May 20, 2019; Inside Philanthropy
“Two of the biggest success stories in climate movement building—the Green New Deal and the push for fossil fuel divestment—have had relatively little support from foundations,” notes Tate Williams in Inside Philanthropy. But one exception, Williams adds, “is the Wallace Global Fund, a progressive funder that helped to seed both before they caught fire.”
The Wallace Global Fund is modest in size, with assets slightly above $150 million, according to its latest Form 990 filing. The foundation’s origins, however, are unique—and that helps explains its approach today.
As Williams explains, the fund came from Henry A. Wallace, who made his fortune from a hybrid seed company. Wallace served two terms as secretary of agriculture under President Franklin Roosevelt and one term as vice president. In 1948, Wallace bolted from the Democrats and ran as a third-party presidential candidate, obtaining over one million votes. The foundation, notes Williams, “still hews to Wallace’s core principles, with main priorities of challenging corporate power and saving democracy from the excess of money in politics,” with a focus on supporting social movements around the environment, climate change and women’s rights.
Recently, the foundation awarded the Sunrise Movement its Henry A. Wallace Award, which carries a prize of $250,000. The foundation also committed another $750,000 this year to other groups supporting the Green New Deal. Behind Wallace’s funding choice is the belief that, as Williams puts it, “unpredictable, intersectional social movements can yield profound change.”
The foundation’s approach to movement building came into focus about 10 years ago, executive director Ellen Dorsey tells Williams. The shift, Dorsey explains, meant focusing less on making grants to nonprofits and more on supporting movements. “If you approach your work transactionally as making grants to nonprofits, the lens is not wide enough to see your potential relationship to social movements,” Dorsey explains, “It makes your relationship to the nonprofit be, at best, attempting additive work.”
Williams notes that in addition to writing checks, the Wallace team—a small staff of five—“asks how nonprofits can support movements, how funders can support those nonprofits, and how they can directly help the movement by offering things like more flexible funding, leadership development, and forming connections.”
Wallace has also expressed a willingness to bet big when conditions warrant. For example, in 2018, Williams writes, “the foundation announced it would put its entire 2017 stock market windfall toward the year’s grantmaking, pushing its payout to 16 percent of its assets with an additional $10 million (a leap ahead of the usual five percent for most funders). “It is absolutely unconscionable to be growing endowments right now,” Dorsey says.
Another earlier example of betting big was when the foundation, in 2011, decided to support the fossil fuel divestment movement. Initially, it backed eight field organizers, which soon became 40. “It was just so explosive,” Dorsey says. Now, eight years later, that movement has succeeded in getting over 1,000 institutions with total assets of nearly $8 trillion to divest from fossil fuel companies.
Movements are unpredictable, of course, and not every Wallace bet succeeds. Dorsey tells Williams that in making its grant decisions what “the foundation looks for sound leadership, sound strategy, and an opportune political environment.”
The $250,000 award to Sunrise Movement will help it finance training and leadership development. “The award,” notes Williams, “is only the second since the foundation established it; it gave the first to the Standing Rock Sioux in 2017 in recognition of the fight to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. According to board co-chair Scott Wallace, the prize is meant to acknowledge ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of power.”
Dorsey and Wallace say that the foundation’s approach is centered in two core beliefs. One is an attention to people power. Mainstream policy blueprints, notes Dorsey, too often are “devoid of any kind of analysis of power.”
A second core belief, notes Wallace, is a willingness to accept risk. “We love risk,” Wallace says. “If a foundation is going to invest only in things that entail no risk, then where is the hope of change?”
And if a foundation wants to preserve existing grants while making more risk-forward investments, Dorsey has a suggestion for how to do that: increase payout. As Dorsey puts it, foundations can “bank on some new big ideas and put additional capital behind it. Let’s see where this goes. Let’s try and support this and get it to scale. And if it requires dipping into the piggy bank and paying out six percent or seven percent or eight percent instead of the mandatory minimum of five percent, what are we waiting for?”—Steve Dubb