This article originally appeared in the RSF Social Finance Newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you turned grantees into grantors? What sort of transformative shift might occur in that switch? Within the conventional model of philanthropy, non-profits compete with each other for grant funding from foundations. Is this type of competition the most beneficial way for gift money to be exchanged? We ask: how can gift money be used to foster community and collaboration, rather than competition? From our first meeting of the RSF Food & Agriculture Shared Gifting program, we were thrilled to discover that a simple shift in control of gift funds from the donor to the group of grantees can create an environment of abundance, sharing, and community, rather than of competition and scarcity.

On Friday, February 18, RSF Social Finance hosted the first meeting of the Food & Agriculture Shared Gifting program. The primary intention of the meeting was to eliminate grantees in competing with each other for grants and instead support the grantees themselves to determine how the funds would best be used by each other to advance the field of sustainable food and agriculture in the Bay Area.

A Pie Ranch participant shows off the goods. Photo credit: Pie Ranch.

We solicited nominations for impressive non-profit organizations working in the field of food and agriculture in the San Francisco Bay Area. The nominated organizations were asked to submit formal proposals and, from these, a staff advisory group selected seven exceptional organizations to attend a one-day meeting facilitated by RSF staff in which the organizations would collectively decide how best to allocate $50,000 among themselves. The selected organizations included the Free Farm, the San Francisco Waldorf School, People’s Grocery, Partners for Sustainable Pollination, Pie Ranch, Marin Organic, and Movement Generation.

The first part of the day was spent sharing personal stories and organizational information. After lunch, the floor was opened to the group to ask questions about each other’s proposals, which had been reviewed by everyone prior to the meeting. Participants shared what a great experience it was for them as grant writers to read through the proposals from a funder’s perspective.

As the time moved toward sharing the funds, the anxiety level in the room increased. Asked to trust in the process, each participant duly divided up a $4,000 share of the money between the other six organizations, and kept an additional $3,143 portion for themselves. This was a difficult decision for all the participants, and a number took different approaches to granting their funds. Some found everyone’s work compelling and thus divided the funds equally. Another participant added grant requirements to her shares of the grants, “People’s Grocery would like to grant $800 to the San Francisco Waldorf School to attend a horticulture training with the requirement that you return and share what you’ve learned with our organization.” In some cases organizations offered resources in lieu of funds, “Movement Generation would like to introduce Partners for Sustainable Pollination to some of our contacts in Marin, and would be happy to share our environmental curriculum with the San Francisco Waldorf School.” A few groups granted money toward a community event where the group could reconvene to share their progress with each other and invite partners and other funders to join and learn more about the Shared Gifting program. It was amazing to see how quickly the pot of $50,000 grew into a bigger fund of resources, information, and contact sharing, and, more importantly, to see the groups working in the spirit of abundance rather than scarcity.

A mutually satisfying People's Grocery transaction. Photo credit: People's Grocery.

This was followed by a second round of the Shared Gifting process, in which organizations were allowed to choose to gift more money from their own pot to support organizations they felt had not received enough, or even just to show their support of other’s work. Many organizations gifted additional funds to each other and to the community event. Then, the San Francisco Waldorf School gifted money toward a matching fund to support a future round of Shared Gifting with this group. By the end, there was over $1,000 in this new pool of money. All of the participants were eager to share with their communities the information about this meeting, and work to fund raise for additional Shared Gifting opportunities. Any question I had about whether this model of grant making would truly be beneficial to the non-profits participating was quickly swept away.

The origins of the Shared Gifting concept came from a Rudolf Steiner study group, convened by Elise O. Casper, a philanthropist and anthroposophist from Wisconsin, to explore Steiner’s work around society and economics. It was from this base that the Shared Gifting model emerged. RSF Social Finance was chosen by Casper to steward her bequest after her passing and to facilitate the continuation of the Mid-States Program. In 2009, I had the opportunity to observe the program’s School Fund Sharing Group in their 25th year.

The first Mid-States fund-sharing meeting was held in Detroit in 1984 with a group of Waldorf schools from the Mid-States region. Although the process wasn’t smooth in the beginning, eventually the project participants learned to embody the concept of gifting and embrace the role of donor with each other. Over the years, the process evolved to include sharing of organizational information, the successes and challenges each group faced, and an educational or study component that would benefit all the organizations. To this day, even if there are not funds to be granted, the group will still meet to share, learn, and be in community with each other. I was intrigued by the shift in control from donor to the grantees themselves who are doing the work in the world. I was also personally overwhelmed by the energy of abundance that was created out of so few actual grant dollars.

Workers dig in at the Free Farm. Photo credit: Free Farm.

At RSF, we operate in the spirit of inquiry about money and how financial transactions can create community. As the Manager of the Philanthropic Services department, this model of grant making seemed to me to be a perfect example of how gift money can build relationships between people. Most non-profits today must compete with each other to get grant funding from foundations. The competition between non-profits often leads to a feeling of scarcity, that there isn’t enough to go around. The transformational thinking at work here is to understand the value of being a giver, as well as a receiver. As a participant in the Mid-States program once noted, “This process totally transforms something that is inherently competitive. We begin giving, and give more, until this spirit of giving is actually there.” This shift in the process from receiving a grant to sharing a gift creates a spirit of abundance and ultimately, community.

RSF Social Finance truly sees the value in this form of grant making, and we intend to continue working with this model and to share our learning with other organizations seeking to shift the paradigm of conventional philanthropy. We have recently been in communication with the Wisconsin Community Foundation, which operates a community grant-making program that utilizes similar ideas of sharing resources and building relationships. Meanwhile, we plan to regroup in six months with the seven organizations who participated in our first Shared Gifting meeting to share the successes and challenges of respective projects, introduce new partners into the community, and share a potluck of local sustainable foods.


Links to related RSF blog posts:

  • RSF Seed Fund Grantee Brings Time Banking to Sonoma County
  • RSF Seed Fund Grantee Harvests Food and Unity in the Sacramento Valley
Kelley Buhles


Kelley Buhles

Kelley Buhles has worked in Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance since 2005. RSF Social Finance is non-profit financial services organization committed to transforming the way the world works with