The Threshold Foundation: innovative, collective grantmaking

Threshold is a membership organization where people with significant financial resources, a commitment to social change, and an interest in their own emotional, psychological, and spiritual development come together to scheme, dream, learn, work and play.  We have observed that social change flows from personal growth, so we work simultaneously on our inner lives and our social responsibility.  We challenge ourselves to examine the contradictions between our privilege of wealth and our desire to support justice in the world.  We inspire each other to follow the counsel of Mahatma Gandhi to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

“The Threshold network gathers once in the winter and once in the summer in different locations around the country and occasionally abroad.  Members who serve on our foundation’s grantmaking committees meet for a few days before the conferences to carry out their collective grantmaking.  Threshold meetings offer opportunities for both novice and experienced donors and activists to learn about social change philanthropy and leveraging wealth, and to engage with allies, activists, thinkers, and fellow donors at the cutting edge of social change movements. … Our meetings are less like formal conferences and more like ongoing experiments, retreats designed to encourage members to discover their most meaningful work and purpose, and to engage the world from that place.”

“Threshold was founded in 1981 by a small group of people who wanted to begin an experiment of collective philanthropy in pursuit of positive change in the world. Threshold funds innovative national and international non-profit organizations working to further the causes of social justice, environmental preservation, humane economic systems, and the peaceful coexistence of individuals, communities, and cultures.  Each year, Threshold grants over $1,000,000 to some of the world’s most innovative non-profit organizations.”

“Threshold’s grantmaking is carried out by its two core committees and by funding circles. The core committees are named Justice and Democracy, and Sustainable Planet.  They represent Threshold’s long-term philanthropic commitment to two enduring realms of challenge and need – social justice and environmental sustainability.

“Funding circles are more fluid issue-based grantmaking communities that convene for a limited amount of time to address a narrowly tailored social, environmental, or cultural issue.  They arise and disband according to the changing interest and participation levels of Threshold members. Currently, Threshold’s funding circles are Election Integrity, Thriving Resilient Communities, and Documentary Film.

“The grantmaking processes of Threshold’s funding circles strike a balance between traditional philanthropic practices and more flexible, streamlined philanthropy.   By forgoing lengthier grantmaking procedures, the funding circles strive to respond swiftly to rapidly changing events and challenges facing our society and the planet.

“The Sustainable Planet Committee supports organizations and programs that focus on ensuring the long-term healthy functioning of our planet and the maintenance of its biodiversity. Threshold grants address global ecological issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, water quality and supply, and biodiversity conservation.  The grants contribute to: empowering local and indigenous communities, creating strong energy policies, deploying new clean technologies, and developing effective communication strategies and messages that increase support for protecting and enhancing the natural environment at local, regional and global levels.

“Threshold often supports organizations and programs that have been neglected by other funders for a variety of reasons.  That is, they encourage creative and innovative solutions for resolving the environmental crises that threaten life on Earth. The Justice and Democracy Grants Committee has a twofold focus for the 2013-2014 grants cycle:Incarceration Reform and Civic Participation. The committee supports organizations aimed at expanding political awareness, rights and participation for those who live in current and historically disenfranchised communities. The committee funds organizations incorporating a sustainable, bottom-up model of electoral power-building led by and for underrepresented constituencies. Strategies include leadership development, community organizing, coalition building, and voter participation.”

My experience as a member of Threshold

 I joined Threshold in 1995, and for 11 years I attended most of the twice-yearly meetings. Because Threshold was a powerful and immensely positive experience for me, I want to share something of my experience.

I joined a grant committee at my second Threshold meeting, and continued through my final meeting—ten years. For me it was a powerful learning experience, and one I enjoyed immensely. I always felt that the committee was also a community; it was grassroots democratic decision making. I learned how grantmaking is done in North America—all the steps of the process—from the first 2-page “letter of inquiry” to the second short application, and finally to the long application form. Committee members, who live all over the U.S. (and a handful in Canada) communicate by email, phone, and at two meetings throughout the nine or ten-month funding cycle. Traditionally, a committee member volunteers to lead the committee for a few years.

Threshold makes donations worldwide, many of them in South Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, although the majority of proposals evaluated are in the United States.

Because the organizations that are eligible to make grant applications have small to very small annual budgets, even modest grants from Threshold can make a big difference for them. When I read the reports submitted at the end of the following cycle, it was a joy to learn how much grant recipients can accomplish—even the smallest, below-the-radar groups.