New Support Structures: Designing Philanthropy
Planetary urgencies suggest that new models are needed to support creative thinking: we asked two of the brightest players in the field to share their respective modes.

Money, money, money. A perennial concern for artistic, design-related, and certainly architectural endeavours is the access to funds, and history has many examples of patronage. Today, planetary urgencies suggest that new models are needed to support creative thinking: we asked two of the brightest players in the field — Nicolay Boyadjiev of re:arc institute and Jenne Meerman of The Supporting Act Foundation — to share their respective modes.

KOOZ Both re:arc institute and The Supporting Act Foundation seek to empower individuals and communities, with the ambition of nurturing the necessary social, economic and ecological changes to ensure a more fair and just planet. How do both initiatives move beyond the anthropocentric worldview towards a planetary one, and what opportunities arise as a result?

NICOLAY BOYADJIEV This is a good question to start with, because as you know the word and concept of the planetary has become somewhat fashionable and common-use lately, often being flattened as equivalent to the global. When used it is sometimes interpreted as very big as opposed to very small, as top-down as opposed to bottom-up, or even global as opposed to local. I don’t think we mean any of these familiar and sometimes worn-out dichotomies, and it is very helpful to reframe what we mean by this term.

"What kind of actions, relationships, institutions need to be created to address this position of agency that don’t centre the human — that are not anthropocentric in focus — but that are nevertheless still unapologetically anthropogenic in scope and responsibility."

- Nicolay Boyadjiev, Head of Practice Lab, re:arc institute.

At the re:arc Practice Lab, by planetary we simply mean the acknowledgement of the Earth as an astronomical body — literally a planet — which functions across a range of spatial and temporal scales, from the atomic to the atmospheric, across both very very small/fast to very very large/slow according to our own. Our human scale — our worlds — operate somewhere in between, and while over the last centuries we have clearly managed to have a significant impact on planetary systems for better and worse, we are not the planet’s central purpose or protagonist. So the question is: what kind of actions, relationships, institutions need to be created to address this position of agency that don’t centre the human — that are not anthropocentric in focus — but that are nevertheless still unapologetically anthropogenic in scope and responsibility, in the sense of recognising the unique role we have to play in systems that extend far beyond ourselves. To me, this starts with recognising both that while there are infinite worlds that are possible (neither of which can ever claim to speak on behalf of the planet), they are not all equal: some worlds are better at realigning site-specific ways of living with the site-specific ecological systems that contain them, while others continue to maintain and replicate global one-size-fits-all modernist worldviews that fail to properly acknowledge our planetary entanglement.

"We're very much about supporting those who want to engage in discussions and conversations, especially those which are historically under-recognised."

- Jenne Meerman, Director of The Supporting Act Foundation

JENNE MEERMANYes, I hear what you say. The Supporting Act Foundation has, obviously, always been about support. I think the verb in our name is not in the act, but more in the support itself. We're very much about supporting those who want to engage in discussions and conversations, especially those which are historically under-recognised. With our organisation, everything we do is about shaping the possibilities for artists and organisations to be part of these broader discussions and to really let them lead the act of shifting perspectives, if that makes sense.


KOOZ It makes a lot of sense: I interpreted the verb “act” in terms of agency, but of course, the support is a huge part — a necessity.

JM Yeah, I think we chose the name also because we want to support and elevate those others and give them the stage to talk and to be part of these discussions.

KOOZ Nicolay you mentioned, what institutions do we need, what institutions are we trying to shape. It sounds like the institution is taking a step back, in a certain sense — becoming the source of empowerment — is something that really defines the work of both The Supporting Act and re:arc, because as actors you can enable situations from on the sidelines. There's a beauty in breaking with the paradigm of the big, heavy, overarching institution with its own voice; maybe today the agency of institutions really lies in acting as support, rather than in imposing a framework.

NB Absolutely! I just want to add — with the caveat of being an architect and not having any particular institutional-design training — that to me it is clear that there is a growing shared recognition that in order to design the things that we actually need, we need to start by designing the relationships that allow these things to happen in the first place, and often it is institutions that allow to formalise relationships that allow things to happen.

In other words, for me a shift of thinking towards a planetary perspective is to focus on the design of relevant institutions for the coming century. Institutional design has to be recognised as something much more fluid, much more iterative, much more open-ended, much more alluring than the design of objects, performances or brands… I actually think it’s already the case and that there is growing emphasis on institutional design as a genuinely creative practice, which is also taken more seriously by more people. Hopefully one of the many relevant examples of this is the Practice Lab’s ongoing work in prototyping more relevant institutional formats for philanthropy in architecture.


KOOZ I'm interested in understanding how you support individual projects and organisations. Whilst through the Practice Lab, re:arc supports individual projects TSAF works through grants — can you elaborate on this?

JM I think the big difference is that we support organisations and emerging artists without being tied to a particular project. The financial support that we give is unrestricted and they can use it in any way they want. So what we see, especially in terms of impact, is that grants are really used to sustain organisations. The fact that we are not specifically tied to an end project also means that every year we can have a very different set of grantees, in terms of the field that they operate within.

NB The way I think about our complementary projects is essentially as two sides of the same coin, or maybe different means towards a common end. With re:arc we also support individuals as well as projects. We are a relatively young organisation — officially barely a year old — and we are aware we have much much more to learn than to teach about grantmaking. I don’t think our narrative is about disrupting the industry. I hope we work with implicit humility, but also with an implicit creative impulse of thinking through our operating model also as a creative project in order to respond and rise to the challenges and opportunities that the communities we serve are facing.

I would say that we essentially work across three verticals or channels. We offer grants to support individuals and non-profit organisations through flexible donations. We also support what we call ‘Public Discourse’ through gatherings, events, symposia and education initiatives. And we also have the ‘Practice Lab’ which is a tertiary unit or “space of learning by doing” where we work directly with architects and professional practitioners to support things that we not only don’t do, but often can’t do in either traditional architectural or traditional philanthropic practice. For instance, the non-profit sector can obviously support architects to realise research, books, education material, exhibitions and other formats of cultural production. I would interpret pavilions' under that rubric as well. But it is much more difficult to support the urgently needed realisation of highly site-specific, self-initiated and community-led work, partly because construction timelines don’t map neatly onto funding cycle timelines and because it is notoriously difficult for architects to quantify, measure and report on impact, in traditional terms. Similarly, many real, tangible architectural projects are very clearly needed by real local communities and by society at large, but there are sometimes no mechanisms or traditional clients to commission them either on the public or private sector side. The Practice Lab attempts to address this gap.

Practice Lab. Courtesy of re:arc.

In many ways, we have diversified our ways of working along those lines for pragmatic reasons; we see that planetary challenges require a pluralistic approach, and we understand the necessary pluralism to be cultural, geographical, but also professional and disciplinary in scope. Many different stakeholders and disciplinary communities need to be engaged. This implies grassroots organisers, local activists on the frontlines, storytellers, educators, cultural leaders, yes… but what about “non-non-profit” architects and professional practitioners — a very specific category of climate workers with specific potential for engagement? Given that the built environment contributes up to 40% of yearly CO2, to not engage more deliberately the professional community most directly implicated in its making would be a missed opportunity. More generally, I also feel that culturally, the built environment is often hiding in plain sight; in Scandinavia we have a term and a concept for flight-shaming, as the aviation industry alone contributes to about 2.5% of yearly emissions… but at 40% emissions there is not really a shorthand word or concept for “business-as-usual-construction-shaming” while there should be. The role of architecture and architects has to be more foregrounded, which is what we are also trying to do.

KOOZ What kind of projects are you supporting with the Practice Lab, and how have they helped in prototyping new formats for philanthropy?

NB I really appreciate the question because it forces us to commit to what we mean by the term prototype. In short, the Practice Lab extends beyond traditional grantmaking to non-profits and works directly with “non-non-profit” architects and professional practitioners to support the realisation of site-specific, self-initiated and community-led projects in their local social and ecological contexts. We basically curate and invite local studios in strategic areas to work with their local communities and propose projects that respond to a real need and opportunity, but that are difficult or impossible to realise within existing public or private funding channels for a variety of reasons. Importantly, these are not framed as the practice’s dream project, or as a prize or lifetime achievement award etc. The projects in themselves are not flashy and it’s not the formal “what” that is prototyped, but rather the “how”.

"The community of users are not passive recipients but rather active co-designers and owners of the projects that affect them."

- Nicolay Boyadjiev, Head of Practice Lab, re:arc institute.

Together with their local community, the practice shares responsibility in co-developing the brief from such an open invitation. I would define the prototype as the actual process that we wish to test and institutionalise in our way of working with these practices. The traditional client-driven construction processes we have are quite linear: a client with resources has a specific need, hires an architecture studio as a type of service-provider to deliver a response in the form of a project, while a much broader community of end-users is passively engaged if at all in co-defining the outcomes that they will end up interacting with.

Our prototype is an alternative legal arrangement: re:arc Practice Lab is something like a client because it provides the resources but doesn’t dictate the terms of the brief and doesn’t end up owning the project. The architectural practices are something of a service-provider, but not to us but to their communities, with which they collaborate on the brief to identify the need. And the community of users are not passive recipients but rather active co-designers and owners of the projects that affect them. This is a rough simplification, but this is the prototype we’re trying to build: this triangulated relationship from a legal standpoint, from a financial standpoint, from a risk-assessment, liability and afterlife standpoint, etc. We want to focus on the “how” and empower the local practices and communities to define the site-specific “why” and “what”. This will enable a diverse plurality of site-specific outcomes that respond to a diverse plurality of site-specific conditions, informed by people who know better than us what is needed in their local and immediate reality.


KOOZ It does indeed. Jenne, you mentioned that you were looking at the kind of spectrum of existing foundations and philanthropic institutions, in order to differentiate TSAF. Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about the design of The Supporting Act’s philanthropic infrastructure.

JM We started in 2021, and we invested a lot of time in research, before making our programme offering. With the help of IAM, we did extensive research over several months, into the arts and funding landscape in Europe, especially post COVID. We interviewed artists and other experts from different countries, to really see where the gaps were: this really became a driver to our strategy and our grant programmes. Then we did our first open call in 2022 and we thought, let’s see what happens. We made notes, collected a lot of learnings. From our research we knew we wanted to focus on, as you said, emerging artists who are just starting their artistic career — and on grassroots organisations, who are also in the first years of their operations. Realistically, these are the most vulnerable groups, who also have the most difficulties in finding funds. Straight from the beginning, we had independent juries made up of artists and organisers to decide where the funding should go — and we continue to do it this way.

"Whether it's a bursary or grant, the recipient can always decide how they want to spend it — we assume that they are the best experts on their own needs."

- Jenne Meerman, Director of The Supporting Act Foundation

The grants that we give away are all unrestricted. Whether it's a bursary or grant, the receiver can always decide how they want to spend it — we assume that they are the best experts on their own needs. For a bursary, which is paid in monthly instalments, this tends to act like a basic income for emerging artists. With impact grants, we see that most of the organisations use them towards remunerating their staff, maybe investing in technical infrastructure or finally developing a project that they could never get funding for. We know that if we can remove the basic financial precarity of these organisations and people, we can help them to sustain — and I guess that's the best thing you can do, right? To give people the agency to decide how to use this financial support to help them sustain.

NB This is really inspiring, and building on that, what resonates with me is that philanthropy should not be perceived or applied as charity, per se. Rather it’s a particular kind of conduit that enables work, enables labour, enables activity in ways that are distinct both for the public and private sectors, carrying with it its own set of affordances, challenges, pitfalls and so on. For me it’s about building protocols for enabling activity and empowering people to realise something that is needed in the world, not about a personal act of kindness or graciousness on behalf of a donor.

It’s also important to mention that we are not trying to turn every practice into a nonprofit. If anything, our experiment is to work with architecture studios, organisations and entities who are not legally registered as non-profits but who have the desire and ability to channel their expertise in more meaningful projects than the ones that are currently being financially rewarded through the overwhelming majority of business-as-usual commissions. This is not charity but rather the mobilisation of resources towards alternative, more desirable and hopefully more long-term viable outcomes. To your very first question, I wouldn’t anthropomorphise the planet as client, but for architects this certainly frames a very different kind of conversation to working with traditional developers.


JM It's a fair point and also very true for us. I think it's a fresh-faced approach to philanthropy, it's also about building a relationship. So what you say about this resonates with me as well, it's not about reproducing the top-down charity that we know, that requires reporting back as to how things are going. Instead, we want to build a relationship with everyone we support, we want to follow them and we're genuinely interested in how they're doing.

KOOZ Both re:arc and The Supporting Act Foundation are fairly new realities which have nonetheless huge potential for impact. What is your long term vision for reciprocal projects and the impact which you would like to see occur?

NB This is a great question that puts us on the spot, which it should. If we take our premise of being an enabler for practices and communities, we achieve impact by being effective conduits for the work that they want to realise. The institutionalised legal format of being a nonprofit and receiving funding exists, but more diverse legal conduits for working on these types of projects without being a nonprofit don’t yet exist. If our project is to prototype and build those conduits, then obviously we also want to share them. Our objective is essentially to help normalise these alternative relationships between the nonprofit sector and architectural practitioners, so that their professional expertise can be more directly applied in response to the increasingly urgent challenges we face. Our hope is that by learning and growing through trial and error, we can share what we learn through these case studies and standardise, institutionalise and normalise new types of conduits for architects to do meaningful work that is needed but left uncommissioned, unfunded and unrealised.

As such we think of scale not through growth but by multiplication. If we multiply this legal template across other philanthropic organisations, and multiply the amount of site-specific practices working on site-specific projects, we help scale alternatives and new incentives to the way that we are currently practising. This approach is predicated on sharing learnings, sharing our failures, and building alliances with other organisations who can also teach us how to work differently. Together we can replicate and scale what works, and prototype an alternative model for practice that can hopefully make a difference at scale.

"Our objective is essentially to help normalise these alternative relationships between the nonprofit sector and architectural practitioners, so that their professional expertise can be more directly applied in response to the increasingly urgent challenges we face."

- Nicolay Boyadjiev, Head of Practice Lab, re:arc institute.

JM Yeah, it's the same: I hope we also inspire others to consider a similar type of grantmaking — but as said, we're babies in the field. We're just beginning — it’s our third year this year, we have our third open call this May. Once we complete our three-year plan, which comes at the end of this year, we will start to plot what the next five years will look like: what's our desired impact? It may be a bit early for us to give a good answer to that right now. But practically speaking, we can already see the impact from the work that we're doing from the stories of our grantees: whether it's individual artists or nonprofits, it has made a difference in their lives. People have access to opportunities, they're able to graduate without financial stress; organisations are finally able to commit to certain projects. So if the conditions of these grantees are improved already — if they have more time to practise their art, to complete their projects, then as a result, we have communities that benefit from that as well. That's really amazing: already we can see ripple effects. And the way we set up the organisation — which is quite lean, with independent juries; and an accessible application process — I hope we can inspire other organisations to do similar things. Philanthropy doesn't always have to look like traditional philanthropy; this is what I hope others will take from it.

"Philanthropy doesn't always have to look like traditional philanthropy; this is what I hope others will take from it."

- Jenne Meerman, Director of The Supporting Act Foundation

NB Again I think that in both cases, the emphasis is on the “how” more than the “what” or “why”. It may sound counter-intuitive at first but I really believe that this is where a big part of the challenge lies for architecture. A lot of the creative energy and innovation needed in the 21st century is predicated in “hows”, because unfortunately the “why” and “what” of the climate crisis are painfully clear for all to see, most of all by the vulnerable populations that are faced its consequences on a daily basis. In my view the time for philanthropic working models predicated solely on raising awareness about the challenges at hand is over, because this is not nearly ambitious enough nor is it adequate to the opportunity-space that we have. People on the ground and on the frontlines are much better versed on the whats and why; our role is to find more direct and effective ways to support their work, learn from their process, and help amplify their impact by building alliances with more institutions who can do the same.

KOOZ When you were talking, the ripple effect is exactly what came to mind — going back to the idea that today maybe it should not be about specific institutions, but rather how institutional structures can support a diverse number of parties, enabling different perspectives.

NB Indeed. Thank you so much — it has been an absolute pleasure.

JM Likewise, I enjoyed this. Thanks a lot for setting it up.

KOOZ Perhaps it's the beginning of a collaboration; that’s the beauty of bringing like-minded people together.


Nicolay Boyadjiev, director of Practice Lab at re:arc institute. Working at the intersection of climate action and architecture philanthropy, re:arc institute funds community-led solutions that address the root causes and consequences of climate breakdown. It is re:arc’s mission to reframe how we relate to the planet and move beyond the limitations of extractive paradigms. The re:arc Practice Lab is a space of learning by doing, which extends beyond traditional grantmaking and works directly with “non-non-profit” architects and professional practitioners to prototype alternative models for philanthropy in architecture.

Jenne Meerman, director of The Supporting Act Foundation, which is a self-governing non-profit organisation established by WeTransfer in 2021 to foster diversity in the arts and create better opportunities for marginalised groups. We support emerging artists and artist-led organisations to fulfil their potential, develop their practices and projects, and drive positive change in their communities and in society. Our grant programs were launched in 2022, and seek to address the challenges that face those under-represented in the arts, from lack of resources to lack of opportunities, nurturing new voices and perspectives to transform the sector, and society, for the better. Throughout our activities, we cultivate a trust-based approach, giving artists and organisations the space they need to pursue their goals. Today, The Supporting Act Foundation has completed two open calls, awarding grants to a diverse range of artists and artist-led organisations, who are already making real impacts around social, intersectional, and environmental justice.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

04 Mar 2024
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