Microfinance for radicals

The Agape Foundation has proven that a little money can help grassroots organizations go a long way


In 1969, 11 antiwar protesters loced up at the Santa Rita County Jail began questioning each other about the future of the movement. By the time they were released, they'd decided that the creative nonviolent projects that were emerging would all need funding — and the Agape Foundation was born.

Agape, which celebrates its 40th anniversary Sept. 24, is not the only progressive foundation in San Francisco, and not the only source of money for small progressive groups. But it is, in many ways, the boldest, the one most willing to take risks on organizations that are new, small, and doing things far out on the political edge.

Nina Dessart, Agape's administrative director, says the group is "unusual for funding only social justice or change." And unlike other foundations that look for long track records, Agape funds startups. Indeed, an organization must be less than five years old to be eligible for Agape's funding options.

"We love to be the first ones [to give aid to an emerging cause,]" Dessart said. "It is hard to get grants to organizations without track records."

Some big, nationally prominent organizations also have benefited from Agape's money, including Amnesty International, the National Farm worker Ministry, and Bread and Roses.

Agape — the name comes from the Greek word for altruism — also prides itself on helping the likes of People's Grocery in West Oakland, a small operation that promotes food and health awareness in an economically depressed community.

And long before microloans became popular, the folks at Agape realized that a little money could go a long way. For example, the National Farmworkers Ministry "used [a] 1959 Plymouth station wagon [purchased with Agape funds] continuously until its demise in the autumn," according to Agape records. The group used the station wagon to bring food and relief to families whose families members had been jailed for picketing, to carry protesters to picket lines from jail, and to map out the picket lines.

Agape funds have supplied portable toilets for antinuclear protests. The group has been funding gay military counseling since 1972. That same year, Agape underwrote a four-day "consciousness raising" conference for ex-prisoners and their families. In 1975, Agape paid for the construction of the Trident Monster — a submarine-like sculpture used to raise awareness of nuclear weapons.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Agape gave money and support to antinuclear organizations such as the Honeywell Project and the Abalone Alliance — a time when groups that were constantly engaged in civil disobedience and defying federal and state authorities would have had trouble getting tax-exempt status.

Indeed, tax-status assistance has been one of Agape's most powerful tools — groups can use the foundation as a fiscal sponsor and not have to worry about wrangling with tax documents.

Women for Genuine Security, a Bay Area advocacy group, uses Agape to process contributions to "minimize administrative aspects of getting a tax-exempt status," coordinator Gwen Kirk told us.

Five years ago Agape broadened its focus from fundraising by starting an annual awards program to spotlight the people and groups that are creatively and actively working toward peace. Nicole Hsiang, an Agape board member, explains that around the initiation of the Iraq War, Agape started giving out peace awards "to the real heroes."

Last year the Agape Peace Prize went to Nancy Hernandez, youth program coordinator of H.O.M.E.Y. (Homies Organizing to Empower Mission Youth). Hernandez used the money from the prize to take rival Mission District gang members camping.

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