The Philanthropy Journal A News & Observer Co. Publication

Tie-dyed charity

Grateful Dead funds writing program

The founders of VOICES, a Raleigh-based program that teaches creative writing to people in homeless shelters, housing projects and prisons, say they will use a $7,500 grant from the Rex Foundation in California to help secure future funding.

Barbara Solow

That's how members of the Grateful Dead rock band refer to the no-strings grantmaking program of a foundation they established in California a decade ago.

Krawiec, who directs a nonprofit writing network based in Raleigh, saw an article about the band's Rex Foundation in The New York Times this past summer and decided to "apply" for funding.

The process involved a phone call and follow-up letters to one of the foundation's "Circle of Deciders," who make nominations for the 60 to 100 grants Rex awards each year.

Last month, Krawiec got official word that VOICES will receive $7,500 from the Rex Foundation, which is named for a former Grateful Dead roadie and gets its money from benefit concerts the band performs throughout the U.S. each year.

"It was kind of a kick," he says. "This is just the type of grants organization we need."

Rex is unusual in that is has no endowment, no formal fundraising campaigns and no paid staff.

A taped message on the foundation's answering machine informs grantseekers that "virtually all our grants are made through the personal decisions of our grantmakers...Consideration of your request could take as long as a year. Please be patient, and good luck."

Bernie Bildman, the Rex "decider" whom Krawiec contacted over the summer, says the foundation's $4.5 million grantmaking umbrella has covered a wide variety of issues and organizations over the past 10 years.

"We've supported everything from a local church feeding homeless people to ACLU groups in California," says Bildman, an oral surgeon from Birmingham, Ala., who describes himself as an "acquaintance" of the band.

"Sometimes I'll call people when I hear about interesting programs. For me personally, it's got to be a fairly low-budget thing. If it's being funded elsewhere, I'm not that interested."

Bildman says he was impressed by the work that VOICES is doing, sponsoring creative writing workshops for people in homeless shelters, churches, schools and prisons across North Carolina.

"I liked what I read about the program," he says. "Their budget was $25,000 to $30,000 at the most, so the $7,500 we gave would have a fairly big impact."

Krawiec says VOICES will likely use the Rex money for fundraising appeals and hiring a part-time grantwriter to help generate future support for teaching and publishing activities.

Since it was founded in 1992, the nonprofit has set up writing programs in Orange, Forsyth and Guilford counties and is in the process of establishing networks in Brunswick and Macon counties.

The unconditional nature of the Rex grant is just the right fit for the loosely-organized VOICES program, Krawiec says.

"We're not an organization. We're structured like a community and that's one of the things that argues against us in traditional grantmaking circles."

Nevertheless, the nonprofit has managed to attract support from the Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations - both in Winston-Salem - as well as organizations such as the Junior League and the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh.

The grant from the Catholic Diocese is supporting a new VOICES program to teach writing to homeless North Carolinians. The program will train six homeless volunteers to hold writing classes in shelters, halfway houses and other sites.

The last time Krawiec saw the Dead perform was in 1968 in Boston at a club called the Psychedelic Supermarket.

"I'm not a diehard fan," he quips. "But I do like their early stuff."

For information on VOICES, call (919) 836-9500.

For information on the Rex Foundation, write PO Box 2204, San Anselmo, CA, 94960 or call (415) 457-3032.