Thoughts on the Future Fund’s Fall Kick-Off

Friday, October 24th, 2008

I went to the fall kick-off event Thursday for the Central New York Future Fund.

The Future Fund is a project of the CNY Community Foundation, and basically borrows an idea from microcredit.

When you make a microloan through an institution like Kiva, you're basically saying, "OK, here's someone who would never get a $500 small business loan from a bank, but if 20 of us can lend her $25, that'll get her to her goal, and if it turns out she can't pay us back, well, we're only out $25."

The Future Fund brings together young philanthropists who might want to increase their charitable footprint but don't have the capital to do so, to combine resources to make a greater impact.

OK, now I'm going to translate that into English.

The Future Fund asks a bunch of people for $100, or $250 or whatever, and combines their money into a $5,000 grant every year for some worthy organization.

I went into the kick-off figuring I was going to say no to putting up $100 because I know organizations that could do more with my $100 than some organizations could do with the Fund's $5,000.

I left the kick-off saying no for entirely different reasons.

The speaker, Community Foundation CEO Peter Dunn, invoked Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.

Bowling Alone is a massive study done about civic engagement in the U.S. The title refers to the fact that bowling alleys are still doing well, but the number of people bowling in leagues is declining greatly.

It's not just bowling leagues that are suffering. Attendance is down at houses of worship; service organizations like the Elks and Rotary International are seeing declining memberships. You get the idea. More people are going it alone, and there's not a lot of gathering together.

This was Dunn's pitch: Let us pool this money together. We'll get a bunch of grant proposals, and the steering committee or advisory board will whittle down the proposals to a few finalists. Everyone who put money into the pot will then get the chance to visit all the finalists, vote on who you want to give the money to, and hopefully, while you're checking the organizations out, you'll make some connections and either want to give of your time or money once you meet them.

I can't fault people who honestly don't have time to do any volunteer work. If you're a young lawyer or doctor, you're putting in 80 hours a week, and maybe you're trying to start a family, or raise your already-young kids. If all you can do for charity is write a check, by all means write a check.

But I felt very much like the pitch was, "You don't want to put your time and energy into volunteering, and we understand that. Write us a check, and we promise we'll make you feel really good about it."

Assuming they get about 60 people to put up $100 (50 for the grant, and another $1,000 in operating costs – though I didn't ask to see their books, so I don't know how they roll), I'd be surprised if more than 10 actually do check out the organizations that are picked as finalists. I'd be surprised if five begin volunteering with one of the organizations.

Between SPaRC, the Art Forum, 40 Below, and a new project I'm hoping to get involved in this weekend, I volunteer a fair bit of my time and energy. What I think I got out of the kick-off last night was a look at what the Fund might look for from an organization I'm working with. I guess that's something.

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