Shared Gifting Strengthens Local Food System in Skagit County, WA

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Shared Gifting Strengthens Local Food System in Skagit County, WA

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Friday, November 15, 2013 - 1:15pm

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by Ellie Lanphier

“Thank you for being here and your willingness to join us in this experiment,” began Kelley Buhles, facilitator of the RSF Social Finance's Shared Gifting meeting that took place this October.  While the original Shared Gifting model has been practiced for over 25 years by a group of Waldorf School administrators in the mid-states region, this Shared Gifting meeting in Skagit Valley, WA, was only the second to occur outside of the original group.  As such, “experiment” is an apt word to describe Shared Gifting, an exploration of what happens when there is a shift in the balance of control in philanthropy, from the donor (giver) to the grantee (receiver). The Shared Gifting model encourages participants to develop a deeper understanding of the value of being on both sides of a transaction.

Working with RSF borrower and Skagit resident Viva Farms, and RSF investors in the Pacific Northwest, we sought nominations and subsequently grant proposals from eight organizations working to build a sustainable food system in Skagit County, WA. We then invited representatives from each organization to participate in a day-long meeting to divide up $120,000 in grant funding.

The day began with this question: what are your hopes and expectations of the meeting today? “We are excited to see the community blossoming, and to formalize our link with these organizations,” was one reply. “We want to learn how this funding process works so that we can suggest it to other funders,” said another optimistic participant who welcomed a more interactive grant process. Another response, met with nods from the other participants, highlighted the common thread for this Shared Gifting group, “we want to create a stronger food system for everyone in Skagit County.”

After sharing personal and professional stories, the group was encouraged to ask questions about each other’s proposals. The opportunity, to defend or enhance your funding proposal, is unique to Shared Gifting. In traditional philanthropy, requests for funding are often denied without explanation, which neglects important opportunities for learning. This group was able to request clarification on budget lines, program timelines, anticipated results, and outcomes. In some cases, participants amended their proposals based on the feedback they received.

When all questions were asked, each participant was told to keep $5,000 and grant out an additional $10,000 to the other organizations at the table. The group then began the incredibly hard task of dividing up the gift money. “It’s stressful, there isn’t enough money,” one participant fretted. When time was up, each organization shared their gift amounts and the reasons for the decisions they made. One organization split their money equally because they felt everyone was doing equally important work. The others divided their funds based on the perceived merit of each proposal. After viewing the first round totals, the participants were given time for additional gifting. Organizations that had received more than they had requested in their proposals were asked to consider giving away some funds to those who had received less than requested.

When gifting ceased, final gift totals were read and the group reconvened to share reflections on the day. The participants marveled that, despite working on similar issues their community, it was the first time they had all been in the same room at the same time; everyone was happy to have met and to have shared a day together. A sense of empowerment was present, and one participant shared how powerful it was to feel that you could support all the other amazing people and projects while still supporting your own work. It seemed that a new understanding was reached: the success of each organization really depends on the success of others in the community. Furthermore, the group developed a shared sense of accountability to each other and a commitment to make the best use of funds received that day.

As veterans of the grant proposal process, participants commented on how much Shared Gifting differs from traditional funding models.  The key difference related to the experience of working with, not against, their peers who are often viewed as competitors. Participants valued the experience of sharing proposals, receiving important critical feedback, and having the opportunity to improve a project proposal. Additionally, everyone agreed that they would like to meet again in a year to talk about what they accomplished with the grant money, the impact of that work, and any challenges they faced. The group also created a list of others working in this community to invite to the next event.

At the reception following the meeting, Viva Farms’ Ethan Schaffer joked that RSF had invited everyone to participate under false pretenses—the real purpose of Shared Gifting is to help others understand how hard the job of a funder is. Deciding who does and doesn’t receive funding is incredibly difficult. What is so unique about Shared Gifting is that it puts the funder at the same table as the recipient opening up opportunities to foster compassion, relationships, and collaboration in an unparalleled way. By simultaneously playing the role of grantor and grantee, people are encouraged to make the most of their resources, and to do so by relying on and supporting their own community.

RSF’s mission statement, “to transform the way the world works with money,” requires making the participants in financial transactions more visible to each other. Shared Gifting is an example of how a transparent grantmaking process can build collaboration, rather than competition, amongst non-profits. As we at RSF explore and refine this model, we would like to deeply thank the participants of the Skagit meeting for demonstrating an effective and beautiful example of the Shared Gifting experiment.

Keywords: Finance & Socially Responsible Investment | Ethical Production & Consumption | RSF Social Finance | Shared Gifting | Volunteerism & Community Engagement

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