Community-Led Collaborative Funds: A Collective Giving Model

Watch this TED Talk on community-led philanthropy

Collective giving unites communities by pooling resources and creating lasting relationships toward social change. Collaborative funds are one such vehicle that is gaining momentum in the philanthropic sector. Research shows that these funds operate in very different ways than institutional philanthropy, specifically prioritizing equity and justice, funding systems level priorities, and having more diverse leadership.

Watch Rebecca Darwent’s thought provoking talk, which emphasizes the need to shift funding decisions to those with firsthand knowledge of the communities they serve. With inspiring examples and a call for change, we share a future where community-led collaborative funds bridge the gap between donors and on-the-ground experts, ushering in a new era of philanthropy rooted in interconnectedness and Ubuntu, the concept of humanity towards others.

I’ve spent my whole career working in the non-profit sector.

Street outreach, program management, fundraising, grantmaking, public policy.  You name it, I’ve done it.

And I’m a positive person, so it’s difficult to say this – but the way we do philanthropy right now, the way we’ve DONE philanthropy for decades, is broken.

Here’s how I found out:

In my 20s, I was a front line social worker in New York City. I worked with people living with HIV. Most had multiple chronic illnesses and were underhoused, so I spent my days – and nights – with them running around the city, going to doctors appointments and housing agencies.

The day to day work was hard, but the HARDEST part was we never had enough funding to do the work.

Friday morning’s I would go to the office to write my case notes. I’d speed past reception so I wouldn’t see our mailboxes filled with blue slips. Each blue letter marked another colleague let go because of our funding crisis. Within one month I’d lost half my team and my caseload ballooned from 30 to over 100.

This is the reality for so many non-profits – they’re completely at the mercy of their funders.

When we look at those funders, private foundations and wealthy donors, they decide what and who gets funded – and it’s almost always a mystery HOW they make those decisions.

Non-profits spend so much time fundraising!

Filling out pages and pages of paperwork, trying to prove their worth to funders, that there is almost no time left to support communities.

Which is literally the thing we’re funded to do.

And after years of fabulous work in the community, meeting every metric, we’d hear things like, “I’m sorry … our major donor has changed direction; they’re no longer investing in HIV/AIDS.” or

“I’m sorry… we issue grants for 3 years max.”

This would never happen in the private sector – you do an amazing job for 3 years in a row … and then get FIRED?!?

It makes no sense.

So I decided to switch sides –

Instead of being on the side that’s ASKING for money, what if I worked for the side that’s GIVING money?

Maybe I could help them understand what’s happening on the ground and make a change.

Off I went into the world of philanthropy.

Only to discover that TRILLIONS of dollars are in donor advised funds and private foundations, just sitting in accounts waiting to be donated.

MEANWHILE… Nonprofits and community organizations are wasting time filling out paperworking and competing over scraps.

I saw donors publicly support an issue like homelessness but behind closed doors they’d say “they don’t know what’s good for them, what they really need is…”

Which was code for “donor knows best.”

I was confused, how could the donor know what was needed? Their lifestyle looked nothing like the people they were trying to help.

The problem wasn’t a lack of money.

Again, TRILLIONS of dollars are sitting waiting to be put to work.

BUT, even if we unlocked EVERY single dollar already set aside for donations, it wouldn’t matter. Because a very small group of donors still hold all the decision making power.

Their priorities, their way.

Almost 70% of all donations are directed by the top 1% of donors … and they choose causes that resonate with their lives, like their universities or the arts.

These causes are OVER FUNDED!

I know that donors have good intentions

But good intentions aren’t good enough.

Communities are being left behind and we’re running out of time.

I wanted to shift the power dynamic from TOP DOWN to a community-led model where funders and nonprofits work together.

So in 2020, I co-founded the Foundation for Black Communities with Liban Abokor, Djaka-Blais Amare, Joseph Smith to do just that.

We were inspired by a radically different type of philanthropy – Black philanthropy: the formal & informal ways of giving in Black communities around the world.

The kind of giving you don’t get a tax receipt for.

I learned this is in my family.

We do almost everything together, including Box Hand.

It’s a savings group with 13 members. Twice a month, every person “throws a hand” meaning they put $100 into the pot and one person gets the whole thing –  $1,300. The person who collects the whole pot rotates and you get the full amount twice a year.

With Box Hand my family has bought a new fridge, paid tuition, and put a downpayment on a house.

Sometimes we negotiate: oh, you need your hand ahead of me?

No problem, I’ll wait.

Of the 13 people, some people REALLY need it and this is their ONLY means of savings, and others would be fine without it.

But here we’re all equal, there is no top or bottom.

It’s not about charity or pity or sympathy.

The goal of Box Hand is that everybody levels up. And it’s easier to level up together because you’re accountable to the collective.

This practice has existed across the African diaspora since the 1700s.

In Guyana we call it Box Hand, but …

In Nigeria it’s Susu.

In Mali and Senegal it’s Tontine.

In Haiti it is called Sol.

In Jamaica. It’s Partner.

You can find it outside the African diaspora too!

Looking different from place to place. The Haida Nation has potlatch, you find tandas in Mexico, and tong-tin in Cambodia.

Communities around the world use these creative solutions to overcome the systemic racism in the financial industry.

For example: Black people who apply for mortgages & business loans are rejected TWICE as often as the greater population.

When we are excluded, we turn to each other for support and solve these problems together.

This has been passed down over generations.

My mother taught me this. She gives generously to our community, because they give generously to her.

Now & forever. The collective giving never stops.

Because Black Philanthropy is rooted in the concept of Ubuntu, an African philosophy widely understood as humanity towards others.

We say “I am because you are” or “I am because we are”

Which means – what affects you, affects me.

We are interconnected and have a mutual responsibility to one another.

UBUNTU would be our guiding principle at the Foundation for Black Communities.

To achieve this, we’d make two practical shifts:

WHO makes funding decisions and

HOW those decisions are made.

In our case the WHO is obviously Black community members… and we are looking for TRUE on-the-ground experts.

This is an important distinction.

Because I’ve heard…

“Rebecca, you’re Black, tell us what’s best for Black communities.”

That’s ridiculous…

How could I possibly speak for ALL black people?

So, to have real insight, we’d need to find local experts and THEY would become the decision makers. Because they’re the ones who know their communities, partners, and field the best.

That’s exactly what happened in our recent $500K youth wellness granting program. We received 99 eligible applications from Black groups working on diabetes awareness and inner city farming and after school programs.

Just like Boxhand, we worked together collectively.

We invited those who applied to become part of the grant review panel. This invitation was intentionally directed to ANYONE connected to the project – program manager, participant OR volunteer.

The Peer reviewers read the proposals, scored each one, and offered feedback. Then we used their rankings to allocate funding.

In other words it was the COLLECTIVE who made the funding decisions.

This may not seem like a big deal, but after years in philanthropy I can tell you this is NOT how things normally work.

It’s usually the donor or their relatives or a CEO who have the final say, but we left the decision up to the people doing the actual work!

Instead of telling them what WE think they should do,

We TRUSTED them to make decisions for their community.

Luckily, we’re not the first or only to pool funding and trust the community to make decisions.

We’re part of a growing movement shifting the power dynamics in philanthropy.

And recently, due to our approach and collective advocacy, the Canadian government awarded the Foundation for Black Communities a historic $200 million dollars.

I’m hoping this will inspire more private foundations and donors to follow this powerful example.

Just like the Foundation for Black Communities, there are already hundreds of community-led collaboratives who need sustainable funding…

These groups are addressing the most pressing issues of our times like

  • Right Relations Collaborative, where Indigenous peoples make the decisions; or
  • Equality Fund, where feminists make the decisions; and
  • CLIMA Fund, where climate activists make the decisions

As I reflect back on my days on the front lines, I wonder if different people were making funding decisions …

Perhaps those blue slips would never have existed.

Because the funding was always available…

It just wasn’t accessible by the communities that needed it the most.

This has finally CHANGED with community-led collaborative funds.

AND Even after all of my time in the sector … I’m optimistic, that

THE FUTURE of philanthropy is happening NOW!

Where community-led collaboratives are the BRIDGE between the people who want to do good with their money, and the people on-the-ground with the experience to do it.

THIS is Ubuntu.

We are all interconnected and each of us has a role to play.

I am because you are. I am because we are.

Thank you.

A collaborative fund is a new giving vehicle where like-minded funders (most often institutional funders or high net wealth individual donors) pool their funding together and enable scaled systems change on intractable problems facing our world.

These funds are rooted in the same beliefs as all forms of collective giving: we are stronger together.

Read more research about collaborative funds from our partners at Bridgespan.

Compared to traditional institutional philanthropy, research shows that collaborative funds are far more focused on equity and justice as core to their very existence, they have more diverse teams, and are closer to the communities and issues at hand.

Collaborative funds are moving billions of dollars each year, and many are focused on grassroots groups and leaders who are most proximate. This shifts the power dynamic and the very model of how traditional philanthropy operates.

The power of philanthropy lies with those who set priorities and make the decisions about where money is being directed. Traditionally this is held tightly by donors or staff members of grantmaking institutions, setting up an inherent power imbalance of those who give and those who receive. Community-led philanthropy and community-led collaborative funds are a distinct approach that places that decision-making—and therefore the power—directly in the hands of community leaders and organizations who are closest to the work.

As a field catalyst, we strive to elevate the narrative about collective giving. We do this by influencing the broader sector of philanthropy and society writ large about the importance of bringing everyone’s voice to the table and into decision-making about how to change the world. Storytelling, programming, advocacy, research, and community building are our primary tools to advance this work.

Philanthropy Together launched with a targeted focus on giving circles in 2020, and has since expanded to elevate the broader concept of collective giving which includes dozens of different but similar models. Collaborative funds are a key focus, and Rebecca Darwent’s role is to support this new, expanded vision for how to diversify and democratize philanthropy.

Designed for philanthropic advisors, financial advisors, foundation staff, and high-capacity donors, The Collaborative Advantage is a first-of-its-kind training aims to unite bold ambitions of donors with the bold ambitions of collaborative funds moving billions of dollars each year. You’ll leave the training with customizable tools and resources to help better understand the birds-eye-view and in-depth case studies of this emerging field. Click here to join an upcoming training.

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With inspiring examples and a call for change, Philanthropy Together’s Rebecca Darwent envisions a future where community-led collaboratives bridge the gap between donors and on-the-ground experts, ushering in a new era of philanthropy rooted in interconnectedness and Ubuntu, the concept of humanity towards others.

Check out this #TED talk on the power of collective giving:


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How and what we fund can make real change happen in our communities!

@Phil_Together’s Rebecca Darwent recently shared about her journey through the broken landscape of philanthropy at #TED and proposes a powerful solution. Watch now:

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