A shift is bubbling up throughout the philanthropic world, with a small group of new funders seeking to use the grant process to better empower recipients and communities. Still emerging, their new methods go by many names: radical grantmaking, regenerative philanthropy, or participatory grantmaking. The lessons these innovators have learned, and the practices they have unlearned, may offer a guide for others considering a new way forward.
Meet the Waymakers Collective and the Waterers, two of these regional funding organizations attempting to turn traditional philanthropy on its head. Some organizers see them as correctives for entrenched systems and practices that don’t serve people well.
“Philanthropy in Appalachia has done a lot of harm,” said Lora Smith of the Waymakers Collective, based in central Appalachia. “People have a feeling of being enacted on instead of being co-creators in solutions. We want to give wealth control back to local communities.”
“Rural artists and culture bearers are marginalized and separated in the granting process, not prioritized,” said John Davis of the Waterers, which serves Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native Nations in the region.
Both the Waterers and the Waymakers sprang from ArtPlace America’s “Local Control, Local Fields” initiative. Before sunsetting in 2020, ArtPlace and its donors chose six locations to pilot a community-led grant process for deepening its work in creative placemaking. As part of this work, the program held regional gatherings to bring together rural artists, culture bearers, and cultural workers who were traditionally left out of grant funding.
The two organizations prioritize those marginalized groups, focusing on diverse ethnic communities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and rural people already doing good work in their communities, who might not even realize funding is available to them. They also embrace a broad definition of arts and culture, recognizing that the lines between community organizers, artists, and other culture bearers are not distinct in many Native and rural places.
While Native Americans make up about 3% of the national population, Native-led organizations receive less than 0.2% of arts and cultural funding. The Waterers set aside one-third of their gift money for Indian Country to fund groups “amplifying sovereignty.” Eighty-three percent of those gifts went to rural people and organizations uplifting culture, land, and tradition.
Michelle Dubray, a Waterers facilitator, said they knew they were reaching underserved people when they tried to communicate the gift to them. Her emails went unanswered, phone calls went unreturned.
“They were working their tails off doing the work,” she said. “They thought it was a scam!”
Equity is part of the Waterers’ own internal structure, too. The facilitation group includes broad representation from the communities they serve.
“We have distributed leadership, with urban, Native nations, and rural representatives all at the table together,” said Davis. “We take time to listen and understand the importance of each other’s places. There is much broader power in collaborations than there are in silos.”
Sunkawakan Ta Wounspe: Teachings from the Horse Nation is a nonprofit committed to repatriating our ancestral horses, preserving the teachings of their ancestors and nurturing the relationship between the horse nation and the people of Standing Rock.
“The nomination and gift were an answer to a prayer,” they said. “The support came at a crucial time giving us the ability to purchase much needed hay during a period of extreme drought in the Dakotas.”
Embedded in Community
The Waymakers Collective doesn’t just provide funding; it aims to be an ongoing community and support system for cultural workers. First-time giftees are nominated by their peers and fill out a simple form. Grants are decided by members of the collective. Recipients are invited to join a cooperative assembly that hosts an annual in-person gathering with performances, workshops, and tours.
Rather than grants going to groups that have the most resources to complete lengthy applications, they go to those doing good work known by their community. The result is an affirmation of those making the region a better place; the control is local.
“Our model shows Appalachian communities can be trusted with resources and can govern to benefit more than the scarcity models have shown is possible,” said Joe Tolbert, Jr., with the Waymakers.
The model rests on a foundation of trust. The transition team met weekly for almost a year to construct their organization. They committed to doing hard work, especially around race. Smith remembers a time they stopped a meeting to work through some issues and give voice to hurts and misunderstandings.
“Putting community first and really holding one another was a beautiful experience,” she said. “Money is needed and a resource to steward, but the real power is in the connective networks being built.”
Tiffany Pyette is a two-spirit activist for environmental and human rights living in the Appalachian Mountains. She writes collaborative poetry and as a visual artist, is developing a series of paintings on birch bark she has collected.
“It is so very powerful to have your work seen and acknowledged as important and valuable to the community, by the community. The financial support was also the difference between me saying yes or no to so many things, the difference between me participating as a disabled woman.”
Process Driven by Values
The Waterers developed a mantra early on to give money the way that they would like to receive it. They focused on accessibility, trust, and affirmation. Nominations replaced applications. General support gifts replaced project-based grants. Instead of an onerous reporting process, they hired consultants to lend recipients capacity in storytelling, PR, and networking. They intentionally asked how each element of the process could better support their community leaders.
“People don’t feel appreciated by the foundation process,” said Dubray. “Our recipients said they were honored and had never felt so seen.”
The Waymakers Collective is intentional about holding their funds in mission-aligned investments. Their fiscal sponsor is the Appalachian Community Fund, a Black-led fund that has supported justice work in the region for decades. Meanwhile, parts of their ArtPlace gift are in Fahe, an organization that works to ensure affordable housing, and in the Sequoyah Fund, which supports North Carolina’s Qualla Arts & Crafts, another grant recipient and member of the Waymakers Collective.
Sharing the Model
In striving to create a new paradigm, both regional funders have taken nothing for granted. Their experience thus far could make them crucial resources in the ongoing conversation about recalibrating philanthropy.
Born and raised in Wise County, VA, geonovah (they/he) is known as the Radical Rappin’ Advocate. They use music to talk about changes they want to see, like an end to mass incarceration and police brutality. He travels throughout the Appalachian region, building community and creating space for young people to share their art and hearts within the mountains.
“The support and recognition of this grant has allowed me to start building my music career and get some other artists the equipment they needed.”
The February issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy featured a full-page advertisement placed by the Waterers. A graphic depicts a person holding a vessel pouring out liquid abundance; the heading simply reads, “Philanthropy: Do Better.”
They offer it as a challenge, and an invitation.
Since they placed the ad, both Dubray and Davis have spoken at conferences, formally and informally, with others curious about their experience. Dubray sees the movement, albeit slow, happening bottom up and top down.
“It is exciting to continue to have conversations and we hope to speed up the process of shifting these paradigms,” said Davis. “Our ad was a pebble in a pond, but the pebble is creating ripples.”
The Gizhiigin Arts Incubator is an artist-led initiative supporting Native artists in the White Earth Nation. Starting as a vacant storefront on Main Street in Mahnomen, [Minnesota,] the incubator provides space for exhibitions, common work areas and studio space.
“With the pandemic and the aftershock of the murder of George Floyd laying bare the inequities of a system designed to exclude Indigenous and BIPOC communities from the equitable access to resources needed to thrive, now is the time to take action to disrupt the status quo.”