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Cash, Speed, and Trust

Lauren Smiley | August 24, 2017 | Story News and Features Politics National

This story originally appeared in the September issue of our sister magazine, San Francisco

Last spring,
a political organizer from Philadelphia named Bryan Mercer dialed into a videoconference. Mercer, who is black, is on the steering committee of a two-year-old nonprofit called 215 People’s Alliance. The half dozen individuals on the conference line were members of a national network of wealthy donors—most of them white and based in New York, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area—who had personal bank accounts that vastly outstripped his organization’s annual budget. Mercer hoped they would be 215’s lifelines.

Mercer had an urgent ask: He needed cash to help elect a reform-minded defense lawyer as Philadelphia’s next district attorney. Candidate Larry Krasner had defended every stripe of liberal protester over the years and sued the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times. His campaign to become the city’s top prosecutor was shaping up as a stress test of progressivism in the age of Trump, attracting a $1.45 million contribution from billionaire George Soros. However, that Soros money was headed toward a polished Krasner PAC; Mercer explained in the videoconference that his grassroots group needed its own funding pool for a separate canvassing operation—and, with the primary in just six weeks, it needed it immediately.

The listeners hung up and went to work, relaying Mercer’s pitch to their network of deep-pocketed donors, called Solidaire. Within a week, Mercer saw $19,000 flow into the alliance’s hands—nowhere near Soros levels of cash, but enough to pay six campaign coordinators $17 an hour to lead 200 volunteers to knock on 60,000 doors around Philadelphia. Come primary day on May 16, Krasner handily beat his closest rival, and he will run in the general election this November.

For the Solidaire network and its founder—a 34-year-old oil heiress and newcomer to San Francisco named Leah Hunt-Hendrix—the Krasner primary proved that relatively small amounts of money can have a big impact if given to an on-the-ground organization with deep local ties. Solidaire has 150 members across the country, many of them young inheritors of wealth like Hunt-Hendrix. But ever since Hunt-Hendrix moved west from New York in late 2015, the network has been buoyed by self-made Silicon Valley recruits, including Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger and his philanthropist wife, Kaitlyn Krieger; Google vice president of product Jonathan Alferness; and Color of Change cofounder and former tech entrepreneur James Rucker.

A major part of Solidaire’s mission is to rapidly—meaning within days or even hours—fund frontline organizers of the left. In a time when a vast majority of American philanthropy goes to elite universities, hospitals, and foundations (that is, entities that are already pretty rich), Solidaire instead funnels money to organizations that either have little access to capital or are deemed too risky and too radical by most philanthropists. Not coincidentally, many of these groups are led by women and minorities. Some of Solidaire’s earliest donations went to Black Lives Matter protesters in 2014 by paying for stages, amplifiers, and bus rentals. In the years since, the network’s giving has grown exponentially. Solidaire gave the anti-Trump resistance group Indivisible its first infusion of $8,000 in January, bankrolled “know your rights” immigrant workshops in Texas that same month, and gave $20,000 in December to help a Boston-area research group educate progressive organizers about the tactics of the alt-right.

In addition to the rapid-response work, Solidaire pools its money for the very unsexy costs of movement infrastructure—things like rent and salaries and plane tickets to conferences. The network has pledged $25 million over the next five years to the Movement for Black Lives, making it one of the civil rights cause’s biggest backers. “Solidaire is filling a niche by moving money quickly to the smallest, scrappiest groups at the edge of the movement,” says Aaron Dorfman, head of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a left-skewed philanthropic watchdog group. He sees Solidaire within a larger ecosystem of activist groups “pushing to win” against the Trump administration—from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood skirmishing in the nation’s courts and statehouses to women’s marchers taking the fight to the streets.

Hunt-Hendrix realizes that the left has been outgunned by conservative groups pouring billions into right-wing think tanks and down-ballot races. Her hope is to start a rear-guard action that will wrest back government control from the rightists. Solidaire has up to 20 overlapping members with the Democracy Alliance, Soros’s secretive national network of super-donors committed to giving at least $200,000 a year to liberal causes. But Solidaire skews younger, has a lower giving threshold at $50,000 a year (though many give much more), and is more inclined to heap money on true revolutionaries. “To be blunt,” says Farhad Ebrahimi, a Solidaire member who also serves on the Democracy Alliance’s board, Hunt-Hendrix’s group “is farther to the left.”

In an op-ed published in February by Politico, Hunt-Hendrix criticized the Democratic establishment for its caution and fealty to moneyed interests. Solidaire doesn’t just want Democratic wins, Hunt-Hendrix says. It wants “systemic change”—a radical restructuring of the economic system that Solidaire’s members have so richly benefited from. In this it shares a mindset with an earlier set of funders, the wealthy liberal donors of the Haymarket People’s Fund in Boston in the ’90s, who joked that their mission was nothing less than “class suicide.”

Hunt-Hendrix’s views put her at odds not only with unchecked capitalism, but also with some of the principal tenets of philanthropy itself. The two have long worked in lockstep, with one attempting to remediate the inequalities of the other: The father of American philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie, wrote in 1889 that the gap between rich and poor was an unavoidable by-product of capitalism. “It is a waste of time to criticise the inevitable,” he argued. Rather, the rich should act as benefactors of public works during their lifetimes (alms would only be wasted by the poor, Carnegie believed), while keeping the capitalist engine thrumming along.

To Hunt-Hendrix, anything other than challenging the root causes of inequality is the real “waste of time.” “We cannot do philanthropy with our left hand, while we perpetuate inequality with our right,” she has written. “The best philanthropy is the type that seeks to end the system that perpetually generates the need for philanthropy.”

But that kind of philanthropy requires divesting power—and the powerful don’t often do that willingly.

Maybe it was
inevitable that Hunt-Hendrix would land in San Francisco, given that she so neatly embodies those twin Bay Area pillars: progressive politics and cold, hard cash. Nevertheless, Hunt-Hendrix makes for an unlikely radical. She is the granddaughter of H.L. Hunt, the billionaire wildcatter of the East Texas oil fields, alleged inspiration for J.R. Ewing on Dallas, and among the country’s wealthiest individuals when he died in 1974, a few years before Leah was born. (The Hunts are now ranked by Forbes as the 16th-richest family in the country, with a net worth of $13.7 billion.) As befits a Texas oil baron, “Grandpopsie” Hunt was a staunch Republican donor, and the family name is written across all manner of bridges and towers in the Hunts’ Dallas motherland. (Hunt-Hendrix’s uncle still runs the privately held Hunt Oil Company, which boasts of drilling wells on every continent but Antarctica.) Yet Leah’s politics turned out very differently from her grandfather’s. “I probably disagree with his opinions, but I admire his ambition,” she says delicately.

To be clear, the amounts Hunt-Hendrix deals in are relatively tiny in the world of philanthropy. The Solidaire network distributed $2.2 million in grants last year—a pittance compared with the $3 billion Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are giving to eradicate all disease in the next century, or with the high hundreds of millions handed out each year by the country’s top foundations. Yet the groups that Solidaire targets would likely be deemed too early-stage or simply too controversial to receive major-foundation grants. Plus, their asks are often more fleeting and urgent: When you need $5,000 to spring a protest leader from jail, you can’t wait for the end-of-quarter fundraising cycle. For funders, these organizations are “at least a triple play” for your philanthropic dollar, says Solidaire member Billy Wimsatt, better known for creating the League of Young Voters. “Your donation will make a big difference instead of being a drop in the bucket.”

Still, Solidaire has shown an ability to act like a major foundation—or at least to throw a star-studded gala like one. On January 20, Trump’s inauguration night, Hunt-Hendrix and two other Solidaire networkers lured 500 members of the Bay Area elite—including Gavin Newsom, Willie Brown, Mimi Haas, Tom Steyer, and Twitter cofounder Ev Williams—to a “Take Back the Ball” fundraiser at Bimbo’s 365 Club, with decorations designed by Stanley Gatti and a DJ set by Biz Markie. “We knew there was going to be a lot of pathos,” says Kaitlyn Krieger, one of the evening’s co-organizers. Their goal was to “convert some of that oppression that we ourselves were feeling into a more proactive, helpful posture.”

The night raked in more than $500,000 for rapid-response funds that would funnel money to activists opposing Trump’s agenda and defending people affected by it. Vanessa Daniel of Oakland’s Groundswell Fund, which invests in small groups run by women of color, took the stage at Bimbo’s for a rabble-rousing speech that ended with a climactic call to arms: “As we prepare to face the dual-headed monster of white supremacy and misogyny,” she intoned, “women of color…actually have something to teach America in this moment about how to fight!”

The sentiment that activists have something to teach the donor class is one that’s been woven into Solidaire’s philosophy: to check not just your privilege at the door, but also your ideas about how to run a revolution. Membership in Solidaire requires some amount of blind trust—trust that beneficiaries know better than benefactors how best to help their communities. For that reason, Solidaire donations come with few strings attached: The group asks for a mere paragraph from each potential recipient and doesn’t require groups to demonstrate measurable outcomes afterward. That sets Solidaire apart from much of the philanthropy flowing through the Bay Area, especially from technocratic organizations like Daniel Lurie’s Tipping Point or Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz’s Good Ventures, both of which lean heavily on data-driven performance models. Hunt-Hendrix doesn’t fault these groups’ strategies (and Lurie himself was in attendance at the Bimbo’s fundraiser), but she maintains a belief in the intangible over the empirical. “There are a lot of unmeasurable things about how change happens,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, this approach to giving has its challenges. “They must know as I do what an enormous challenge they’re up against,” says Susan Ostrander, a retired Tufts University professor who wrote a book about the Haymarket People’s Fund. “And so that makes it all the more important to be absolutely strategic and focused and clear about who you’re funding, why you’re funding, and how do you know if they’re doing really good work.”

Hunt-Hendrix says that her members are not na├»ve about their grantees’ intentions, but, unlike many other rich donors, they have an appetite for disruption. Solidaire dollars have gone to crashing a Trump fundraiser in New York City, a sit-in of a Minneapolis police precinct, and the massive Ferguson demonstrations. At least one member donated $500 to bail out members of Black Seed, a “black queer liberation collective,” who chained themselves to the Bay Bridge in January 2016. Solidaire picks groups that share a general regard for nonviolence, “but we don’t dictate tactics,” Hunt-Hendrix says.

That’s not to say they’re completely hands-off. Many members boast years of experience in activism themselves—they believe, rightly, that they have wisdom to impart. The group invites some former grant recipients to participate on its grant-making committee and in its listserv discussions, the primary way that funding drives get started and spread through the Solidaire network. All of this, Hunt-Hendrix contends, ensures that Solidaire money is going to groups that are both legitimate and effectual.

Still, part of the strategy is to fund experiments, which, by definition, don’t always work out. Wimsatt told me that he looks at the group’s portfolio as a “venture philanthropist” might. Ten investments may flop, but one might be the next unicorn of change.

A month after
the inauguration, Hunt-Hendrix hustled into Project Juice in the Castro wearing her customary Texas cowboy boots. She said she’d been slammed with triaging funding requests and hadn’t been able to eat much the past few days. She paid $9.25 for a bottled juice infusion and sat down to talk about her curious role in the resistance. “A lot of people with wealth want to have a unique contribution,” she said. “They want to feel like they’re bringing not just money, but ideas and substance. I actually think that’s something to kind of resist.”

Hunt-Hendrix’s path to this notion resembles that of her mother, Helen LaKelly Hunt. “I was raised in an oil family, in an era when women in the family business were not told about the money,” Hunt says over the phone from Manhattan, where she keeps a townhouse. “We weren’t supposed to worry our pretty little heads about the company.” She and her sister learned the specifics of their father’s wealth from reading Forbes. Hunt disagreed with the way her first husband handled her finances, and after divorcing him in her late 20s, she says, “I woke up and said, ‘I have to figure out what to do about money.’”

After getting remarried—to Leah’s father, Harville Hendrix, a relationship therapist with whom Hunt would write bestselling self-help books—Hunt cofounded the New York Women’s Foundation in 1987, one of many efforts she’s undertaken to rally financial support for the women’s movement. Leah and her five siblings grew up in two cultures: listening to Anita Hill and Gloria Steinem speak at salons convened in their family’s Fifth Avenue home, then spending summers in Dallas at their grandparents’ white-colonnaded estate, Mount Vernon. Her first pangs of class consciousness struck when her mother moved to New Mexico, where some of her junior high classmates didn’t have running water.

Heading back to Manhattan for high school (she attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, where she was “friendly” with Nicky Hilton), she started to look askance at the Upper East Side charity galas, observing that the elite didn’t seem so much empowered by their money as enslaved to appearing ever richer. “Charity” was aimed at being a palliative to the poor, who remained poor. It didn’t give the poor more power to change their station in life or shake up the social order, in which the donors sat comfortably at the top.

Turned off, Hunt-Hendrix set off to study politics at Duke and then went on to a PhD program at Princeton, where Cornel West was one of her advisers. Studying in the Middle East during grad school, Hunt-Hendrix was invigorated by the weekly Palestinian protests of the West Bank wall from 2006 to 2009. “That’s when she changed,” Hunt recalls. “That’s when Leah saw what could happen when people rose up.” (At the same time, Hunt was herself growing more radicalized: She was arrested for the first time in her life, on the lawn of the Bush White House, in a 2008 Iraq war protest.)

Back in New York, Hunt-Hendrix launched into writing her dissertation on solidarity movements, starting in 19th-century France and ending with the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests going on just a few miles away. She’d take breaks to participate in “field research,” riding the subway from her Brooklyn apartment to Zuccotti Park, where she’d hoist banners and recite slogans. Her regular phone calls with her mom were filled with talk of a “new economy.” “She taught me about upstream prevention,” Hunt says. “If we can fix the economy, so much else gets fixed.”

Fellow protesters had no idea Hunt-Hendrix was an oil scion until Salon wrote a profile on “Occupy’s Heiress.” Thereafter, activist friends would invite her to drinks, only to besiege her with requests for causes they wanted her to bankroll. “I felt treated like an ATM, and I got really angry about it for a while,” she says. “I made a boundary at one point: I’m like, ‘If you want to talk to me about money, let’s set up a meeting between nine and five. Otherwise, let’s just get a drink.’”

Over wine on a Brooklyn hillside in late 2013, she talked with Jee Kim, a fundraiser with the Ford Foundation, about forming a group of wealthy people funding frontline social movements. She began to meet for dinners with friends like Wimsatt and Ebrahimi, who inherited tech wealth as a teen from his father and wore a T-shirt to Occupy that read, “I am the 1%…I stand with the 99%.” They sometimes met in Hunt’s townhouse, setting the bylaws of the new donor network.

Each member would pay dues of $10,000 a year, which would be pooled and granted to groups rallying for racial or economic justice. They would be connected via an email listserv, where members and activists could share urgent asks for rapid-response funds. Members would disclose how much they’d be donating for all in the listserv to see, then send money to recipients via check or online payment. The result was that deep-pocketed donors would be able to find and fund small groups that didn’t have an established fundraising arm. Solidaire member David Keller, a Bay Area venture capitalist, says he’d like a mutual-fund approach to giving—“a set of products” for those who want to give to a spectrum of grassroots organizations—and Solidaire is “a step in the right direction.”

For Hunt-Hendrix, the dynamic felt right—akin to the handful of white family foundations that helped bankroll the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Maybe a white woman with an oil fortune wasn’t the best person to tell black women from Oakland how to protest, but she certainly could provide ideas about “how to organize more money,” she says. “That’s our appropriate role as donors: to get engaged in moving more resources. If you want to talk about strategy and stuff, that’s fine, but it’s not a helicoptering in and using money as a way to get your idea implemented.”

“She knows her lane,” says Lateefah Simon, the recently elected BART director who sits on the board of Solidaire’s Emergent Fund, which launched postelection to fight the Trump agenda. “She says I’m going to get millions of dollars from people who believe in justice.”

While Hunt-Hendrix is clear that distributing money is Solidaire’s central purpose, she still recoils at the thought of becoming a de facto cash machine for activists. Solar energy entrepreneur Richard Graves, a D.C.-based member, believes the network is “built on rock-solid relationships—not transactions.” This harks back to the reason Hunt-Hendrix named the network Solidaire in the first place—she wants to be in solidarity with the movement, not merely a patron of it.

In late 2015, Hunt-Hendrix, now Solidaire’s executive director, made good on a long-held desire to move to San Francisco. Soon her circle of wealthy progressive allies expanded to include tech scions like Caitlin Heising, daughter of the microchip entrepreneur Mark Heising and a board member of the Los Altos–based Heising-Simons Foundation, who felt that Hunt-Hendrix offered her not only an outlet for giving but an expiation of liberal guilt. The economic system that has enriched families like hers “can be really uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s easier not to think about it,” Heising says. Membership in Solidaire assures that they have to think about it—hard.

Hunt-Hendrix prescribes Solidaire’s members a reading list, including books on nonviolent protest, mass incarceration, and philanthropy’s damage to radical social movements (the theory being that, over time, movements often professionalize, diluting their radical ambitions). “Part of what’s interesting about Solidaire,” says Stanford political science professor Rob Reich, author of a recent book about the morality of philanthropy, is its execution of a model “where philanthropic funding doesn’t diminish the politically radical, and doesn’t seek to impose standards of the philanthropic class on the recipient.”

Indeed, Solidaire members seem to grow even more radicalized by their affiliation with the group. Speaking to members, it’s common to hear them using the jargon of social movements, talking of being “in community” with grantees. One member keeps a blog advising white men on how to fight white male supremacy. Members host salons in Bay Area houses, at which an organizer educates the network about a cause—say, bail reform or countering voter suppression laws. “Some Solidaire members,” says Wimsatt, “are living, breathing, and organizing every day as much as the people who they’re writing checks to.”

Undergirding all of this is a simple principle: Money is power. But rapidly accessed money is most powerful of all.

The philanthropic system
is a lot like every other economic system in this country: dominated by a tiny elite. Nonprofit directors live in thrall to grant deadlines, writing multipage applications for projects that must meet the narrow criteria set by a funding institution, nearly two-thirds of whose board members happen to be white men. “Would we fund Harriet Tubman now?” Simon, who is also the head of Oakland’s Akonadi Foundation, asked onstage at a philanthropy conference this spring. “Absolutely not. Especially if she had a little organization in West Oakland and no one had an education. We would fund the group across the street where they talk about their fund-based work in glossy, beautiful folders.”

In fact, social and economic justice groups of the sort Solidaire supports receive only about 10 percent of all foundation money, according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Other reports indicate that less than 2 percent of all philanthropy goes to black-led organizations. Adds Solidaire member Graves: “A lot of foundations don’t want to fund anything risky, which is insane. You’re giving the money away! You don’t get anything back on it! A lot of program officers don’t want to mess up because the board will have their head: It’s a world in which propriety runs everything.”

Trump’s election marked a turning point in the fusty sector, with some big institutions finally getting more overtly political in their grant making. The San Francisco Foundation put together a rapid-response fund with a 30-day turnaround for groups seeking to train people threatened by the Muslim ban. The California Endowment launched a $25 million fund to protect health and safety programs because of Trump’s threats to the Affordable Care Act. The Menlo Park–based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation pledged $63 million toward work on climate change, reproductive rights, and democracy.

Solidaire changed tack, too, ramping up its spending and giving more to political organizations in swing states like Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas, including to a group attempting to mobilize minority voters to turn the Lone Star State blue, a notion that would have made Grandpopsie Hunt cringe.

Malkia Cyril, the head of the Center for Media Justice in Oakland, made her first ask to Solidaire’s email listserv in January. To evade government surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests, Cyril needed money to host digital security seminars for activists of color in eight cities. The pitch spoke to many of Solidaire’s tech-minded givers, and Cyril watched as commitments of anything from $3,000 to $10,000 rolled in over the next 24 hours. Checks arrived at her organization’s door soon after—more than $40,000 in all—for renting space, buying food, paying trainers, producing a curriculum, and building a website to disseminate the information to organizers everywhere.

Back in the ’60s, Cyril’s Black Panther mother would have been hard-pressed to access that kind of money so quickly from a group of donors. “It was thoughtful, it was nimble,” Cyril says. “And it’s exactly what we needed at that time: to be able to move.”

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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