One of the issues for networks is how to determine priorities and have sufficient funding to support a set of innovative, experimental projects. RE-AMP, a climate change network of around 125 organizations and foundations in the Upper Midwest, has had tremendous success with a pooled fund with funding from a group of funders combined into one fund with joint decision-making. In my interview with Rick Reed from the Garfield Foundation (which has been the catalyst for this network), he explains how the pooled fund works.
When RE-AMP was first formed, Garfield Foundation made a conscious decision not to set up a pooled fund right away. They felt that building trust and giving funders experience collaborating needed to the first on the agenda.
However, they did ask other foundations to support the infrastructure of the network by contributing $50,000 to cover the costs of a well-run network: a network facilitator, gatherings, mileage and so forth. The argument was that if the network worked well their investments in member non-profits would result in greater impact.
They recruited the Rockefeller Family Fund, which is a 501c3 endowed fund, to be the fiduciary agent. Any 501c3 can play this role if it has the internal capacity to receive invoices and write checks and is willing to do so, often for a small percentage of the total amount deposited. After a number of years RE-AMP began to use the Michigan Environmental Council for infrastructure expenses because they were willing to write many small checks needed for travel and gatherings.
The infrastructure budget (which now includes stipends for working group coordinators and other staff, communications, and the annual meeting) went from $350,000 the first year to its current $900,000.
During the first 3 years (before the pooled fund), RE-AMP working groups came up with priorities. Funders who were part of the network then took these seriously and used the priorities to determine the focus for their funds. In addition, the foundation working group looked at these priorities and was able to use them to recruit new foundations to the network. As a result, funds from any single foundation were increasingly leveraged. This early strategy still allowed funders to have considerable control over their funds. During these three years, funders attended annual meetings and working groups where they were able to build relationships of trust with other network members and could see how the network and the working groups operated. This increased their confidence in the network, and helped them move to the next stage.
After three years, Garfield saw that that money needed to move faster and be more focused so they decided to start a pooled fund. The idea was for a set of funders to put money into a single fund, where decisions for all the money would be made by a funding group composed of funders and working group coordinators. A pooled funding approach could support a more bottom up, state-based prioritization process that was more in touch with real opportunities and needs.
Initially, only Garfield put in funds. But six months later a second foundation matched Garfield’s funds, and then shortly after 2 more foundations each put in a million dollars. After that growth of the fund was rapid.
So it takes one foundation willing to lead and take the first step, then asking others to join them.
1. The prioritization and decision-making process
In state based meetings, the member organizations identify opportunities for impact: this is what we can do in our state given current politics, public sentiment, etc. These priorities generally fall under the rubric of one of the working groups (which are quite broad areas of focus).
So one state might send in 5 ideas, of them 2 go into one working group, 3 in another. If the topic combines two areas, then it goes to both working groups. The funding group (composed of all funders who contribute dollars and the working group coordinators) meets to make strategic decisions. They may know that action in one state could leverage change in all the states, so put resources there rather than spread it around. They piece together a portfolio that is really going to make a difference for the whole region.
Then collaborations of organizations go back and write proposals. Each working groups leader picks a partner from the set of foundations to help them review the set of proposals received, and then make a recommendation to whole funding committee. Working Group leaders tend to have a broad sense of what is happening in the region so the discussions have considerable collective intelligence! Much better decisions are made because recommendations are given a reality check by the other working group coordinators.
2. The reporting and accountability system
The most important aspect of reporting for RE-AMP and its funders is that what is reported helps everyone learn and adapt. Reporting is not so much for checking to see if grantees did what they said. Everyone agrees RE-AMP wants impacts; but they put an equal emphasis and seek to reward learning.
RE-AMP has an online system for reporting (password protected for members only). It also has a knowledge manager (originally called a learning and progress manager) who helps come up with the questions in the reports so that they really capture learning that will be valuable to others. Reporting of mistakes is encouraged so that everyone can learn from that.
Financial reporting is only shared with the foundations. Much of the way accountability works in RE-AMP is through peer accountability. People on the funding committee know a lot about all the organizations involved and how they are doing. This might be harder in a national network.
If grants are not working out, Garfield will often have a talk with the organization. Also, if a grant is given and the organization gets very fast results, the money is not returned but repurposed. They don’t penalize success.
Reporting is organized by working group or leverage points. Grantees are asked to report every six months on their most important accomplishments.
Reporting shows allocation of funds, and interpretation of why allocations were focused the way they were. For example, initially 2/3 of the money was going into stopping new coal plants from construction. Then in 2009 most plants were shut down, so shifted to retiring existing coal plants and increasing policy to support alternative energy.
Rockefeller still does the fiduciary for the large grants. Garfield makes a grant agreement with Rockefeller, then Rockefeller subcontract. Garfield does all the due diligence to make sure money being spent appropriately so Rockefeller only does the financial reporting. (Takes high level of trust) Still trying to figure out how to give organizations general operating support which can make them more flexible.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON RE-AMP see Transformer by the Monitor Institute