For the Community Sustaining Fund
Besides being the state capitol of Washington, what is so special about Olympia? Easy. It’s our cohesive and dynamic progressive community. Its foundations laid in the creation of The Evergreen State College and in the subsequent establishment of the Olympia Food Co-op by Greeners in the early 1980s, which was an odd time. Ronald Raygun and George Bush, Sr were in the White House. Pinochet ruled Chile. Apartheid was law in South Africa. People were entertained by dysfunctional rich people and their wannabes in Dallas and smartly dressed undercover narcs in Miami. Looking back, it makes the bile rise just a little.
Surprisingly, it was also during this time that an obscure, little-known (but important) community organization was birthed—the Community Sustaining Fund of Thurston County. It began in conversations about the lack of funding in Olympia for progressive groups and ideas. Tom Nogler, a current member of the Sustaining Fund’s Board of Directors, remembers “private talks with Paul Cienfuegos about gaps in offerings in the community.” They talked “about a local granting organization” that could receive financial “support from alternative businesses to fund radical projects. The definition of ‘radical projects’ was a key discussion initially,” recalled Tom, “my memory is of projects that help community understanding of oppression issues.” In particular, they were concerned about projects that “may have difficulty gaining financial support because of their controversial nature.” Tom and Paul would go on to name the organization and “solicit interest in the community.”
The first Community Sustaining Fund grant was awarded in 1989.
“Paul is in Portland now, and Peter Moulton and Russell Fox were early participants who were able to help maintain the whole affair over the years,” Tom added, “and there have been countless others over the last 26 years, just like with any organization.”
Present day Sustaining Fund
Last month, I spent a pleasant hour speaking with two more members of CSF’s Board of Directors, Keith Dublanica and Vic Colman, at a table in Traditions Café located in downtown Olympia. While today’s CSF mission statement does not mention the word “radical,” they both talked about the new ideas and broad connections to the progressive community involvement in the CSF provides. Vic is inspired by “hearing from the activist side of the Olympia Community. You’re hearing some ideas that are very cutting edge.” Keith agreed, “People bring in their grant proposals, their enthusiasm, and their ideas—it’s one of the most gratifying parts” of CSF.”
They shared that the Community Sustaining Fund has paid out more than $70,000 in approximately 250 grants in the last 26 years. The funds are to be “aimed at creating and sustaining a democratic, just, nonviolent, and ecologically sound society.” What is unique about the fund is that a grantee need not be a federal registered nonprofit. The CSF just asks that you let them know how you spent the money.
According to Vic, “the purpose of the Fund is to provide seed money to jump start a group or activity” and that “CSF focuses on what piece in the grant application will accelerate the project along.” Keith added, “We don’t have hard and fast rules.” He described their guidelines as having “a little bit of latitude” depending on the amount of money available and how well the request fits within the mission statement. “We do it on a case by case basis.”
Another quality Vic says is unusual for grant organizations is that CSF does personal interviews. “When you talk to people and hear their ideas come to life in a conversation rather than just on paper, people do an amazing job of telling their stories in a way that can’t be captured in writing. We love that aspect of getting one-on-one time with each of the applicants that pass our threshold criteria.”
Sometimes they have a difficult time in evaluating applications. It’s not always easy to turn down a worthy project that does not fit the grant guidelines. “We struggle with that when people ask for operational dollars,” Vic explains. “There’s not quite a bright line between an enhancement of a current program or a new branch or idea of an organization. We also struggle with not doing human services straight up. What is the social justice aspect of that, and that is not a bright line either.” Vic chuckles briefly. “So when the free clinic asks us for a portable sink because a portable sink is critical and we were a little more flush that cycle, we did fund them. But that was kind of edgy and outside of our core work, yet a social justice argument around that sink was provided.” The sink allowed doctors and triage nurses to help more people.
Toward the end of our meeting, I asked Vic and Keith what they would put on a wish list. Without hesitation, they both stated they would like more people to be involved with the Community Sustaining Fund. Traditionally, there are 6-12 members, but lately it is on the low end of those numbers. Keith also mentioned they would like more diversity on the board. For a while there were younger members who brought more energy to the group and they miss that. And they encourage people from all parts of the County to consider joining them.
I asked them what is required of members and was told there are 90-minute meetings held on Saturday mornings once a month. And, of course, there are the two grant cycle interviews held in May and November. Interviews are held on a Saturday morning from 9 am to noon with the decisions made in the afternoon. This, they said, is best part of being a part of CSF —the interviews. It’s like getting a front seat glimpse of what different groups are doing in the community. Vic also shared, “What jazzes me is after those interviews, is that we make decisions and throw money around the community. How rewarding that feels!”
The Community Sustaining Fund is not a trust as some funding agencies are. No large amount of money sitting in a bank somewhere earning interest to be used to award grantees. As Vic says, “It’s all hand-to-mouth.” CSF funding comes directly from the community and goes directly back to the community in grants. The organization has a very low overhead and no longer rents a post office box nor even keeps a supply of stationary. The Fund is primarily financed by the ‘round up process’ at the Olympia Food Co-op stores. When a person pays for groceries, all one has to do is say, “Round up, please,” and the cashier rounds the price up to the next dollar. It doesn’t sound like much, but when enough people “round up,” it has in the past provided the Sustaining Fund with $4-6,000 a year to fund progressive community projects.
In the last year and a half though, funding has dropped significantly, but they didn’t think the economy had much to do with it. One likely reason is that the Olympia Food Co-op has added another worthy organization, the Farmland Trust, to the ‘round up process’ and the two organizations are now sharing that income.
Another probable reason is CSF’s obscurity. Vic said, “We need to be doing a better job of PR and marketing…We were on autopilot with the Co-op funding, which was very steady for so many years. Things have changed, but that’s okay. It’s pushed us into social media so we do Facebook. We have an electric mailing system and a website was set up by Scott Bishop.” Keith also mentioned the group is “rebranding and trying to provide more opportunities for folks to help support CSF support the community.”
Doing my part
I confess. I had never “rounded up” at the Food Co-op up until last month. It was a process I vaguely knew about it, but I didn’t realize how important it was. And it felt great! The first two times I rounded up, I asked the cashiers if many people did. Both times they said “a few”—in other words, not many. This is not right. We all need to be rounding up! It’s painless folks; just pennies a shopping trip for an organization that does so much good.
The Community Sustaining Fund of Thurston County is crucial to the quality of our lives, especially in these harsh economy times when money is so tight. When our neighbors and friends see an issue that needs to be addressed or communicated, it is essential that the Sustaining Fund be able to support their work. Rounding up is a simple process by which collectively we can provide the financial backing the Sustaining Fund needs to help keep our progressive community vibrant.
Sylvia Smith is a WIPster and a Thurston County resident.
[Community Sustaining Fund can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Community Sustaining Fund Fall 2013 Grants
Friends of Public Power ($200)
Community education program regarding the importance of public power and our collective energy future.
Peace Scouts ($120)
Expansion of its activities to children and families attending a field day to study honey bees and monarch butterflies this spring and summer.
Olympia Star Courier ($200)
Start-up costs to grow the infrastructure of this worker-owned bicycle courier cooperative.
Interfaith Works ($200)
Support intentional community conversations on issues relating to food & hunger, shelter and justice.
Cain Road Area Neighborhood Association (CRANA) ($325)
Expand the Thurston County Food Project to include more residents within the neighborhood association.
Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team ($200)
Education, outreach and art with schools to better imagine the Deschutes Estuary.