Trust First to Act in Solidarity

by Eugenia Lee & David Roswell

This post is part of “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new blog series curated by Justice Funders to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Over the next few months, we will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

Rapid response funding fills a critical need in movement work today by providing urgent and timely funds when traditional funders are unable to move swiftly. Yet, there are very real problems with rapid response funding. It can perpetuate dependency on philanthropy and doesn’t focus on building long-term infrastructure. How do we begin to understand the benefits and problems with rapid response funds?

Solidaire Network, a network of funders supporting socially progressive movements, started a rapid response fund in 2013. We built an approach that allows members to move funds immediately during emergency moments. In 2017, Solidaire moved more than $2,000,000 to movement groups through this fund alone.

For rapid response to work, Solidaire members have to let go of power while collectively trusting one another and movement leaders. This means treating the fund as part of building and sustaining relationships with movements.

We provide general operating support grants whenever possible and ask for minimal paperwork. What little reporting is required involves inviting grantees to share a brief update on what they know their impact is, rather than a set template by Solidaire. This enables movement groups to own the narrative of the work they know best. This is one way in which Solidaire is working to liberate philanthropy from how the field has been constructed — to shift power back into the hands of those most affected by injustice.

While the idea of letting go of traditional funding processes may be disconcerting for funders, we’ve also seen Solidaire members benefit from this process. As relatively new social justice funders, David Roswell and his partner, Maggie Heraty, used Solidaire’s rapid response fund to build strong, trusting relationships with movement groups across the South. Their participation in rapid response helped them connect local groups to Solidaire’s national base of funders, and led them to organizations that have become guideposts in deepening and broadening their justice focused giving.

David and Maggie consider themselves lucky to live in Durham, North Carolina, where there is an incredible community of folks organizing for justice. They connected with organizers from Alerta Migratoria, an undocumented immigrant-led group that maintains a hotline for rapid response safety and protection needs for undocumented folks in the area, does trainings for immigrants and allies around community safety, and advocates for folks, particularly youth, facing deportation. In addition to personally funding them, David requested support for them through Solidaire’s rapid response fund. This was instrumental in giving Alerta Migratoria space to have a much needed retreat on a short time frame, without having to go through a laborious and time consuming grant proposal process. Connecting Alerta to the rapid response fund strengthened both David and Maggie’s relationship with them, and Alerta’s ability to grow their work to protect their community.

Solidaire’s rapid response fund also introduced David to organizations that have guided much broader, more justice-focused giving within his family foundation. He learned about Project South through a rapid response request for Gulf South Rising, which was coordinating actions around the five year anniversary of the BP oil spill and the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to becoming a long-term major donor to Project South, he also asked them for help to identify frontline, people of color-led groups doing climate justice work in the Gulf South.

Thanks to their connections, David and his family have made relationships with inspiring groups, beginning a process of transforming the foundation’s environmental portfolio and engaging in what reparations looks like for a family with oil-derived wealth.

There are also risks in maintaining a rapid response fund. Because the barriers to applying are much lower, organizations can slip into relying on rapid response money instead of more difficult-to-get stable, long-term general operating funds. Funders can fall into emphasizing rapid response giving over making strategic, long-term commitments to groups.

We believe there is a danger in having only a rapid response fund; it must go hand-in-hand with cultivating long-term commitments to movements.

Solidaire’s rapid response fund cannot exist in isolation; it is meaningful because of how it interacts with other funding mechanisms inside and outside of Solidaire. While we can move rapid response funds and show up for movements during emergency moments, this only matters if we understand it in the context of philanthropy’s history and why it matters to invest in long-term relationships and infrastructure alongside emergency needs.

David Roswell is a potter living in Durham, North Carolina. He is a co-leader of the North Carolina Resource Generation chapter, a member of Regenerative Finance and of Solidaire.

Eugenia Lee is a community builder, donor organizer, and proud fighter for equity. She is based in New York City and manages Solidaire’s membership and rapid response fund.