Pollination philanthropy: More is more
Special to Philanthropy Journal
How I love a good TED Talk, especially when the presenter comes from the nonprofit world and talks about a new way to tackle an old problem. But have you ever wondered who funded that TED presenter when they first launched that inspiring idea? Who believed in the potential of the Nobel Prize laureate, or the Goldman Environmental Prize winner, or the Ashoka Fellow from day one – long before they ran an organization, had a business plan or their TED talk was circulating across the internet?
Pollination philanthropy focuses on seeding nascent social change projects and passionate and creative leadership. By dividing a large chunk of money into targeted micro-grants, more good work gets funded, and thus has a chance to grow and ultimately blossom in the world.
To some, it may seem ill-advised to give in this way when theoretically one could give larger amounts to fewer, more established and proven nonprofits and focus one’s investment in one or two issue areas. I’ve spent the past 15 years running and advising nonprofits that must rely on ongoing major donor and foundation support, so I know how important those anchor tenants are in a fundraising plan.
But pollination philanthropy’s goal is not about sustaining an established organization. It is about believing in the power of people, armed with a calling, a passion, a practical vision, and sometimes a smartphone, to make meaningful and fundable change in the world.
Here are a few things that make pollination philanthropy unique:
As most of us learned in junior high, the survival of any plant species is first contingent on seed distribution. Some plants create few seeds and disperse them carefully to give the seeds the best chance possible to take root (like a fruit tree). Other plants, like dandelions, can each create up to 2,000 seeds to be carried by the wind.
Pollination philanthropy is the philanthropic equivalent of a dandelion: it relies on making a high volume of micro-grants to viable projects and committed people, knowing that each grant has the potential to take root and form a whole new flower – and also knowing that some won’t. But each seed holds the inherent possibility of becoming something vibrantly alive.
Micro-grants can seem like a drop in the bucket when you have a big vision. For most social change ventures, a donation of $1,000 or less doesn’t go very far unless it is exceptionally well timed. At the formative stages of a project, a micro-grant often represents the validation and encouragement needed to move forward to the next phase. A timely micro-grant provides momentum for a project to raise more money and gain more exposure. It can pay for a product, service, or other stepping stone that helps attract further support.
One of The Pollination Project’s early grantees, Rev. Marjani Dele, recently launched the Sunflower Field School to train urban teenagers in the Washington, D.C., area how to plant, cultivate, harvest and then sell sunflower seeds. She received her first $1,000 grant just as she was planning her first training for the youth. When she told a local land grant college that she had raised some seed capital, they took her more seriously and offered her free farmland and student support for her project. Because of the timing, her little $1,000 micro-grant created more than $5,000 of value in about a week.
Pollination philanthropy starts with the belief that everyone has something to contribute towards making the world better. Our job is to identify the most motivated, passionate and committed social change entrepreneurs who are ready to make their game changing ideas a reality.
In a recent article on Philanthrogeek.com, pop-up art museum pioneer Michelle Delarlo said, “You might not think giving someone $1,000 is going to do very much ... I don’t think it’s necessarily about how much money we need to find in order to change the world. Rather, perhaps it’s changing money in order to find the people who want to [make the change].”
In a world where ordinary people with smartphones in hand, can become news reporters, art curators, salespeople and grassroots organizers, it is more important than ever to invest in the power of individuals to carry out their deeply ingrained passion for social change.
Pollination philanthropy does not operate in a funding monoculture where only certain defined issues are supported. Instead, pollination philanthropy looks at the values it wants to replicate in the world and invests in those values over the long term.
For example, at The Pollination Project, we strive, first and foremost, to promote compassion. We’ve funded diverse projects from affordable healthcare to climate change to restorative justice to animal rights. What do they have in common? They all promote compassion in the world. When you make donations based on a core value like compassion, then the seeds of compassion are dispersed across a wide spectrum of issue areas. That’s where real change starts to happen.
Yes, it can be seen as “risky” to fund these emergent social change entrepreneurs. But when a vision takes hold, no matter how big or small, these social change entrepreneurs will dedicate themselves to it. They will create miracles beyond anything we could quantify or measure. They are like the dandelion seed ready to take flight: they just need some wind for liftoff.
Alissa Hauser is the Executive Director of The Pollination Project, a new foundation that gives away $1,000 a day, every day of the year, to individual social change visionaries. See related PJ story here.