In Education and Learning, Funding

The Flow of Flow Funding

In 2021, River Network humbly and with curiosity sought an opportunity to explore trust-based philanthropy. As the first year of flow funding comes to a close, hear from Lisa Runkel and Renée Mazurek, as well as clips from the Flow Funders themselves, reflecting on the experience.

Click the play button above to listen and read the full transcript below.

Renée Mazurek 

Hi, I’m Renée Mazurek, the Resilient Communities Manager with River Network and I’m joined today by my colleague Lisa Runkel, River Network’s Philanthropy Director. 


00:00:10 Lisa Runkel 

Hi Renee!


00:00:11 Renée Mazurek 

Hi Lisa! I speak for us both when I say that we are proud to represent River Network, who humbly and with Curiosity sought an opportunity to explore trust-based philanthropy nearly a year ago. 

Lisa, can you explain what Flow Funding is and how River Network got involved? 


00:00:30 Lisa Runkel 

Yes, absolutely, and thank you for that invitation. About this time last year, in conversations with a river network supporter, they shared their belief that we were ready to explore this concept of Flow Funding, which is an innovative form of philanthropy, encouraging money to flow through the hands of new funders. We launched a Flow Fund Circle for climate justice with the goal of enabling democratized and collaborative giving and to share the experience with our broader network to inspire, change and disrupt traditional philanthropy. Our team invited four Flow Funders to determine and provide financial support to recipients in their own communities, folks working on projects that address the impacts of climate change and promote social and water equity. These four Flow Funders then chose a diverse cadre of seven individuals and organizations who received a cumulative total of $100,000. These distributions were given without an application without a selection process or any additional requirements outside a general agreement that encouraged the recipient to leverage this gift and to network and build relationships with others in the Flow Fund Circle which we launched in July of 2021. 


00:01:51 Renée Mazurek 

Thanks Lisa. This is where I came into this story. I’m passionate about circles and using The Circle Way structure to facilitate deep conversation. We started using this method with the Flow Fund Circle to discuss this model of philanthropy, determine the process for selecting their fund recipients, and brainstorm how to share and tell this story to others. Hoping to use this circle as a catalyst towards bigger change, it’s become a brave space to explore and deconstruct philanthropic principles through intentional speaking and listening. We’re excited to share reflections from this group that were recorded during a May 2022 meeting near the conclusion of the first year of Flow Funding. 


00:02:36 Lisa Runkel 

I love this, Renee. Thank you. To set up what you’re about to hear, we’d like to introduce you to the funders in the order in which you will hear them answering the first question about their relationship between funders and recipients. 


First, you’ll hear from Monica Lewis-Patrick from We the People of Detroit. She speaks about her three fund recipients and grassroots organizations in her region, working for water justice in both urban and rural settings. That includes the Flint Development Center, Junction Coalition, and Lake County Merry Makers.  


Next, you’ll hear from Arthur Johnson from the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development in New Orleans, who supported the Leona Tate Foundation and Doctor Bernard Singleton. Both recipients are natives of New Orleans, working to support community resilience in a land surrounded by water in a changing climate. 


00:03:33 Renée Mazurek 

Arthur is followed by Daniel Wiley, who supports Orange, NJ local leader Haile Bennett in the formation of her new program called Orange Patches. She is bringing gardens, green space and education to an environmental justice community. 


Last but not least, we hear from Teresa Davis from Houston Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience as a flow funder, she supported Bridgette Murray from the organization Achieving Community Tasks Successfully (or ACTS) in their work to address community flooding and promote advocacy for local policy changes. 


From there, the conversation progresses naturally and moves between these speakers. 

We hope that this inside peek into our intimate conversations will inspire and challenge you to consider how you can disrupt and decolonize philanthropy in your own circles, networks, communities, and ecosystems. 


Now let’s turn to the conversation. 


One of the first questions gets to the connection between you and your recipients. Did this work together in this way help to strengthen or challenge the connections that you’ve had? How have those relationships developed through this process of Flow Funding? 


00:04:51 Monica Lewis-Patrick 

I would just say quickly for us. We already had these deep relationships, but because people are still struggling and recovering from all of the challenges of shifting the virtual and also just dealing with the fact that BIPOC communities really were deeply impacted by COVID not only the illnesses but the deaths, I think that our partners have expressed how much they really appreciated just the intentionality of seeking other ways to support them and get them dollars that they had some discretion over. And so I just want to express that that all of them seem to have appreciated that there was the thoughtfulness that went into creating the funds and then the thoughtfulness that went into distributing the dollars. 


00:05:38 Arthur Johnson 

There are two things. The two recipients look at the past and going into the future. Leona Tate, being the civil rights leader and taking what her experiences as a child that has now moved into her being not only a civil rights leader as a child, breaking ground with desegregation in schools but also continuing that throughout her life, purchasing the school that she integrated and still sticking with that all throughout that course to now create a Center for seniors, senior housing as well as a museum and a community facility to help grow the community of the lower 9th Ward, which you know, is where she integrated from the very beginning. The other recipient Doctor Singleton, again, a native New Orleanian at the school public school, went to the military and been around the world and came back to work as a professor at Dillard University, an HBCU. His whole point is continuing to help youth to understand that they can be all that they can be, no matter what the challenges might be. And he’s a good example of that. Both of them together, to me, have put that blend together. They were, you know, both excited and speechless that there is an opportunity of getting resources to move their cause, but also the being part of groundbreaking philanthropy. And I think that’s the whole point. This philanthropy is not just stagnant, but it will continue to grow… Should we, say, bear fruit figuratively and literally from these two recipients… 


00:07:41 Daniel Wiley 

There’s a brilliant energy in our communities that usually faces that barrier of not having opportunity because there’s no resources available to move their ideas forward. And you know, Haile has been volunteering with us before I even came on as managing director or even participated in anything at The HUUB. You know Haile’s been volunteering there for a couple years and you know one of the first conversations we had when it met her is, like you know, “what do you want to do?” 

And she says, you know, “I have all these ideas.” Ideas for the program she has now, which is Orange Patches. And you know, I think Renee, I think you gave me a phone call like a week after that. And I was like “whoa, this is crazy. That’s the universe, right?” 

You know, I think when it was concrete and was stamped that the funds were available and that Haile would be the person to get it, automatically, everything was in motion for her. She got so many things on the ground running within the first week that I was just like, “Wow, I wonder how many other Hailie’s are in this community. And how many other people are held back because they just don’t have the resources to move their ideas forward, especially in community-based initiatives like that.”  

Another part of that is you know our relationship, in relation to Haile and I. Her program is helping her develop into, you know, a leader in the community that’s very visible. She volunteered in different places around the city and she kind of had like you know this shadow of being there. People know who she is, but now you know she’s in the spotlight for a great reason. So yeah, I think it’s a really beautiful story and just her reaction to getting the funds, the first thing she said was like, “This is for me?” And I was like, “Yeah!” Again, that brilliant energy. It’s all there, it’s just, you have to give folks the opportunity to make things happen. And I’m glad that, you know, we were able to do that. It’s a pretty awesome feeling. 


00:09:50 Teresa Davis 

I think the theme is pretty resounding from flow funder to flow funder. More specifically for me. I’ve been able to build trust currency with the recipient and that has extended other tables that I can invite her to, to share the work, to share community responses. We just did a state level event this past Saturday and she was one of my guest speakers. So she got a chance to talk about the work. And one of the amazing things that she’s doing is she has allocated some of that money to support the community members who were also doing the work. And I was like “That is amazing.”  


It was shocking to receive the funds. I know sometimes we have conversations, and she’s like “I still don’t believe this is happening.” But it’s just been such a blessing to see the altruism extended. And she took some of those funds and allocated it to community folks to make sure that they can continue to show up. And that’s mitigating barriers in all of those spaces.  


She and I would normally meet online; we also meet in person. So we are creating real authentic relationship because of this opportunity with River network and it’s amazing, you all. We are currently, with my organization, we’re doing pass through grants. And I just had to step into a meeting yesterday and say, you know, all this is this has to be simple, and I had to bring in some of the language that we’re using in this flow funder space to say this work has to show up in this way. We have to get rid of the red flags. And all of these asks that we want these community-based organizations and individuals to produce when we say we’re trying to help them do the work. No. Let’s rescind, and let’s regroup. I was able to do that, you all, because of what we do as flow funders in this circle. So I can’t say thank you enough because it’s impacting all of my work. 


00:12:21 Renée Mazurek 

I know we really want to dig into this. You know, part of the goal of initiating the Flow Funding Circle was to enable democratized and collaborative giving and to disrupt traditional philanthropy. Where are there elements of traditional philanthropy still present that need further dismantling? You know, like what else do we need to do?  


Arthur Love to hear it. 


00:12:50 Arthur Johnson 

Well, you know in the environmental world there’s still the typical traditional bureaucratic flow of funds and the last, I guess two years now, there’s been a lot of conversation and a lot of words about equity and inclusion. And what I’m seeing is still basically just the spin on words. Politics. Let’s just call it what it is. So everyone puts that in and so now like, well, we want to fund organizations that are headed by minorities by people of color by different genders and all of this. But it’s still the same process, and it’s still basically the same outcomes. And then the real funds still go to larger ones, which they say they want to flow funds through or provide funds to organizations headed by, I guess we’ll say, non-traditionals. But then the funds are still miniscule comparable to what they’re getting. They’re getting six and seven figure funds, but their distributions are more like 4 figures at best, and even that is still making smaller organizations, community-based organizations, still having to compete with each other for these same funds. Just putting a little different lace on it. 


00:14:31 Renée Mazurek 

Go ahead, Daniel. 


00:14:32 Daniel Wiley 

Yeah, right? I mean you bring up…you know. you have so much wisdom in this and experience Fund raising, for me, it’s only been a couple of years. But you know, from what I have seen, keeping money from 1 donor in one community for the same thing over many years is somewhat hard to do. And I think the hard part about that is convincing these funders that the work that we’re doing is still meaningful. You know ’cause it’s on the ground and seeing it versus telling folks that are writing checks are two different things sometimes. When it comes to the folks that we’re funding, how are we being intentional about passing that down to them without them walking away with their head down like oh man I have a hill to climb you. Know what I mean?  


Yeah, I think us as funders, being more intentional about saying like, hey, it’s hard to fundraise. It is especially in BIPOC communities and communities that have been marginalized for so long. There’s not a lot of trust there. And when I say with trust, it is not those people that are putting money into those communities. You know, they’re putting money into those communities with not 100% trust. It’s about 98.9 right? And how do we get that point 1% of trust in there so that that those funds keep coming until the issues aren’t there anymore? Which I think, well that’s all we’re trying to do is let people understand that we’re trying to fight to get to our communities to a place where we don’t have to think about these things anymore. 


00:16:10 Renée Mazurek 

Thanks, Daniel, go ahead Teresa. 


00:16:13 Teresa Davis 

Yeah, this is an interesting question because I was just meeting with my fund developer yesterday and I’m actually doing a lot of fund development. I’m meeting with funders and I’m getting all sorts of responses, awesome responses. There’s somewhat of a dichotomy for me because I know where the money needs to go. I know where the money needs to go. I mean, I’m out there with community and so it’s like it’s everything that Arthur kind of already said in addition to some of the things that Daniel just stated. It’s like, I think there needs to be some sort of way to pour directly into these local CBOs, but also increase them, you know, make sure what we’re doing is truly sustainable. Because, for me, I never want to show up in community and start something that I can’t finish or put them in a position where we create these unrealistic expectations or hope like this is true change. This has never been done before and we have an answer to a problem that has existed for so long. But I also believe that along with the funding, there comes education, because that’s the piece that’s going to empower them to create the type of stewardship and sustainability that will take them to the next level, that will create levels of self-efficacy that they can continue to apply for funding and continue to network and continue to build capacity. So I’m looking at that entire big picture. Like what does that model look like? And I have to think about that right now in my current role and not just in my current role but for the work that I give myself to, I have to think about that. Because again, it’s my face with community. I’m building these relationships and I never want to create an unrealistic expectation around this work. Because we know this work can be difficult and we can’t guarantee that funds are always going to be there. But one thing I know we can do is educate and empower and teach them how to position themselves to create and build that capacity. Whether it’s through funding, whatever that looks like for them, we can empower them with those tools in their toolbox. 


00:18:56 Renée Mazurek 

Oh my gosh, these funders just blow us away. And listening to what they are saying, in this next clip, Lisa brings to the conversation a question that asks us to consider the future of Flow Funding at River Network and how we bring this to the broader community. 


00:19:15 Lisa Runkel 

How does this all shape what year  two should look like…needs to look like? 


00:19:22 Renée Mazurek 

Yeah, I guess, and in considering that too, what about the process has felt natural? What’s felt uncomfortable, things that we can do differently? 


00:19:32 Lisa Runkel 

What did we miss? Yes. 


00:19:35 Renée Mazurek 

Yeah, just gaps. 


00:19:37 Arthur Johnson 

What has kind of emerged for me, from the process, and even as we talk today is, the Flow Fund is creating champions. And these champions have to find a way to build on that in some ways, maybe to highlight the importance of Flow Funding to these larger philanthropists, to not necessarily embarrass them or bring them to task. But in some way, yes. To challenge them, maybe that’s a more positive word. To challenge them to commit their efforts and resources through flow funding. I think having them to say they’re going to do more within their own process is the problem. Relieve the whole idea of their philanthropy, you know, it just is not working for where the rubber meets the road. And maybe there’s an effort to get one champion, one large foundation saying, it’s kind of like partners where larger conglomerates work with a smaller business but not to take it over, but to help that grow. Realizing that Flow Fund was not developed to be taken over, but really to grow and you know, to work with that to bring more resources in where more of that of the Flow Fund mission could flow in that place. Not to be saying, “y’all did a nice job,” but really realizing that y’all are not doing the job. The bigger ones are not doing the job. I know that’s a big challenge because you’re questioning the process and the efforts that they live on. 


I think the second thing in relation to what this next year will look like, I think it, to me, in one year, I think we’ve made amazing strides not only giving but also in just the mission and people understanding. You know my recipients were like, “You mean this is all I have to do and you’re gonna give me money and I don’t have to create a new program…I’m just continuing to do what I’ve been doing. I don’t have to jump through all these hoops and circles and submit these papers… and if I don’t have a report, if I don’t have a 501C3, if you know all of those kinds of things…” Because they are doing the work. 


So I see year two is continuing just to build on that. You know this is this is this is a battle, ’cause we’re battling for resources that the bigger guys and girls normally suck up and so somebody somewhere… somebody out there has got to see what we’re doing and say, “oh OK, you know we wanna help and we got some resources that can help.”


And you know, helping the Flow fund is the mechanism of how we get those resources to where they’re needed to make change, not just to give a one year grant. 


00:23:04 Teresa Davis 

If I may. Thank you for that Arthur. I just wanted to add in terms of community, what we’re doing speaks volumes, because we keep showing up in the community, we keep making the ask. We keep, you know, engaging in community. We hold the events/ We’re doing all of this, but, what are we pouring back into the community? How are we truly showing up? How are you truly mitigating some of those barriers to know that we’re able to pour back into them in this way and then allow them to be a part of the work? 


I think that’s what year two probably looks like. More of this type of access where the community becomes familiar with this work, and they’re able to say wait a minute, there’s something different happening here. We can truly see that the work is showing up. There’s something tangible. There’s something visible that we can give credence to and say, yeah, this is kind of different from how it’s been showing up before. And we could take you here and show you the work that’s happening as a result. So I think year two… you know, just having community is everything and having their buy in and then being able to witness this work says everything about the work. 


00:24:28 Daniel Wiley 

I’ll just jump in real quick. And to answer the questions. What felt natural? I think this whole process was very unnatural in this grand scheme of fundraising and being a funder. 


I would just echo everything that Teresa and Arthur put out there. But I just wanted to share that yesterday I was able to visit the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces in Manhattan in the Lower East Side. And it’s crazy that this part of Manhattan, which is billions and maybe trillions of dollars, and there’s this neighborhood that’s still intact, and it’s because of a group of radical minds that said, “This is our land and we want it, and we don’t want the powers that be to take it for for capitalism.” And they did this mostly with no money, right? So it’s like coming back to our community.

I still live in Newark, but in the neighborhood of Orange, there’s a lot of reclaimed spaces and things that are done, but most of it’s done through fundraising through an organization. So yeah it’s very powerful to see people do this with no money. But then when you come back and realize that you might be in a situation where you at least need seeds to move forward, it just goes along with what Arthur and Teresa just said. How do you move it forward? 


Because the work doesn’t stop, especially in frontline communities. The work is done every single day until literally people drop dead. For this, though, I think as long as we can highlight the work…what Theresa’s folks are doing in Texas, and Arthur’s folks are doing in Louisiana and what’s going on in Detroit. If we could highlight everything and kind of learn from each other in that sense, but also bring it to a larger scale to say, “Hey like this type of funding actually works.” And maybe not say there’s no strings attached, but say it’s not putting a lot on the shoulders of the fundees. It’s like saying, “Hey – We believe in you. Here’s some money. Do what you have to do.” 


There’s a testament you know to say it works. And there’s results, and in my case, right away. The results come right away. So I think highlighting the work and then seeing what comes out of that is something to look forward to. 


00:27:04 Lisa Runkel 

Ah, so good, Daniel. Agree. 100%. We have a lot to look forward to. We are so thankful for this group and for the wisdom they share with us. 


00:27:17 Renée Mazurek 

We hope that you enjoyed this conversation and more importantly, learn something new. We are in the process of planning the next year of Flow Funding at River Network as well as creating resources to help move this type of work forward across the broader network. 


00:27:33 Lisa Runkel 

You can look for more information in future editions of River Voices, our monthly newsletter. This special audio recording is part of a larger collection of resources and sessions that we have compiled to share our journey into trust based philanthropy. And, like Renée said, encourage you to explore too. To borrow from the great Monica Lewis-Patrick, one of our flow funders, “You are all solutionaries.”


00:28:01 Renée Mazurek 

Our gratitude to you for listening and joining us to learn more about Flow Funding and the exploration of trust-based philanthropy at River Network. We hope this and the other resources are a catalyst to further conversations in your own organizations and communities. Be well, everyone. 

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