Elspeth Gilmore: Gulf South Allied Funders

Elspeth Gilmore: Gulf South Allied Funders (National)


How did you get involved with the donor circle?

Jamie or Tracy first called me about joining Gulf South Allied Funders (GSAF). It seemed like there had already been visioning around it and like they had done some thinking as young people with wealth in terms of, ‘What is our role in this crisis [Hurricane Katrina]?’ They had done strategic thinking on who they wanted to be involved. It wasn’t a random grouping of people; we had all met through Resource Generation and I felt really lucky to be called upon. I hadn’t been involved for very long and I didn’t know everyone else [in GSAF]. It felt like I was being brought into this thing that was like, ‘Hey we share politics, let’s do some thinking on this’. Their call was more ‘We have to do something and we know people;’ it wasn’t like there was exactly an agenda as to what we should do. I felt like I was being brought into a conversation, more so than a plan.

We were totally a national group, so I got that preliminary call asking me to be a part of it and then we had our first conference call, with the original nine of us. There were three months of conference calls to begin with, one every week. I think it started out pretty slow in a way, a lot of sharing as to why you wanted to be involved, getting to know each other a little bit. Not like ‘What’s your dog’s name?’ but more about politics and how we thought. What we did well, I think, was even though we spent so much time talking it confirmed that I had so much respect and trust for the thinking that all these people were doing, that even though we weren’t necessarily decision-making, by the time we got to that there was an incredible amount of mutual understanding.


How did GSAF find an organization to partner with?

We ended up teaming up with Twenty-First Century Foundation (21CF) after a process of brainstorming and talking to people involved in Gulf South organizing. We used a whole call just to come up with a list of connections. We tried to cover lots of types of people and networks– the foundation world, organizers on the ground, random people we respected. We made this list of maybe 20 people, and then divided it amongst ourselves depending on capacity, contacts, stuff like that. And we came up with common interview questions. They were broad questions; at that point we were not necessarily looking to partner with a foundation, we just wanted to partner with someone. We were trying to get the word on the street, ‘Are there people doing good funding [in the Gulf South]?’ We were careful about not asking the grassroots organizers to partner with us directly, but were more just asking around for references of sorts, to find out who it would make the most sense to partner with.

Then we all reported back. I don’t exactly remember it but it was a challenging conversation. We had already had a whole conversation about issue areas—so would we go that direction (environmental funding or something)? But my recollection of a seminal moment, a learning moment there was that in all of our internal preliminary discussions we all felt like we wanted to do some sort of activist-advisory board. GSAF felt so amazing in this way from the beginning because we were all so on the same page politically…We had some abstract idea about us not being the actual decision-makers as to where the money went. But I had this moment in conversation with John Vaughn when he said ‘you know, people [in the Gulf South] are concerned with finding where their kids are and tracking down their belongings right now, and may not be able to serve on an activist advisory board…’ It was a moment to realize that activism is a luxury of sorts. We were all like, oh right, that makes sense in this time and moment, let’s just get the money there as fast as possible.

We chose 21st Century Foundation based on people we had interviewed. We liked the idea of them being a black foundation, and in GSAF we were all white. They were turning the money around incredibly quickly– we heard stories about them giving out grants a couple times a year, really responding to the times and crisis at hand. They had relationships to the faith-based communities, and the activists on the ground. To me it was a huge lesson in questioning the class privileged- perfectionism. We realized there had to be a point where we stopped searching for the perfect way to move the money and just do it.


From where did the funding come? Was there a required amount to participate?

So it started out as the nine of us each putting in something (money-wise), but it was a huge range. There was no bottom line. That’s something I feel really good and excited about, there’s huge potential around that sort of breadth. Our initial fundraising was about reaching out to personal networks, so a lot of family and friends. It was definitely around money, but all along it was also increasingly about organizing people to get involved, too. We put out a call for people to actually join GSAF after the first year. A huge part of it was the personal…but what made it so sustainable and successful financially were the foundation connections, like at Women’s Donor Network and Threshold. That felt like long-term, and it was massive organizing. The amount of work that went into it…the strategy behind foundation-based organizing was getting the connections and getting a few key people to organize their own community. It simply was massive amounts of organizing. But that was the idea: as young people with wealth, we have huge amounts of leverage within these powerful communities to get funds where they were needed. The political and social leveraging we could do in these networks, the number of people we could reach and money we could raise, it was huge.

It felt like the true nitty-gritty of grassroots fundraising—the phone calls, etc, and that can never be under-valued. Whether it was donor networks or just other people in our lives, the framework of organizing groups of people was really successful. The idea of reaching out to other groups of people…it takes a ton of energy to do it, but once you are over that hill, it just goes- you have all of these people organizing each other! Once you get to the leaders of different organizations and communities, they in turn organize their constituents, and it just takes off from there.


How much say did you have in where the money went?

We didn’t have any kind of say in where the money went. It’s a really powerful statement: to go to people and say, ‘I’m excited about this and I’m fundraising because of x, y and z, and one of the reasons is because we’re not holding the reins on where the money goes.’ We made it part of our initial plan, but if we had had more time to think about it…I’m interested in even more creativity around that. What does it mean to mix up donor and grantee roles? What would have it meant to have us more involved in those conversations about grant-making, even if we didn’t have a say in the decision itself? It wasn’t like it was activist-led, either…we were giving up power to, well…there were lots of dynamics.


What were the relationships like between GSAF, 21CF and the grantees?

I think we all had maybe more intentions around our relationships with the grantees than actually happened. In reality what happened was we ended up trying to read the little blurbs 21CF had about the grantees and help them put that kind of stuff together. It helped us, too, in our fundraising. How did we get to know those stories and relate to them ourselves and use them in how we talked to other people…Something I have the most critique for and sadness about is that we didn’t have that much study, as a group. We put so much time and energy into the fundraising but I feel like the relationships between us and the grantees lacked. Our lack of relationships on the ground, or even study about what was going on, on the ground, and upkeep of our personal feelings and relationships to what was/is going on is probably what has contributed to our lack of longevity.

Some people did go on donor visits, where 21CF facilitated donors going to see and meet and connect for real with recipients. I went to New Orleans for five months in the spring of 2006 to volunteer and live for a bit. I lived in a FEMA trailer in Biloxi, MS and hung out there; I worked at the NAACP. I feel like when all else fades and you feel distant and removed, those relationships are the things that are the strongest.  If I think about future stuff it’s like…don’t just stay on the donor side.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to build relationships that last beyond any given project, or issue, or moment. So, I developed a really strong relationship with John Vaughn, and I’m beginning to with Julia and Erica [other 21CF staff], but I wish we as a group had prioritized, and recognized, how important those relationships are. I didn’t realize the importance of building those real connections, more personal relationship building. The RG group in some ways was a little clique; we were all really nice people and were young and shared politics…but different angles, and intergenerational dialogue is so key, and if there had been more of an opportunity to have more personal relationship-building with the foundations and such we could have made more sustained connections. And with grantees, too…even if it wasn’t perfectly accountable or whatever, what would it have meant for each one of us to really make a connection to a grantee? That’s what I keep coming back to…the personal connections across and beyond comfortable borders. It’s important to know when there are ends, and that things end, but had we focused more on building those personal relationships perhaps we would’ve been more likely to sustain after the initial three years.


Looking back, what would you have done differently?

How much we were sort of narrowly focused on fundraising wasn’t ok…it came up more when the new four people came in [after a year], the questions of ‘How do we all fit in? How do we find roles for everyone?’ The first year we were all so excited it was easy to run with, but as we brought in new people, ‘How did we find places for everyone? How do we make this sustainable? What if I have tapped out all my resources?’ If there had been more of a donor education component, like study groups or something, there would’ve been more places for people to fit in within the group, to have a role and continued dedication even if their involvement shifted from, like, organizing their friends to coordinating internal group reading projects or something.

After some time we went through the process of making a steering committee: there was the nine original folks from GSAF, and there was 21CF, with their own Katrina fund. But once we started reaching out to our networks, and other foundations, it got more complicated with names and who was affiliated with what and whatever. So we tried to create this steering committee, but I think for folks in GSAF it was a handoff of the politics and the hard work and the messiness. Maybe we were burnt out or something but we didn’t do a good job of transferring leadership or move to a more sustainable model…there are just so many systems to work out. So basically now it’s like Women’s Donor Network, Threshold, 21CF, and Tracy Hewat, but [Tracy] is phasing out so there is no official RG representation anymore. What does that mean? Does it mean we’re handing off power, or bailing out? I think I have more questions than answers around that. 

The synergy of the nine of us, too…there was talk of us continuing to do other projects together. How do you recreate that? The handpicked thing was useful, and very valuable, but I don’t know if I would recommend that, or say it’s a best practice. There was a moment of talking about a much bigger project, the idea of what would it mean to be funding the South. How to say, ‘This is not just about New Orleans, but bringing those networks into a bigger scope’…but I think people were too burnt by then. But that’s an interesting idea too; how do you shift a goal, or a focus, to encourage longevity?