Teaching others how to give money

Born into wealth, Marion Rockefeller Weber uses her Flow Fund Circle to teach others how to give money wisely.

Paul Van Slambrouck
The Flow Fund Circle, founded by Marion Rockefeller Weber, teaches philanthropists how to quietly give money to worthy projects.

Marion Rockefeller Weber makes many of her philanthropic decisions accompanied by the music of two singing finches, the becalming presence of her Blue Heeler dog, and a cat named Hermione.

Not exactly the office décor of most philanthropic institutions. Then again, Ms. Weber is not your standard philanthropist.

Her minor menagerie is housed in her home office, a cottage on a wooded hillside overlooking the Pacific north of San Francisco.

Her journey here has been one of personal transformation. In the process, she has established a kind of outpost on the frontiers of philanthropic giving, one that puts a premium on intuition, relationships, trust, and discovery.

Born into wealth, Weber says she has been a philanthropist since age 21, deciding which worthy causes to support among the many that would come her way.

"The table would be like this," she says lifting both hands shoulder high to indicate the stacks of proposals piled high on her living room table.

It wasn't a pleasant process for her. Later, she took a one-year sabbatical, a time of self-reflection, in which she also made out her will. In the will, she gives her money to "visionary friends and associates" so they can, in turn, give it away.

And so the idea of giving money with the stipulation that it, in turn, be given away, took root.

Weber's brand of philanthropic giving has no offices, staff, or bureaucracy. It's called the Flow Fund Circle. Since its inception in 1991, Flow Funders have identified and supported projects all over the world, from orphanages in Uganda to reforestation in Sumatra to organic farming in Ecuador.

Some 500 projects have been funded, nearly 80 percent of the money flowing outside the United States.

But it is the way the money moves that distinguishes Weber's idea. Flow Funders receive $20,000 per year, for three years. They receive no salary and cannot fund their own projects or those of family members. As Weber puts it: "There would be no salary to do this. This was not a job, but rather an opportunity to practice generosity in the world."

At its core, Weber's philanthropy is in large part to teach others to be philanthropic, to stretch people's notion of generosity by, initially, removing lack of resources as a barrier to being generous. In effect, Flow Funding is a process of seeding generosity, trusting that when the money peters out, the generosity will not.

The process is built on the notion that the act of giving and serving others changes people.

"People are being transformed," says Mark Finser, chairman of RSF Social Finance in San Francisco and managing partner of TBL Capital. Mr. Finser has been an innovator in social philanthropy for 25 years. Speaking of those who receive funds from Weber, he says: "It's not just what amount of money they get; it's about how they get the money."

The recipients are given funds not to further themselves, or their programs, but to go into the world to look for opportunities. They are not selected on the basis of impressive proposals. In fact, no one applies to be a Flow Funder. Each participant is chosen by Weber.

The process can be rather astonishing.

Chimene Hickey walked into a store owned by Weber one day in 2006. She figured by its wares that it might be a good place to sell the handicrafts she was importing from Indonesia. The person behind the counter was Weber.

Ms. Hickey was looking for an outlet for her notebooks made from leaves, bamboo, and rice. But in the back of her mind was the suffering going on in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami. Hickey had spent years in Indonesia and grieved for the loss of many acquaintances in a remote village swept away by a flash flood.

She and Weber began talking. "I didn't even know who she was," Hickey says. "She said, how would you like to join the Flow Funders? It was like a dream come true."

Hickey returned to Indonesia, and proceeded slowly to find uses for the money she had been granted. She helped with disaster relief and supported nascent recovery efforts, everything from helping stores restock basic items to funding educational programs in the interests of food security.

"I kept quiet about [the] money and just observed," she says. "I learned a lot about appropriate aid and inappropriate aid." The experience, Hickey says, has been "transformational. I'm not an inherently trusting person. But that's part of the lesson."

Helen Gunthorpe, who undertakes medical relief efforts in Burma (Myanmar), received a letter from Weber in the spring of 2008. Basically, the San Francisco-based Ms. Gunthorpe recalls, the letter said, "Here's [some] money, and I know you will give it to the right people."

The money eventually helped establish a nonprofit business in Burma called Good Sleep, which has made more than 6,000 bed nets for protection from mosquitoes, a market that had been dominated by imports.

While deciding how to give money away is daunting at times, Gunthorpe takes "the inspiration that has been given to me ... to do that with another person."

Speaking of Weber, she says, "She lit the candle. She makes us all a little larger than we could ever be on our own."

Finser is confident Weber's approach can be replicated, and he's hopeful some foundations might try her stripped-down, small-scale approach on a pilot basis.

"She's created a place of discovery, but it's done in a very thoughtful and disciplined way," he says.

In his 2001 book "American Foundations: An Investigative History," author Mark Dowie says it's unlikely traditional foundations would "place so much faith (and power) in people like Weber's visionaries."

However, he writes, doing so would "undoubtedly find and ferment far more creative ideas and innovations than conventional philanthropic practices...."

•For more about Flow Funding, go to www.flowfunding.org.

• For other stories about People Making a Difference go here.

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