Erika Hess showed up at Voltage Coffee & Art in Kendall Square last spring with an idea: she wanted to combine art and activism to teach people about urban gardening.
But first, she needed funding.
Unlike most artists and community organizers looking for grants in an increasingly bleak financial landscape, Hess didn't spend weeks drafting a proposal, and she didn't wait months to hear the outcome. Instead, she came to Feast Mass, where she and other artists outlined their ideas to like-minded creative types over a veg-friendly meal donated by local farmers. At the end of the evening, the guests voted on which project to fund. Hess was the winner, and walked away with a micro-grant of $600, raised entirely from the dinner's $10-per-plate tickets.
This is the new face of philanthropy: local, direct, and community-oriented.
"The old concept of philanthropy is that you have to be old and fabulously wealthy to participate," says Christina Xu, a trustee of a micro-granting group called the Awesome Foundation for Arts and Sciences.
"And you have to have a certain type of degree, a certain salary," adds another Awesome Foundation trustee, Kara Brickman. "I don't really like the word 'philanthropy'. I think it brings with it a certain connotation of these cocktail parties where you have to spend three hundred dollars on a dress. . . . I like the sort of hack on philanthropy, switching it and making it more accessible."
Boston-based groups like Feast Mass, the Awesome Foundation, and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education's CSArt program aim to make community-sourced funding more democratic and accessible. In a cash-strapped economy where arts funding has been deprioritized, such solutions have been particularly valuable.
"There are definitely less funds available now than there were five years ago," says Miguel de Braganca, 25, co-founder of Yes.Oui.Si gallery in Mission Hill, citing the closing of Meme Gallery and the South End's Mobius.
But de Braganca also points out the prevalence of online micro-granting sources, like Kickstarter. "This is the age of crowd-sourcing," says de Braganca. "Crowd-funding is happening across all industries."
FEAST YOUR EYES
Just as the food served at Feast Mass comes from local farms, rather than unsustainable agribusinesses, its grants represent an alternative to handouts from big corporations or the government.
"The whole funding aspect of Feast is completely transparent, and self-contained, so all of the money that's used is the money that comes through the door that night," says Alexander Hage, a 26-year-old graphic designer who co-organizes the dinner/grant program. "And that's also where it differs from large-scale national grants, where it sort of comes from all of these sources and is dependent on the state of the economy and private donors and all of these other things."
Feast Mass has hosted five grant dinners since May 2010, inspired by similar initiatives like FEAST Brooklyn and InCUBATE Chicago's Sunday Soup — along with dozens of others springing up worldwide. The Sunday Soup Network, for example, loosely organizes 46 such groups from as far abroad as Italy and Egypt, and estimates that a total of $46,097 has been raised by these meals in the past four years.