Grantmaking from the Grassroots
For 25 years, the Liberty Hill Foundation has been conducting an experiment: What happens when a grantmaker's board is made up mostly of community organizers?
When Liberty Hill Foundation first opened its doors in Los Angeles in 1976, it became one of the country's first social-change foundations. Our founders sought to redistribute power as well as money. They firmly believed the best long-term solutions to community problems would have to come directly from the grassroots.
Eventuallyaround 25 years agothe foundation board asked, "Why not invite community organizers to sit on the board and decide who gets the grants?"
The thinking was that organizers could provide access to the communities we most wanted to fund, and they certainly would know where grant funds would be put to good use. We decided to go ahead and do itand that's how Liberty Hill Foundation began its "experiment" with a community funding board.
We now have donors on the board, too, although not in numbers equal to the community organizers. Since Liberty Hill has held out its tin cup from its earliest dayswe operate without an endowmentwe've cultivated a politically sophisticated donor base. The inclusion of donors on our board isn't tokenism. They're expected to bring the practical and emotional know-how of saying "Yes" or "No" to people asking for money.
In the first funding cycle, we crossed our fingers and hoped this combination would pay off.
What We Found Out
Even after all these years, the community funding board concept is still relatively unusual in the philanthropic community. Still, our model has rewarded usin ways we anticipated and in many ways we didn't.
It was immediately clear that the expertise community organizers brought to the table was of a character few program officers could match, however much they are steeped in scholarship or fieldwork. In general, community leaders know the capacity and culture of communities. A community funding board member working with Central American domestics, for example, knows in detail the potential of this monolingual population, as well as the enormous obstacles they face.
The community funding board, as our collective brain trust, also helps us distinguish between good gambles and foolish risks. We rely on the funding board's knowledge to discern someone doing great community work from someone who's only able to write a great proposal and a budding community leader from an enterprising resident full of hot air.
The funding board is also responsible for our deep reach into the many, varied communities of Los Angeles. Program officers at more traditional foundations often ask us how we find the groups we fund. One of our key outreach mechanisms is our community funding board members. They get the word out. They recommend Liberty Hill to community groups and recommend new groups to Liberty Hill.
One of the most unexpected and salutary consequences of our board structure has been its function as a catalyst for networking and coalition-building among those working on community problems. In fact, one of our early community funding board members, now a state assemblywoman, told us recently that her Liberty Hill board experience of 20 years ago introduced her to people with whom she is still in touch, whose astute political judgment she still relies on.
Additionally, having a forum in which wealthy donors and community leaders work side-by-side has helped forge connections across class, race and Los Angeles's notorious geographic sprawl. Organizers have had a chance to discover that rich people didn't "have an agenda," that they are genuinely there to support social change. And donors have had access to a "hidden" Los Angeles that has given them a sense of community and possibility they might never have encountered otherwise.
Approximately 15 people sit on our community funding board, and its members commit to three-year terms. Each board turns over every four to five years, and generally, three-quarters of the board will be community advocates or organizers.
Because Liberty Hill provides funding only to Los Angeles County groups, it's not unusual for board members to know each other and each others' organizations. We recognized the potential for cronyism early on and implemented a strict conflict-of-interest policy.
Yes, it's uncomfortable, whenas sometimes happensa funding board member is asked to leave the room for the discussion of his or her organization only to return to find that the group has not been funded. It happens. Frankly, it would concern us more if it didn't. But over the years, working with literally hundreds of community funding board members, we have found them scrupulously honest in assessing each other's work, not letting fear or favoritism compromise their judgment.
Couldn't We Just Do this Ourselves?
Community funding boards are labor intensive on Liberty Hill's end, as well. Recruitment is constant. There are times when staff members look at each other and say, "Wouldn't it be easier to make decisions ourselves?" We've thought that for a funding cycle or two, we could probably make decisions without the funding board and outcomes wouldn't be much different. But then, we soon realized that we would lose our connection with the grassroots. Insularity would take over, and we'd lose much of what we're most proud.
Staff isn't permitted to vote under the terms of our board structure, but its role is critical, particularly at the front end of the funding cycle. At board meetings, the role of the staff is to articulate the "big picture" and the foundation's priorities, provide long-term information about grantee history, and identify baseline criteria that board members need to apply to grants.
Of course, before every cycle, staff members have their own ideas about which applicants will be funded and at what level. Our expectations and the funding board's ultimate decisions aren't in sync 100 percent of the time. Sometimes we suspect a board member got over-dazzled on a site visit or otherwise misjudged an applicant. But ultimately, we accept that the democratic process isn't perfect and that in the long run, the funding board's call is as good or better than ours.
Here's How We Select a Board
We identify potential board members from the groups we fund, at community meetings we convene and from community contacts. We look for people who can commit the time and energy required, have analytical skills and can work well in a group. Often, they are people who have led successful campaigns in their own neighborhoods.
Each prospective board member completes an application form that asks for background information, what members believe they can bring to the board, and what they hope they would get out of the experience. We also ask for three references. Then, the Liberty Hill staff reviews the applications and statements from applicants' references before making selections based on the needs of the board's composition, particularly demographic diversity and knowledge of specific issues.
T.O. and R.M.
Torie Osborn is executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles.
Margarita Ramirez is senior program officer of the Liberty Hill Foundation.