Are You Kind? The Grateful Dead's Philanthropic Legacy

When I was 11 years old, I decided to save the world's rainforests. It was a peculiar decision for me -- I didn't have an activist bone in my preteen body and had never taken a passionate social stance on anything in my life. I had little knowledge of the rainforests except for learning about endangered species once during an environmental unit in the fourth grade. When forced to watch socially conscious documentaries in school, I was often bored and daydreamed about what I would do after last period. I had no attention span to speak of and committing myself to a cause -- before they were generally called causes -- was highly suspect. But I began to care about the rainforests, and I did so for one reason: because Jerry Garcia said it was important and I listened to him.

Sometime earlier, the Grateful Dead had taken part in a rainforest benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. During the show's press conference, I, like any child-Deadhead, locked my eyes on Jerry Garcia - transfixed by how quickly he could shift between playfulness and severity in his comments. What began with a room full of reporters chuckling after Garcia casually opened the conversation saying, "Someone has to do something. It seems incredible -- in fact, it seems pathetic -- that it has to be us," ended in a much more serious tone. When the laughter subsided, Garcia continued: "We've never really called on our fans, the Deadheads, to align themselves one way or another as far as any particular cause is concerned because of a basic paranoia about leading [them] somewhere when we don't want to be the leaders. But, this we feel is an issue that is strong enough and life-threatening enough. Inside the world of human games -- where people regularly torture each other and overthrow countries and there is a lot of murder and hate -- there's the larger question of global survival. We want to see the world survive to play those games, even if they are atrocious."

So, there it was: the Grateful Dead had once called on their fans to take some sort of social stand, and it was hardly a passionate rally cry. What it was, however, was a logical assertion to preserve the earth because humanity might not be perfect, but it is our universal existence and even with its flaws, we claim it as our own. The result of that press conference and benefit show was over a half a million dollars raised for preserving the rainforests and an increased national, if not international, public awareness. But for an impressionable eleven year old, the result was much more personal. I learned that sometimes the most effective way to engage people is to not force their hands, but to disarmingly present them with a reasonable position and let them make up their minds for themselves.

During this 50th anniversary year of the Grateful Dead, much has been written about the band's musical and cultural influence -- about their Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago and Santa Clara and about the Dead & Company tour with John Mayer this fall. There is little doubt that the musical and cultural legacy of the Grateful Dead is still highly relevant fifty years after the band formed and twenty years after Jerry Garcia's passing. But as we celebrate the music (again), let's also remember the Grateful Dead's social legacy and the ways they influenced our sense of place and responsibility in the world.

For years, it has been common philanthropic practice for organizations or businesses to align themselves with a cause that resonates with their customers -- or audiences. The reasoning is simple: no single entity has enough money to solve all of the world's problems, so choose a social issue that aligns with your organization's brand or message and invest in that. But how could a band that consciously stood for fluidity and was defined best by its inability to be defined at all, choose any consistent area to focus its philanthropic giving? And, likewise, how could a band that successfully achieved the rare paradox of creating a subculture equally rooted in communal coexistence with libertarian individualism effectively inform philanthropy to any specific subsection of society?

The answer was for the Grateful Dead to approach philanthropy in the same way they had approached everything else: try not to control it, try not to define it, but always allow for enough flexibility to adapt to the possibilities and needs of a perpetually changing world. It is no wonder that when the Grateful Dead established the Rex Foundation in 1983 to proactively guide their philanthropic giving, they formalized an approach to community engagement that extended from the primary ideals of the 1960s. That is, to be good stewards of humanity while leveraging the influence and resources of their own community to do so.

To date, the Rex Foundation has awarded 1,300 grants and reinvested nearly $10 million into communities across the globe. The areas of funding are as varied as Grateful Dead set lists night after night. In the Foundation's words, they are: preserving healthy environments, promoting individuality in the arts, supporting social services, assisting the less fortunate, protecting the rights of indigenous people and ensuring their cultural survival, building stronger communities, and educating children and adults everywhere. Everywhere has ranged from the Afghan Institute of Learning and the Tibet Child Nutrition and Collaborative Health Project to the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls and the San Francisco Mime Troupe Youth Theatre Project. Yet, as diverse as these organizations may seem, they are connected by the people - the thousands of supporters - who have contributed to the Foundation for the past thirty years and who have been a continuous reflection of not only Deadheads, but of the various communities the Grateful Dead has touched.

In what may be best described today as "philanthropic improvisation," the Rex Foundation tapped the same amorphous freedom of the Grateful Dead's music and blended it with a philanthropic philosophy that is neither stagnant nor tied to any particular place, time or cause. Instead, it has assumed an organic philanthropic approach that allows for grantmaking to reflect the necessary evolution of social change. As a result, the Rex Foundation has accomplished what the most sophisticated foundations strive to do, but few succeed at: staying relevant to the fluctuating needs of society while remaining true to the original intentions of its social commitments and of the community it represents.

It's been a long time since I thought about saving the rainforests. Somewhere along the road to adulthood, I left that particular cause to the environmental experts and found other issues to adopt as my own. And while the causes may have changed, the motivation behind supporting them never did - it's all been part of wanting to "see the world survive." And, maybe that is the everlasting social legacy of the Grateful Dead: to live life as you may, but to be kind to one another along the way.

Author's note: when not writing and blogging about music, Joanna Colangelo works in Philanthropic Services as the Grants and Community Outreach Advisor for the Albuquerque Community Foundation in New Mexico.