Saving Bedford Falls from Becoming Potterville: The Power of Organizing and Community Philanthropy

posted on: November 7, 2012

Mark Schultz of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) in Minnesota contacted me recently with a story of a community standing united in the face of divisive tactics. He had seen my June blog post “Bullies and Bystanders: Will Philanthropy Take on the Bishops?” and thought I would be interested in LSP’s own effort to fight back against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The more I heard, the more I thought about one of my favorite holiday movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life.

Schultz, who is associate director of policy and director of organizing at LSP, recounted how the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) awarded a grant to the organization in July. The grant was for leadership development to fight factory farms and the exploitation of immigrant farm laborers in southeast Minnesota. Two weeks later, LSP was warned that the grant would be rescinded unless the organization revoked its membership in two other Minnesota organizations: the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) and TakeAction Minnesota. Both of these umbrella organizations took a stance opposing a state ballot measure (defeated yesterday) defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. The Land Stewardship Project did not take a position on this measure, but its association with these other organizations was deemed problematic. CCHD gave LSP the choice to disassociate with these two groups or lose $48,000 – the biggest grant CCHD had ever awarded the organization.

Schultz said his organization did not make this decision lightly. In southeast Minnesota, LSP has a rural membership of small family farmers and other rural and small town families, and roughly half are Catholic. LSP has strong connections to the local diocese. Its board includes several Catholics, one of whom is a nun. Schultz himself is a Catholic.

After much deliberation among board, staff and member leadership in southeast Minnesota, the organization decided it would not leave MCN and TakeAction Minnesota. In its August 1 letter to CCHD, LSP questioned CCHD’s characterization of these organizations as “coalitions” and affirmed the value of its continued association with each of them. LSP was still hopeful it could sway CCHD to follow through with its funding commitment, but its leaders subsequently learned that the decision was final.

With a leadership training already scheduled for December, LSP didn’t want its important organizing on rural farm issues to grind to a halt. So LSP told its story to its members and supporters, and it appealed for help to replace the deep hole in its budget.

Schultz has learned a similar lesson to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey at the end of the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bailey spent his life giving back to the people of fictitious Bedford Falls and standing up to the bad guys (in this case, evil Mr. Henry Potter). Bailey’s dedication was rewarded by his fellow residents in their generosity, helping replace $8,000 lost by his uncle Billy (and stolen by Potter) to rescue his Savings & Loan.

All the years LSP has spent building local leadership, being effective, achieving victories in partnership with others, and most recently, bringing more intentionality to its racial justice work, has been affirmed by the community’s generosity.

Like George Bailey, Schultz has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of donations to make up LSP’s shortfall.

“We have members who have been giving $35 a year for 15 years who wrote a $500 check,” said Schultz. “Lifelong Catholics have said this is just wrong.”

Yet, when Catholics tell him they want to withhold their donation to CCHD through the annual appeal, Schultz advises against it. “Our intention is not to attack the church, but to show why we need to be strong through our associations with other organizations.” He urges Catholics to keep giving and to advocate for change, with the hope that ordinary Catholics can build enough power to turn things around at CCHD.

Additionally, in my June blog post I asked if there were examples of philanthropy standing up to the “bullies.” I am heartened to hear that several grantmakers have indeed responded to LSP’s plight.
The 11th Hour Project, a program of The Schmidt Family Foundation, put up $10,000 in response to the appeal. The Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program has allowed its grant to be used as a match for the fundraising drive.

Also, three Minnesota grantmakers issued a public statement condemning the Catholic Bishops. The Headwaters Foundation for Justice, PFund Foundation and Women’s Foundation of Minnesota asserted that CCHD’s actions ”are in violation of the basic tenets of philanthropy with regard to stewardship, accountability, transparency and respect.”

Schultz has some advice for grantmakers who may have grantees in similar situations:

1.    Be aware that these kinds of dilemmas and tough choices go on all the time for grantees and applicants; this is just an extreme example. (Aaron Dorfman made a similar point in his take on CCHD.)  It’s important that you affirm for grantees that you are funding them because of “who and what they are,” and not just for a specific purpose.

2.    Keep some grant funds on reserve for emergencies. Not enough grantmakers have pots of discretionary funding that they can tap on short notice. One funder has tentatively offered $5,000 to help pay for the December training. Yet, other LSP funders said they have no such flexibility in their budget.

Lisa Ranghelli is the director of NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project.