Flow Funding

By Mark Dowie

… “People would come to visit me or write asking for money.  And they would send proposals.  I became overwhelmed and fragmented by this process.  I would look at a pile of proposals, take one from the pile, read it quickly. If my heart felt warm, I would fund it.  If my gut felt sore, I would not. I disliked this process immensely, of course.  It was unhealthy. I needed more hands and eyes.”

To end the paperwork and recover from burnout, Weber invited five people whose philanthropic vision she had come to respect to each give away $20,000 of her money every year for three years. Their position is purely honorary, and they are paid no stipends or expenses… Once a year, they meet to share their experiences in the Flow Fund Circle, as Weber calls the meeting. “We give as we are given,” says Sukie Miller, a member of the circle, “with trust, hope, courage and the desire to learn. This is foot-to-the-floor philanthropy, and it’s glorious.”

Weber is please that her money is finding its way to the deepest roots of communities and cultures in South Africa, Peru, Russia, and New Zealand – to people and projects she could never have found on her own. "Capillary philanthropy," or flow funding, she explains, is “unimpeded by the usual obstacles of grantmaking bureaucracy…[and] has created a community.  I am no longer isolated and overwhelmed by the work of giving, which has become more of an adventure than a duty, a creative experience that I can share with others. And instead of sitting alone in an office reading the goals and objectives of anonymous supplicants, I invite true visionaries to join me as philanthropists every year, and I am inspired by each one.”

Weber laments organized philanthropy’s obsession with performance and accountability.  She doesn’t want to throw money away, “but nor do I want to burden visionaries with impact and accountability reports.  My system is based on discernment and trust,” she says.  “We discuss what moves, surprises, inspires and challenges us. We are concerned with the meaning and process of our work, and deeply interested in what we can learn as a group. The money goes to places I never could have imagined, and that is the greatest joy for me.”

It is unlikely that trustees and program officers of traditional foundations would place so much faith (and power) in people like Weber’s visionaries. Yet doing so would undoubtedly find and ferment far more creative ideas and innovations than conventional philanthropic practices and would greatly expand any foundation’s potential for imaginative philanthropy.

Excerpt from: American Foundations: An Investigative History by Mark Dowie, (2001, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London England)
Used by Permission.