This time of year, my mailbox is overflowing with letters.
They're not Christmas cards. My holiday inbox overfloweth with end-of-year fundraising letters from nonprofits.
Most of these organizations have my address because I made small donations to support specific services or projects. But, despite the fact that I'm so popular during year-end fund drives, I've never thought of myself as a philanthropist. After all, philanthropist is someone who has serious money, and I'm an English major.
For me, the term "lesbian philanthropy" conjures up a vision of a rich white lady with lots of shawls. I am a non-rich white lady who looks terrible in shawls. Thus, although I have often heard about the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I never thought of myself as a potential foundation donor.
However, all that changed when J. Bob Alotta came to town.
Since February, when Bob became the Executive Director at Astraea, she's been traveling around the world to introduce herself and talk about a multi-issue movement for social justice led by women, trans people and people of color. When she came to Austin, a small group of local queer and feminist organizers gathered to share food and conversation.
Two things changed for me that evening. First, Bob spoke passionately about the relevance of intermediaries in a world shaped by social media. She cited Amazon and Kickstarter as examples of thriving intermediaries. Since I recently helped my partner organize a Kickstarter campaign to send her gender-bending rock band to perform at SF Pride, this was the kind of DIY example a shawl-less lesbian could understand.
The way Bob explained it, a foundation can function like a grassroots kickstarter, connecting people with the projects and artists they care about. But instead of making money off of emergent organizations and starving artists, a foundation like Astraea nurtures its beneficiaries--both financially and organizationally.
Which brings me to my second revelation of the evening. I was sitting in the room with several Astraea grantees, including Priscilla Hale and Rose Pulliam of ALLGO, Texas's statewide queer people of color organization. Priscilla and Rose spoke about Astraea's founding and sustaining support for the Roots Coalition, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, two spirit, transgender and gender nonconforming groups working for economic justice. In addition to ALLGO, the Roots Coalition includes organizations like Queers for Economic Justice and Southerners on New Ground. It emerged from Astraea's U.S. Movement Building Initiative, which set out to build the capacity of lesbian- and trans-led people of color organizations and to propel a broad-based movement for social, racial, economic and gender justice in the U.S.
This was not my stereotype of philanthropy. This was an agenda that I support with my time, energy and occasional small financial contribution.
I've spent the past week drafting a year-end fundraising letter for Girls Rock Austin (subliminal message: GIVE US MONEY). In our classic DIY, grassrootsy way, we're sending our year-end fundraising letter at the last possible moment. As I tinker with a long stream of late-breaking revisions, I've been heartened by something I read online. According to some random fundraising guru, the majority of year-end giving happens late at night on the evenings of December 29 and 30.
When I read this philanthropy factoid, my mind immediately manufactured an image of a man (with a pipe and smoking jacket) sitting in a leather chair in a book-lined study and doling out thousands of discretionary dollars. I realized (once again) that my stereotypes about philanthropy are out of touch with reality, because I'm pretty sure that that's not a realistic portrait of our average Girls Rock Austin donor.
So, as the end of the year approaches, I'm committed to challenging my own stereotypes of philanthropic giving. This doesn't mean that I will miraculously develop large sums of money to disperse. But I can meditate on Astraea's statement on the "philanthropy of inclusion." According to the Astraea web page, the philanthropy of inclusion is based on a belief that
"everyone, regardless of income or giving amounts, is a vital part of philanthropy. We are committed to building a diverse, informed and strategic community of donors across the economic spectrum."
Since visualizations are obviously key to my ideas about philanthropy, I've decided to replace my stereotype of the year-end giver. Instead of a man in a smoking jacket or a woman in a cashmere shawl, this year I'm going to picture a queerdo in mismatched flannel pajamas. As New Year's Eve approaches, she's warming her feet on a beat-up space heater, wrapping up another year of grassroots activism, and dispensing her tens of discretionary dollars.