realize our vision. The 3CF Blog represents a monumental step in this direction, and we hope that this forum will encourage stronger analysis, dialogue, and collaboration in the world of philanthropy and international development.

I am writing our first blog post at the end of 3 intensive days with the EDGE Just Giving Conference in Berkeley, CA. Some of the key themes which came up repeatedly included: social justice, grassroots, agroecology, human rights, environmental justice, and mission-related investing. One of my favorite references was that of the “revolutionary imagination.” The EDGE Just Giving Conference encourages attendees to think and act in a daring way. Of all the interesting sessions I attended, it was a session titled "Indie Philanthropy" that I thought resonated most with the 3CF mission, and thus Indie Philanthropy is the subject of our inaugural blog post.

Indie Philanthropy as a term alone is catchy and appealing. Coming from a small foundation perspective, we would like to find new "investment vehicles" so to speak, and we have slated this subject for our strategic planning later this year. How do we get limited dollars into the hands of high impact organizations to support high impact work?  At 3CF, we seek out long-term relationships with local partners, or lean organizations that act like local partners. We believe in this approach, but we also think we can improve. While there are a number of innovative ways to invest a foundation's assets which we have been dabbling in, we had not considered the range of giving mechanics or instruments that exist.

Indie Philanthropy provides us with a spectrum of options to fill this gap. A new and developing field, Indie Philanthropy can be likened to Indie Film. For example, Indie Films are often produced by independent entities on lower budgets and appeal to audiences outside of the mainstream.So it is with Indie Philanthropy.

Laura Loescher of the Kindle Project, who has played a key role in developing the field of Indie Philanthropy, observes that at least 1 of the following 4 themes plays a role in the application of Indie Philanthropy:

  • Experimentation and Innovation
  • Trust and Balance in Relationships
  • Collaboration
  • Empowerment and Responsiveness

While the ideas and themes behind Indie Philanthropy may sound appealing, you may still be wondering how to translate the big picture of a foundation’s mission into the Indie Philanthropy Model? Kindle Project provides the following list describing 8 styles and methods for funders to consider when examining new ways to drive more dollars to the grassroots level and place more power in the hands of grantee partners.

Giving Circles: Usually self-organized groups of people who pool financial resources and make joint decisions about where to allocate funds. Giving circles come in various flavors, from informal gatherings of friends to formalized circles run by foundations.

Flow Funding: Model of giving where the donor chooses other individuals or organizations to make grant decisions – either by giving the flow funder a pot of money to distribute on his or her own, or inviting the flow funder to make recommendations that the donor then distributes accordingly.

Funding Individuals: Donors give directly to an individual person to support their work, rather than to a 501c3 organization. This could be in the form of an “award” for past work, a gift for future work, a “scholarship” for engaging in some kind of learning activity, or to support an informal network where one person takes responsibility for receiving the funds.

Partnerships: Broadly defined, this includes funders partnering with other organizations to make grants or utilizing a long-term partnership strategy of collaborating with grantees. For example, a private foundation making a substantial grant to a smaller public foundation with expertise in a particular field, for the purpose of re-granting. Or an individual setting up a Donor Advised Fund at an institution that has staff and connections to communities the donor wishes to support.

Community-Based Decisions: Involves representatives from the communities being supported in the actual decision-making process. Many variations, from inviting one or two community leaders to sit on a family foundation board where they get a vote on grant decisions, to a public foundation where the grant decisions are made entirely by community-based activists.

Funding Start-Ups/Emergent Ideas: Rather than supporting established organizations with track records, this describes funding with a tolerance for a certain kind of risk, and a willingness to use different criteria for evaluating a project’s worthiness or likelihood for success.

Micro-Granting: Small (“micro”) grants to organizations or individuals. Small can be difined in various ways, appropriate to the economic context. A micro-grant in the US might be $500-$1000 whereas a micro-grant in Africa might be $50-$100. Some micro-grants are directed specifically to start income-generating projects, others are for small-scale local projects.

Spending Down: For foundations with an endowment or corpus, the decision to spend principle at a rate higher than it is being regenerated through investment earnings, and aren’t expecting additional donations to be made. Usually on a set timeframe for completing the distribution of all assets.

Kindle Project will soon publish an Indie Philanthropy Tool Kit which we will share on this site.

Reflecting on how Indie Philanthropy currently applies to 3CF, I’d say we are most established in the partnerships category. We value long term partnerships and we have, somewhat organically, developed an approach that allows for open communication and long term trust-based relationships with our partners. You also might say that we fund start-ups or emergent ideas, although this is a focus we may examine further as we dive into strategic planning later this year. Micro-granting and community-based decisions represent two more compatible giving options that could help 3CF increase its impact through grant-making. Shifting focus this way would also require finding the right partners who are positioned to give micro-sized installments to clients, and/or who can ensure democratic processes at the community-level. There may be more opportunities to work with current partners in this arena as well.

Indie Philanthropy is exciting because it has the potential to engage more foundations and grantee partners in lesser used methods of philanthropy that drive more dollars to the grassroots level, thereby placing more power with local community members. I look forward to seeing how this field develops over the next decade. Perhaps we’ll see Indie Philanthropy gain in popularity, as has Indie Film, and dare I say, become more mainstream.

To learn more about Indie Philanthropy, see Laura Loescher’s blog post on the topic here.

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Gwen Straley is the Executive Director of 3rd Creek Foundation where she oversees the foundation's grant-making processes and ensures fiscal and regulatory compliance. An emerging markets professional, Gwen has worked for a diverse range of organizations in some of the most complex environments in the world. Prior to moving to Seattle, Gwen managed a large-scale nutrition program in Mogadishu, Somalia. She has also consulted for government, foundations, NGOs, and small businesses in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. Gwen holds an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and a Bachelor of Arts from Hampshire College with a concentration in Sustainable Development. She is a travel, outdoors, and coffee enthusiast.