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Innovation is as important in philanthropic work as it is in business, technology or any other area of endeavor. I’m always interested in new and thoughtful approaches to old problems, so I want to tell you about the ongoing evolution of Social Justice Fund Northwest, which is focused on bringing people together to work on the root causes of problems.

It’s been around since 1978 and operated mostly like many other philanthropies — members would contribute money, which the group would parcel out to grant applicants. But its methods changed in 2010.

Since the change, the fund has doubled its grant making and quintupled its membership while making its process more democratic.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Jessan Hutchison-Quillian, a Google engineer who donates 40 percent of his pay with an emphasis on social-justice causes. He’s on the board of the fund and his involvement piqued my interest. I asked the fund’s development director, Estevan Munoz-Howard, to tell me about its evolution.

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Munoz-Howard has a degree in political theory from the University of Puget Sound (2004) and a nonprofit management certificate from the University of Washington. He joined the fund in 2011 after stints at two small nonprofits.

In 2008 and 2009, the fund, like lots of organizations, was being squeezed by the Great Recession and, on top of that, it was in the midst of a leadership transition and two large multiyear grants were about to expire. It was in the kind of bind that focuses the attention.

In an effort to attract new members, the fund created what was intended to be a one-time program it called the Next Generation Giving Project, in which a group of people would come together, decide what to fund and come up with the money themselves.

Eighteen people all under 40 came together with the goal of raising $50,000 for their project. They raised $135,000 in six months.

A new model was born, and it wasn’t just about the money. The new folks were a diverse group and each brought his or her network into the process, creating a larger community and more grass-roots involvement.

Last year, there were nine projects, Munoz-Howard said, and this year there are eight.

Each project is dedicated to giving in a particular area, which this year includes gender justice, environmental justice and a Montana giving project. (The fund operates in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.)

People sign on for a specific project and commit to about nine meetings over the life of the project, which tends to be about six months. They commit to donate to the fund for that project, whether they can afford $150 or $2,000. Each project has about 20 people across age and income levels.

The fund gives them training on social issues and in the skills they’ll need, such as how to read and grade grant applications. And staff members attend project meetings to help the process along.

The members of each group go out in their communities and raise money. Typically they’ll have $60,000 to $140,000 to grant; by the end, they will have formed new networks and, in the best case, have a strong commitment to future community-improvement work.

There are some other approaches that set the fund apart from many philanthropies.

Munoz-Howard said, “We fund general operating support for organizations” and trust them to use the money wisely, “and we fund community organizing.” They also pick organizations run by the people who are most affected by an issue or problem, as long as the work is aimed at addressing root causes.

He said that for instance, feeding homeless people is important, “but that’s not going to solve the problem of homelessness. We also need to organize communities around systemic policy changes so that we can eradicate the problem.”

Munoz-Howard said his staff’s vision is for communities to become so connected that eventually there would be no need for the fund.

I like that vision, and I like that the projects involve a broad spectrum of people, all of whom have a say in identifying problems and solutions. That’s critical for an organization that focuses on root causes in matters of social justice.

The fund shares some of its approaches with other organizations, but its mix is unusual.

I’m eager to see what fruit that mix yields in coming years.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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