Katherine Readey Chilcote Interview Transcription
Monday, August 31, 2015
Upcycle Parts Shop, 6419 St. Clair Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio
The Cleveland Colectivo Giving Circle Model
Introduction and Background
The Cleveland Colectivo is a giving circle. We are a group of community members most of whom live in the City of Cleveland, Ohio USA and we give small grants to organizations who are their very early stages.
A lot of people are doing things that are maybe just confined to their actual neighborhood, or to some specific area that they’re passionate about, but we believe they’re got the drive, they’re got the innovation, and we think they can pull it off, so, we’re serving them a little bit of money.
We don’t really give large grants. We’re a giving circle and all together we raise between $12,000.00 and $13,000.00 U.S. a year, so we’re usually trying to identify organizations that need somewhere in the order of $1,500.00 maybe $2,000.00 to get them up to the next level. Most of these organizations are flying under the radar of a typical foundation. We’re not able to, they have a harder time of going after the traditional streams of funds, and so we’re trying to plug in to say, “Hey, we think what you’re trying to do is cool, we’d like to help you get to the next level, so, here’s $1,500.00.” We’ve even given grants as little as $400.00, $750.00. But, it’s all about finding that one cool nugget of idea, putting some money toward it and then seeing what kind of impact it can make.
We just completed our tenth year of giving and have given over $120,000.00 to organizations throughout the Cleveland, Ohio area but focused specifically on people doing things in the City of Cleveland. We’ve seen some really great impact and it’s been an exciting thing to be a part of.
We’ve seen Nicole McGee, who now has a shop called the Upcycle Parts Shop. We gave her money to move her studio from her house to an actual studio space. That allowed her to scale up her business a little bit and - she does artistic reuse of materials that otherwise would end up in a landfill - so we allowed her to scale up a little bit and start opening up her boutiques that are called, “Collective Upcycle” and then eventually land in this great space on St. Clair Avenue called the, Upcycle Parts Shop. Now she does all sorts of community oriented things, she continues to run her boutique, the Collective Upcycle. Then, again, it was maybe a $1,500.00 grant we gave her just so she could secure some studio space and take her vision and her business to the next level. It’s a perfect example of the kind of organizations we invest in - people who want to do something positive in the city and have some really cool, innovative idea that can push things forward to help grow community and it gets us all super jazzed and excited and we throw them some money. So, it’s been super fun and interesting work.
I will say as a member who was there at the very beginning, I had no idea of what kinds of organizations would come to us, what kinds of people would seek us out, and even after doing it for ten years, I have yet to be, not inspired by things that people are doing, people who I would have otherwise never been connected to, never known the kind of work they’re doing in their neighborhoods. Again, these are often very small scale projects, very modest, they’re not trying to grab a lot of press or do something really flashy, they’re trying to actually make a real difference in their neighborhood and do something cool and different to move the city forward. So, personally, it’s been hugely inspirational and hugely satisfying and it’s been a real exercise in community building on multiple levels.
So, for the group that came together, to initially found the Colectivo, we got together, we had this idea of wanting to do something impactful in the city, our friend who had convened us initially had found out about this giving circle model, so we explored it more and researched some of the different models and came up with the one that worked the best for us.
But that, in of itself, just convening that group and working together on this, has been one form, right, of building community, staying connected to other people who are interested in doing civic engagement and want to stay tapped into the cool things happening in the city and continue to want to make it a better place. Frankly, it’s been really fun because a lot of those people who were there at the beginning were friends of mine but I’ve met people through it who’ve become good friends of mine and we just enjoy getting together, we enjoy each other. Even though a lot of the people at the beginning knew each other and were friends, or knew each other through similar networks, we’ve had new people come in over the years so, I would say a lot of them involved now were not even there in the beginning, they just found out about us, they came to our meetings, they starting getting involved, and now they’re friends of mine. So, getting to expand my personal network and engage with people who themselves who are doing interesting things in the city and also want to make this a better place has been hugely satisfying just from the social-personal standpoint. I think we’ve been able to build our own community through that.
The other piece is the outreach component of that work which is us pooling our money but reaching out to, in a very public, open-ended way. Anyone who’s interested in applying for money to the Colectivo is welcome. We’ve then been able to engage, obviously, beyond our giving circle community into the greater Cleveland community to find out about all the cool things people do.
The other really neat thing, is that we’ve continued to evolve is our process. So, our initial process when we were finding people to give grants to, we were doing a more traditional RFP. Asking people to answer a few preliminary questions about their project and then we would read through those initial requests, and then extend an invitation to a smaller group of people to give us a more detailed explanation of their project and what they intended to do with the money from us.
We’ve evolved the front end of the process into what we have called a “Fast Pitch” event. That’s sort of become more and more popular and we’ve seen organizations expand into this model. The cool thing about the Fast Pitch event is that then it brought all these different groups together who were doing these cool things into a venue. It was a two-and-a-half hour event on a weeknight and the past couple of times we’ve done it, it was hosted at Launch House, a business incubator on the east side of Cleveland in Shaker Heights, Ohio. So, perfect kind of venue because they are doing the same kind of stuff. The excitement of bringing all these different people together who have these cool ideas, they got to all sit around and listen to each other’s pitches. Not only was it gratifying and fun for our group to turn the front end of our process into an event, but it also allowed all these groups to hear from each other.
I think as a hugely dynamic networking incubator, cross fertilization, community kind-of-an event where people can find out what each other is doing. I know people at our event made connections they wouldn’t have otherwise, that I hope, whether or not they ended getting money from us, I hope helped them to move to the next level. We have some examples of people, just by virtue of having pitched to us, that sort of helped them get some more solid framework around their idea and move their idea forward, whether or not they eventually became a recipient of Colectivo funds.
So, that evolution of our group, has been really exciting.
So the future of Colectivo, I will say, having gone through ten years of giving, we are actually in the process of planning a retreat this fall to do some reflection. I think there are different schools of thought about what we should be and where we should go next. It is interesting, because when we started this thing, there was no such thing as “Kickstarter”, there was no such thing as “crowdfunding”. There’s even an organization in Cleveland now called, “Cleveland Soup”. Which I think originated in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia and now there’s a Cleveland Chapter, and there’s some activity around that in Detroit, Michigan also. Cleveland Soup is basically just a big dinner party where everyone shows up, they throw twenty bucks in a hat, they have four or five people pitch an idea, and the crowd decides which idea they like the best and somebody walks away with a couple thousand dollars. That is just an innovation on our model.
We’re trying to understand now, where do we fit in and does what we do continue to have meaning? I personally believe it does, but how do we perhaps continue to evolve or how do we find the next thing that we want to do?
One of the things I’m advocating for now and that we’re going to be having a meeting on in a couple of weeks, is starting what we’re doing with kids. My informal name for it is the “Kidlectivo”. Taking eight, nine, ten year-olds, I think we want them to be old enough to understand the concept, but have them think about, “Okay, what does it mean for me to pool my money? And, “How can I identify some local organizations that I might want to give money to?” And starting that idea of philanthropy, and giving, and betting that, for that generation could be super fun. I think the kids would really take to it and I’m sure have a whole new spin even on what we’re doing. I’m really excited to get that started and there are several other people in the group who are parents who want to be engaged in that work. So, that’s a real fun, next step that I see at Colectivo. My hope is that that really draws some more adults in, or parents that we haven’t been able to reach out to in the past.
I think we’ve got a great model and we have a nice solid twenty to twenty-five people who are consistent contributing members, but I think there’s some thought that we need to think about how to continue to expand that circle. We’ve fought against ourselves on that a bit in the past because expanding requires work and we are an all volunteer organization so we were trying to keep the scale manageable, but I think there are different ways that we can, either through this Kidlectivo or other types of outreach things that could get more people into our circle and help us continue to evolve and innovate. We don’t want to keep doing the same thing, our Fast Pitch event, which is a super great fantastic event, a lot of people are doing Fast Pitch events, so we want to try to figure out and keep staying on the cutting edge, keep doing good work, keep identifying those cool projects, but keep finding new ways to do it.
I’m not sure I have a solid roadmap or a specific idea about where we’re going next but I think there’s still a lot of passion around the idea and a lot of people that enjoy the work so it’s just a matter of figuring out what is really the next step and how do we keep what we’re doing fresh and interesting?
So, one of the things I wanted to talk a little bit about that I think is innovative that we do is our process. I talked about the Fast Pitch which is where we initially vet a lot of our applicants and from that event narrow down the pool and decide on a smaller group that we want to hear from on what we call an “Interview Day”.
We have them fill out a little more detailed application about the idea and then they come present to us. They have about ten minutes to talk about what they want to do and then we have Q & A with them. After that round, we all get together as a group and we go through a process that we’ve actually repeated several times because I think it works pretty well, and we talk about the different groups that we’ve heard from, the ones that we feel particularly strongly about and then we make our final decisions about how to divide up our money.
I think there’s a big piece around civic dialogue and inclusion because not only does the dialogue really start when the organizations come talk to us about their ideas, and from there as I mentioned before, I think that spurs other dialogue. And when other people start hearing these ideas, they find other ways to connect to each other and hopefully build those ideas out, whether or not they continue on in our process.
But there is something important about the way we do our decision making. We’re very deliberate on multiple fronts so, one of them is that to be a giving member of the Colectivo we ask that you pay into our pool, $400.00 a year. So, $100.00 a quarter, you can write a check monthly, there are lots of different ways people do it.
But, in terms of the actual process, we invite anyone to engage in that process in any point in time. The only time members are called upon to do something different than everyone else, is when we’re making the final vote about the money. If you have been engaged, you have been coming to our events, and you feel passionately about a project, you can show up to our meeting, even if you’re the one who pitched to us, you can show up to our meeting. We have funded many people who are also members. That’s a big thing that we feel strongly about that if you want to be engaged with us and you also want to pitch ideas to us, great! We’d love to have your money as part of the pool and we’d love to hear about your idea. We’ve really tried to keep it open. So, whoever you are, if you’re giving or not giving, we invite you to come become part of our process. We ask everyone in that decision meeting, every single person has the chance to speak, for at least a couple minutes about the projects or organizations they feel most strongly about. So we all get to hear everybody’s take on what we just heard and what projects they feel deserve our money.
After we hear from everyone, we go through a voting process where we have big post it notes up on the wall and everyone gets stickers to put a sticker next to the project you want. So, depending on how many you were trying to narrow down from, you’ve got three stickers or four stickers, and then in each round of voting we have a discussion. We might say, “Okay, it looks like this project over here didn’t get any votes, does anybody want to make a “Hail Mary” to advocate for it to stay in the pool? Or do we as a group decide it’s not one we want to move forward with? And then we go through another round of voting and each time take a step back and look at what the voting told us. Again, everybody has that chance to participate in the vote and then talk about it. “Well, it looks like maybe we have another one to lop off” or, “Let’s talk about these two that seem to be neck-in-neck, does somebody want to say why this one’s better than that one?” Or, what were they thinking when they put their vote up there.
This is a facilitated meeting so we have someone who’s helping us structure the discussion. It’s a fantastic community building because at the end of the day we all want the same thing. We want cool projects to get some of our money. But, people all come at it with different agendas and different things that move them. People have to advocate for the things they feel strongly about and I think everyone who comes in that room and engages in the process is very present and attentive and wanting to engage in that dialogue. And sometimes, debate.
I will say as someone that’s been engaged in this for a long time, I’ve had plenty of projects that I’ve advocated for that did not move forward. It’s disappointing and can occasionally be frustrating but we really strive for consensus. We want the whole group to feel good about where we’re headed and where we’re going. So, we do a lot of check-ins and “Hey, before we do this, before we take this guy out of the running, who wants to make a last pitch for it?”
I personally have gone into a meeting feeling very strongly about certain projects and through the process of listening to this dialogue and conversation, have been swayed and thought, “Wow, I think they have a point. They saw something in this project I didn’t see.”
The other thing that makes the process so great, is at the end, when we have a pool of money, we’re usually figuring out a way to divide it up across multiple projects. This past year we challenged ourselves to give a larger grant to a single organization. It was our tenth year and we wanted to do a big gift, so we did a $10,000.00 gift to one organization called, Fresh Camp and it was very challenging. Very challenging because every single project that comes to us is so excellent and it’s so hard for all of us to not want to give money to everyone, but we also want to give money that we feel is going to be impactful.
So we look at their budgets, we decide what kind of money is really going to make a difference and we want to be cognizant of that. As much as these are small grants and they’re not going to make anybody rich or change the tide completely. For some of these really small organizations, it’s this $1,200.00 is going to get them this piece of equipment that will allow them to scale their business to this level (gesturing). So, we don’t want to give them $700.00 because they won’t get there.
We think strongly about those things and trying to decide which organization to give money to was a really tough situation. A lot of our members did not like it. It made it harder for us to get to the consensus that we normally enjoy. I think that the fact that we often have multiple organizations that we can give money across, creates a situation in the end, that even if you didn’t get every organization you advocated for, there is usually one or two you feel strongly about that’s going to get something and you’re going to see get to the next level. To have to choose just one was a different kind of challenge.
Frankly, I think it was a great exercise for us because we know something we didn’t know before. And we gave a nice sized $10,000.00 grant to a really deserving organization that I really think is going to take off from it. So, good and bad, but I see a lot of this as a learning exercise, that is what I love being engaged in, even though we came up against something that was a little more difficult, we learned a lot from it and learned about how we would want to evolve and a lot of people would never want to have to pick a single organization again. But it was a good exercise for our group to go through.
So, let’s talk a little bit about collaborative leadership because that’s something I think we really exemplify and how we run this organization. Having been part of lots of organizations, one of the things I find so fresh and refreshing about the Colectivo, is that there really is no leadership structure. We have, what I would call at best, a de facto Board. People who have consistently stayed engaged and help drive certain initiatives forward but there is no Executive Director, there is no fundraising people, there are no staff, we are fully volunteer and we really do a nice job of trying to spread the work out across different members of the group and also allowing different people to step up to take leadership roles when there is a need or if they just raise their hand and say, “Hey, I know how to do that!” Okay, well then, you’re our new social media guru because you know how to do that.
So that has been from an organizational development standpoint an interesting study. Granted, being all volunteer may lend itself to that. I don’t know if you were an organization with paid staff you could figure this out but it’s something that has made us more sustainable. There isn’t one person calling the shots and there isn’t any kind of top-down structure. All of our meetings are all about getting all the voices at the table. Obviously, there are people who are more vocal than others, people who are better at expressing themselves verbally than others, but I think that everyone that shows up there feels passionately enough and strongly enough that if they don’t like the ways things are going or want to express a contrary opinion they have the chance to do that.
One of the things that we look to evolve after ten years is we do have some people in more regimented roles and that is one of the things we’re trying to explore a little bit. Again, there’s no titles, no specific job descriptions but people have again because they’ve, this is the thing they know how to do or had some time to do. People may have taken on some roles they may want to evolve out of. So that’s a challenge with having this kind of leadership structure or lack thereof is figuring out how to evolve ourselves so that different people learn different skills within the organization so to speak and we can keep fresh people in certain roles and keep sharing the load.
There’s been good things and bad things, but mostly just knowing that you can come to something and there’s no preconceived notions about what you can do or you can’t do. If it’s your first meeting and you’ve never been there before and you have a cool idea, we’ll let you go do it. We don’t have any qualms about letting people in and having people step up and take leadership roles. It’s been a great exercise, or case study perhaps, in how to make something like that happen and have it really function, really well. It’s been fun to see.
There’s been lots of amazing things that have come out of the Colectivo. For the City of Cleveland, we have helped to create and push off an amazing number of organizations and helped people who are doing really cool things in lots of neighborhoods take their vision to the next level. Everything from community music programming to the Upcycle Parts Shop toJoy Machines Bike Shop in Ohio City, that we gave a capital gift to to help them with a piece of machinery, to murals, public art around the city. There’s a lot of places in the city I can go to now and say, “Hey, the Colectivo had something to do with that.”
Just the impact to the city, and granted it remains grassroots and the ten years we’ve done it and over $120,000.00 invested in the community has an amplifying effect. I think it’s not only helped people realize a vision they might not have otherwise gotten to, but it helps lift everybody up and make the city feel like an exciting place. If you’re not supporting those kinds of people who are doing those really at the ground level kinds of projects you can’t move a city forward and you can’t keep building excitement in the city so I think that’s been a big impact.
I think there’s also been a big impact to the people who’ve participated and the general awareness that it’s built for us. Several of us have gone on to get more involved in organizations. We have lots of members who have gone on to join the boards of organizations that we’ve given money to. And, just, personally enriching people in the city I would probably would never have engaged with.
Above: Tour the Upcycle Parts Shop, a recipient of Cleveland Colectivo startup investment. Meet the Upcycle Parts Shop's Nicole McGee, Artistic Director and Devon Fegen-Herdman, Operations Director who detail the shop's unique attributes and special features.
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In terms of how this model could transition to business, I think that there are definitely some great learnings. One of the things that is so exciting and fun about this model is this joint ownership idea. We all have skin in the game. We have put money in this pot and we all have an investment and “What’s going to happen to it?” This is our money, money we are earning and then diverting into this pot. Some people have equated it to a community stock market. So, I could have put that $400.00 in the stock market and gotten some sort of return, but I put it back into the community and I got a different kind of return. I’ve lifted up my community and I’ve made some positive changes in the place where I live. Perhaps that has more value?
- Collective Ownership
- Business Sustainability
- Collaborative Leadership
- Authentic Branding
If you wanted to jump in and start your own giving circle, it is not a difficult thing to do first of all. I will say that people who’ve engaged with us have gone off and done some of their own versions of what we do. There are things as simple as have a dinner party and have everyone bring $50.00 with them and make a decision at the end of that party of where you want that money to.
1. ) Gather Like-Minded Friends
If you want to do something slightly more formal, and I hate to think about what we do as formal but I guess it is more formal than just getting friends together, I would start there. I would start with getting a group of people who you think are like minded and interested in making some kind of impact.
2.) Determine Manageable Yet Meaningful Dollar Amounts
And then, a big thing that we hashed through was what the dollar amount should be. What actually makes sense? We wanted to raise enough money that it would be meaningful. We knew we weren’t going to raise millions of dollars but we were hoping to get around the $20,000.00 mark or somewhere in there. A lot of it is a combination of the amount and then the number of members. So for us the amount that made sense was that $400.00 a year which we felt was manageable and the people who were at the table initially worked for nonprofits, they were not people commanding huge salaries, so it was manageable but yet meaningful.
So it meant that maybe you gave up your latte every Monday, some small sacrifice that you’d be making to give in to the pool. We liked that kind of combination. Once you determine that amount you’re going to want to doing things like figuring out how you would hear from organizations or what types of organizations you would even want to be giving to. There’s lots of models out there and a lot of research on the Internet so there are a lot of things you can look at as far as how people organize this.
3.) Invest By Topics Or Variety?
Some organizations give based on a topic area. They decide this year they want to give to an organization doing education and next year we’re going to give to an organization doing environmental practices. The Colectivo hasn’t ever subscribed to that because we really like the variety. We like the idea of being able to give to lots of organizations that hit lots of different civic areas and are engaged in different ways. We’ve given to community gardening, we’ve given to education, we’ve given to for profits, arts organizations - really, the whole gamut. We just personally like having that variety. But, sometimes it’s easier to organize yourself around a topic area so that’s an approach you could take.
4.) Fiscal Agent Financial Administration
One of the things we were able to establish fairly early on and we were lucky because we had a member of our founding group that worked for this organization, we were able to create a relationship with a fiscal agent. The money that we give into our pool is actually held at this fiscal organization. It’s called International Mission. The CEO is actually a member of the Colectivo and their organization lined up really well with us because as an organization they do the same work we do except for collectives in South America and Central America. So they give money and resources to a lot of times women owned businesses trying to create their own cooperatives. They’ll have a business trying to generate some revenue for themselves. That has been a huge boon for us because they already got what we were doing and we were able to house our money with them and then they take care of cutting the checks to our grantees at the time that that happens. I’m sure there are other ways too, like bank accounts, but it’s been really nice to have that fiscal agent who is already in the process of doing that kind of work and can handle that administrative side for us. It’s been a huge help to our sustainability.
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