Chris Talbott, Cause Effect Agency’s Founder, recently had a chat with renowned food activist and Small Planet Fund co-founder Anna Lappé. Small Planet Fund provides grants to grassroots organizations that offer effective solutions to hunger and poverty.
In the interview, Anna offers expert advice and insight on how her organization decides to award grant money, how celebrity can make a difference for fundraising, and why the Small Planet Fund holiday party is the place to be, among other topics.
If you are in New York City on December 5th, be sure to check out the Small Planet Fund’s 11th annual fundraiser honoring the Rainforest Action Network.
CEA: What is your criteria for choosing an effective organization to support through the Small Planet Fund?
We look for organizations that are really going to address the root causes of hunger and poverty, and the root causes of lack of sustainability in the environment and food system. Part of what makes us unique is almost all groups we support with grants are groups that I personally know quite well, and know how they operate. I’m familiar with their finances and know that they work on very lean budgets. We tend to fund organizations at a starter phase that are not able to secure a grant from a more traditional foundation, but they are doing super creative work that we believe in. We can jump in and support them because of our small and nimble nature.
CEA: What attracts your interest beyond the mission statement of ending hunger and poverty with sustainable solutions? Are there certain things you’ve noticed about the groups you tend to work with?
I think the one common denominator is that the organizations and the people working in them tend to be system thinkers that are always keeping the big picture in mind.
I’ll give you an example, we funded a group called Real Food Challenge. It’s an organization that is working with college students to embolden them to put pressure on universities to purchase more sustainable food through campus dining. So it’s a really specific goal to change food service on college campuses with a really specific audience. But their vision is a systems vision. It’s looking at and understanding how broken our food system is, how it leaves so many people hungry, how it impacts the environment, how it causes all kinds of animal welfare abuses. It understands that big system but it is working at this one really specific leverage point for change. The college food service sector spends about 8 billion dollars a year buying food and if students can help colleges make more sustainable decisions that has a really, really huge ripple effect.
CEA: You’re an organization with celebrity built in, you and your mother Frances Moore Lappé. Do you find that celebrity is an important tool for how you build your brand and make people aware of what you do?
Yes. How does the average person know where it makes the most sense to give? I feel like celebrity, whether Hollywood celebrity or thought leader celebrity, is one of the most effective ways to communicate that. These are people who have done their homework, they have worked hard to evaluate which groups they want to lend their name, face and voice to and they’re doing that not just randomly, but because that’s the organization they want to stand behind and they really believe in it. It’s an endorsement of an organization that is so powerful. I know I don’t have the time to vet every single organization out there that I might want to support, and I rely on many other people, whether they are Hollywood celebrities or thought leaders, to help me navigate that landscape of what other groups I should be supporting in addition to those that I know intimately through my own work.
CEA: Do you have any ideas for people looking for effective charities to support, but don’t know where to begin?
Well, firstly, you can think of donating to Small Planet Fund, or organizations like us, because we are a vehicle for people who don’t know which organization to trust and we are making really smart decisions on their behalf and with their dollars. The other thing you can do is look at online resources that help you learn about a charity and vet its legitimacy. Websites like GuideStar have resources for people who want to understand and dig into a charity.
CEA: I think that’s a good way to start. I use Charity Navigator too. But it might not be very fair to a small grassroots organization that’s going to have a rocky few years when they start out. You can look really bad by that kind of generic rating they give you, but if you look into it a little deeper you might think “well this organization deserves a chance to get on its feet.”
That’s a great point. I think one of the ways the system is sort of rigged against the smaller organizations is that big charities, a lot of them do great work, but it also means they have big budgets, they have whole teams helping to tell their story whether it’s through their marketing or through their outreach. So we hear about these really big organizations more than we do about the small ones. That’s why I feel like Small Planet Fund fills this really specific need in the funding landscape of funders that are going to support smaller organizations and not just, you know, Greenpeace, which I love and I donate money to. We often need to be supporting these smaller grassroots organizations.
CEA: I’ve gone to your Small Planet Fund gala for the last 10 or 11 years, its always one of the best parties of the year. What do you think makes this particular event special?
I think what makes it special, without sounding like a cliché, is the people. What’s great about the event is that it really does feel like a fun party and not just an obligation that you check off your list that you did something good. It’s a fundraiser for great organizations and so many of the people in the room are doing really interesting and great work and are a kind of embodiment of the grant making that we do. Multiple relationships and job offers have come from it, it’s great networking.
The space also helps, it’s a wonderful and warm private loft in Soho, so it’s not a corporate feel or stale sit down dinner. My dear friend Mary Cleaver who is one of the city’s leading sustainable food chefs [The Cleaver Co. and The Green Table in Chelsea Market] contributes delicious locally-sourced wine and food every year, and she is incredibly generous to us.