Sloup's on: Microfunding organization will benefit from self help at upcoming session
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The process is simple: Donate $10; enjoy a bowl of soup while you listen to local artists and organizers present their ideas; vote on the ideas you like best in a weighted fashion. The group that receives the highest total wins all that was donated at the door.
That’s how a Sloup works.
Sloup, a monthly microfunding event that’s been doling out soup and small grants since 2010, will hold its next installment on Dec. 8. That evening, however, will deviate slightly from the formula just described. Unlike the 40 Sloups that have preceded it, the next gathering’s winner has already been determined: Sloup itself.
For the first time in its brief but ebullient history, the group will be raising money for itself with Condensed Sloup, to be held at Climb So iLL Gym (1419 Carroll St.) from 6-8 p.m. The voting may be lacking, but there will still be the suggested $10 donation, food from Mission Taco, and presentations from past winners and participants about their experiences with Sloup.
ZoëScharf and Tara Pham, who, along with Karen Mandelbaum, serve as Sloup’s co-organizers, agree that it’s time to raise their own funds. The group prides itself on giving all of the money it raises at a each event to the winning idea, which means the group relies almost entirely on the venues that host it and the organizations that donate soup. The money raised at Condensed Sloup will help defray the small expenses that accrue every month from buying such items as napkins.
“We’re able to sustain this through the generosity of St. Louis businesses, because they’re the ones who are donating all the hard cost input,” Pham said. “We just end up absorbing a lot of little costs along the way.”
While Sloup has regular funding – a monthly $75 donation from Nebula Coworking Space (“a huge supporter,” Scharf said) -- the organizers saw in the winter lull an opportunity to acquire a more sustainable nest egg. Pham and Scharf said that last year’s November and December events were poorly attended because of the holiday frenzy, so they decided to combine the two Sloups into one fundraiser.
“By combining them, we’re already doing something different,” Scharf said. “We figured it might be good time to finally get out of the red and finally make a little bit of money for … Sloup itself.”
When Maggie Ginestra and Amelia Colette Jones, two Washington University students, started Sloup, they inserted St. Louis into an international network of meal-centric microfunding events. According to sundaysoup.org, so-called Sunday Soups can be found in places as far-flung as Japan, Ukraine and Australia.
Sloup #34 took place at Lab1500 in April.
Credit Provided by Zoe Scarf | 2013
Ginestra eventually departed St. Louis, leaving Colette Jones to manage the young fundraising series alone. Scharf and Pham, who both attended Wash U., had been regular Sloup attendees and knew Ginestra and Jones through various channels (Colette Jones was once a teaching assistant for a course Scharf took). The change in managers took place in the summer of 2012.
“It was a rocky start,” Pham said.
The new organizers soon got the hang of running Sloup, however, and they are quick to credit their success to the volunteers who show up each month.
“Everyone feels a slight amount of ownership over Sloup,” Scharf said. “I don’t think that we can comfortably say that the three of us put it on anymore, because we have these volunteers that are so well acquainted with the event now.” She added that attendees now often bring food to share beyond the ever-present soup. At last month’s event, for instance, regular attendee (and Sloup #32 winner) William Pauley unexpectedly brought gourmet turkey legs.
According to Pham and Scharf, Sloup tends to attract between 40 and 140 people each month. At $10 a head, the winner can expect to take home between $400 and $1,400 — significant prize for the type of small, creative projects Sloup seeks to fund. Winners include the St. Louis Mural Project and poet Henry Goldkamp’s “What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking?” project, which attracted attention from such outlets as National Public Radio and Time magazine.
Help from Sloup
The leading vote getter isn’t the only one to benefit from Sloup, however. Presenters who don’t take home the pot may find a sympathetic audience for their proposal.
“We’ve seen people who haven’t actually won the technical money before who have, by presenting their idea, gotten the right people to speak to them afterward,” Scharf said. Pham pointed to Zach Swanson, creator of This Must Be The Place, a pop-up art show, as an example of this. Swanson didn’t win the money when he presented at Sloup #36, but he did meet Justin Strohm, who buys and sells the kinds of vacated buildings Swanson wanted to use for staging his shows.
“Only one idea gets money every month, but every idea gets a moment to share what they are doing, why it’s important, and how each attendee can help,” Mandelbaum wrote in an e-mail.
Pham and Scharf acknowledge that Sloup faces its share of challenges. With no advertising budget, they rely heavily on word-of-mouth and social media, which means a certain demographic — usually young and well educated — tends to be drawn to Sloup. When Sloup ventures out of areas familiar to that demographic, it has a hard time attracting an audience, much to its organizers’ frustration. A recent event at the 14th Street Artists’ Community in North City, for instance, was not well attended, whereas the Sloup held at trendy Sump Coffee brought in one of the largest crowds the series has seen.
We’re hoping to eventually get to the point … where we can have enough sway on our own as an organization that we can potentially bring people out to a place that they’re not used to,” Scharf said.
Pham said the group is exploring partnerships with groups in communities that might not otherwise have heard about Sloup as a way of increasing not only attendance, but also the number of presentations. Despite its simple, one-page application, Sloup often has difficulty getting proposals.
Scharf speculated that the shortage was due to prospective applicants’ fears about their ability to follow through. That’s a risk Sloup’s organizers are willing to run, and, they say, part of what makes Sloup special. In traditional philanthropy, donors know what they’re giving to ahead of time. Sloup, on the other hand, asks its attendees to trust its process.
“I think just the very act -- you come to an event;, you give your money up front; then you get to hear and vote for an idea -- that’s pretty amazing, and putting a lot of faith in the program itself,” Pham said.