Red, white, and blue pasted street art of anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin with the words “MUTUAL AID” underneath. Image via Timothy Vollmer/Creative Commons .
Red, white, and blue pasted street art of anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin with the words “MUTUAL AID” underneath. Image via Timothy Vollmer/Creative Commons.

Before COVID-19, the anarchist concept of mutual aid was mostly relegated to radical circles and political science textbooks. It’s unsurprising that it rarely, if ever, penetrated the hallowed halls of philanthropy.

The pandemic, of course, changed everything. With donors and foundation staff struggling to respond to a virus that’s affected every aspect of their own lives, not to mention the lives of the people their grantmaking is meant to serve, new space opened up for this radical form of giving.

As the leaders of the Fund for Democratic Communities wrote in a 2020 Nonprofit Quarterly article about their mutual aid work in Greensboro, North Carolina: “Mutual aid, based on the idea that everyone has needs that should be met and that everyone has something to offer to help meet others’ needs, activates everyone as part of the solution, and thus has potential to get to the scale we need.”

It’s community solidarity organized by and for communities in order to raise funds and other resources amongst themselves. The concept was first popularized by the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.” In the seminal essay collection, Kropotkin made the case that, for millennia, humans have actually valued cooperation over competition—a direct rebuke of social Darwinism and capitalism.

For more than a year now, both the philanthropic sector and the social justice stratosphere at large have been grappling with this concept, as hyperlocal funds and networks facilitating mutual aid cropped up all across the country to meet the immediate needs of communities hit by the pandemic. What sets these efforts apart from philanthropy is that traditionally, charitable donations and decision-making move in one direction, top to bottom, whereas mutual aid involves an entire community contributing and steering funds.

One person who has been working to bring these concepts into modern-day practice is Crystal Middlestadt, executive director of the Colorado-based Chinook Fund. (Editor’s note: Middlestadt uses both she/her and they/them pronouns.) They pointed out in a recent interview with Inside Philanthropy that while the principles and practice of mutual aid have made incredible strides amid the pandemic, it’s not a natural fit in a field built by and for the wealthy.

“The institution that we work within and the sector we work within is actually benefiting the wealthy, whether we’re talking about donor-advised funds or foundations,” Middlestadt said. “There is still an unwillingness to fund groups that are more radical politically, groups that are doing direct action, groups that are taking really unpopular, radical stances.”

The Chinook Fund, Middlestadt noted, was one of the democratically organized nonprofits that existed within the Funding Exchange Network of social-justice-oriented donors who inherited wealth from their families. Like many others within the network, which dissolved in late 2018, the Chinook Fund espoused a “change not charity” outlook—one that’s echoed by the popular mutual aid rallying cry of “solidarity not charity.”

Much like today’s anti-police brutality and anti-incarceration efforts, whose foundations lie in the police and prison abolition movements, mutual aid has become a strange bedfellow within the philanthropic world in the past year. Middlestadt said that in many cases, more mainstream foundations have sought out their organization’s help in finding mutual aid networks to fund.

In early pandemic conference calls that sometimes included representatives from up to 100 foundations, Middlestadt said that some foundations asked the Chinook Fund for lists of groups they fund, introductions to those groups, and in some cases, even donated to the organization’s Another World is Possible rapid response fund to move money quickly to Colorado organizations in need.

“Right now, we’re seeing a moment because of COVID and because of the uprisings for Black lives that there are more mainstream foundations, community foundations, and even some private foundations that are recognizing the need for mutual aid because the government’s inactions or explicit exclusion of certain communities has just made it more clear who’s being impacted,” Middlestadt said.

“I think that it’s been harder for bigger foundations and even private foundations to ignore what communities are doing just to keep each other alive,” they said, citing undocumented immigrants left out of the CARES Act and businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) that didn’t receive adequate Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In spite of the growing mainstream interest in mutual aid funding, Middlestadt noted, there remain many barriers to philanthropy truly embracing these networks. They provided the example of Denver Homeless Out Loud, the only organization led by and for currently and formerly unhoused people in Denver, which some Colorado foundations have resisted funding due to the group’s politics.

Middlestadt said, “[Denver Homeless Out Loud has] been organizing more recently around stopping sweeps of local encampments, and there are so many funders that fund issues around homelessness in Colorado that will not even consider funding this organization, even though it’s the only constituent-led homeless organizing, and in some cases, service-providing group in our state, because they don’t like some of the stances that they’ve taken or they seem too controversial.”

While DHOL’s campaign to stop sweeps of homeless encampments has garnered support from local artists and organizations like the Chinook Fund and others in its milieu, the group’s messaging against Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver City Council has led some otherwise sympathetic groups to “hide behind bureaucracy,” Middlestadt said.

“That’s been a real challenge, because there are some other funders that do support them along with us that have really gone to bat and tried to organize different foundations to get behind this organization,” they said.

While larger foundations still have much to learn from mutual aid networks and funding practices, Middlestadt noted that organizations like the Chinook Fund have always operated within a similarly democratic framework. The fund leads by example in its approach to financials by having community members serve on its finance committee and help make decisions about how it manages its roughly $2 million endowment, which was raised in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s still a far cry from the norm in philanthropy, but one encouraging trend among foundations in recent years, which will perhaps be bolstered by the interest in mutual aid, is the concept of participatory grantmaking or other similarly democratized funding practices like those the Chinook Fund has embraced.

Middlestadt acknowledged that there’s a long way to go before mutual aid and philanthropy can truly coexist—and that the first step is to bring community members into their halls of wealth and hand them the keys to the coffers.