December 5, 2008

Harwood's Community Rhythms: Grassroots Grantmaking Through a Different Lens

I follow Rich Harwood's blog, Redeeming Hope and am a fan of the work of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Here's just one reason why I'm a fan: Community Rhythms.

Community Rhythms is a framework for thinking about community context, and aligning change strategies with a community's readiness for change. It's a way for understanding why a change strategy that worked so well in one community has different results in another. Its goal is to help communities do the right thing at the right time - to build from where they are to the change that they desire.

Community Rhythms suggests that that there are five stages to community life, that each stage builds from the one before, and that knowing where you are will help you know what to do that will nurture change. Fascinating. But what is truly fascinating to me is that when I dove in to the information, especially when I looked at the description of the third stage - the Catalytic Stage - and the more detailed information about to do and not to do that in that stage, I saw the work of grassroots grantmaking.

Here's a snapshot of how Harwood describes what is going on in the Catalytic stage:
  • The Catalytic stage starts with small steps that are often imperceptible to the vast majority of people in a community.
  • Small numbers of people and organizations begin to emerge, taking risks and experimenting in ways to challenge existing community norms in how the community works.
  • The size of their actions is not the vital gauge. Their actions produce some semblance of results that give people a sense of hope.
  • As this stage unfolds, the number of organizations and people stepping forward increases, and links and networks are built between them.
And the work that is important to do in this stage? According to Harwood:
  • Try lots of small things, with room for failure. Emphasize learning.
  • Build Centers of Strength that can generate change.
  • Encourage informal conversations, natural networks, and new engagement norms.
  • Develop a new cadre of leaders.
  • Tell authentic stories of progress over time.
The tools of grassroots grantmaking are here. Small grants to emerging groups of people at the community level who are ready to begin moving their ideas into action - delivered in a way that is highly relational and supportive of learning. Convening and connecting the new groups so that they can learn from and inspire each other. Support for emerging leaders. Recognition and celebration as tools that help people claim their victories and feel hopeful about what is possible.

Seeing grassroots grantmaking in this picture is affirming - a positive signal that the road we're on is the right road if we are interested in supporting active citizens work toward community change. But placing the work of grassroots grantmaking in this bigger "community rhythms" picture is powerful. Imagine looking at your community through the lens of community rhythms. Imagine using the community rhythms framework to inform decision making about when to introduce grassroots grantmaking, when a community may have outgrown those beginning grants and are ready for something else , and how to think about progress. Imagine engaging community residents in thinking about stages of community life in their community, and what they can do to accelerate change. Imagine using community rhythms as a common language that makes it okay to acknowledge that we (not just you) do not have the capacity that we need to bring about the change that we desire, but that together we can find the path.

I encourage you to take a look at the Harwood Institute's materials. And to listen to Rich Harwood talk about Community Rhythms.

December 3, 2008

An Invitation, Not a Destination

Have you ever been thinking about something, feeling an itch to try something or tackle something, and something or someone appeared that eased you from the path of "just thinking" to the path of doing? That's how new things generally start with me.

My active citizen journey began with a knock on my door from a neighbor. It took a new turn when an elderly woman down the street took me under her wing and connected me to an amazing network of local activists who came together to save our neighborhood from an interstate highway project. It took yet another turn when I accepted my neighbor's offer to give me a ride to the annual meeting of our neighborhood group - where I was asked to help hand out materials and later to help with a project and even later to serve as president of the group.

A series of seemingly inconsequential "invitations" is how things began for me. A series of seemingly inconsequential "invitations" is what has helped me continue my journey down increasingly interesting and surprising pathways ever since.

I've begun to think that one of the most powerful "tools" of grassroots grantmaking is the "invitation" aspect inherent in the small grants programs. The notice that small grants are available and accessible to people who are not experienced grant seekers and are not associated with sophisticated non-profit groups is like my neighbor's knock on my door. Some people may not open the door. But others - those who have an idea or an "itch" that would move them from spectator to active citizen - may hear the knock and open the door. And, by opening the door, they begin a journey that will change them and change their communities.

One of the assumptions associated with grassroots grantmaking is that it requires "patient money" - a consistently available source of funds that is available to continually re-prime the active citizen pump at the block level. Isn't the power of patient money really the power of the invitation? If no one in a community hears the invitation this time, there will be another opportunity. If life gets too busy or complicated to answer the invitation this time, there will be another opportunity. If the "itch" isn't strong enough this time to make the effort to respond this time worth the effort, there will be another opportunity. And when you have begun your journey into active citizenship, the next invitation may take you around the bend in the path and deeper into your own and your community's journey toward the community that you envision.

When I think about an invitation, I think about something that is enticing, exciting, and full of possibilities. I think about a warm reception and a feeling of hospitality. When I think about some of the best small grants programs in the grassroots grantmaking world, I think about funders who have managed to bring these qualities into the grant process.
  • I think about simple applications that are written in plain language rather than funder's jargon and questions that get help people think through their idea rather than fit their idea into a box that the funder has created.
  • I think about welcoming pre-application workshops that de-mystify the application process and are respectful of people's time.
  • I think about review processes that include conversations and site visits rather than score cards and formal presentations.
  • I think about reporting requirements that foster learning and honest "taking stock", with no "cut and paste" type reports that are filed but seldom read.
  • I think about an invitation rather than a destination. A grant as the beginning of a journey rather than a means to an end. A relationship rather than a transaction.
I would love to hear how the concept of "the invitation" resonates with you and your work to support active citizenship, and what you are doing to make your work more powerfully inviting. A comment here is a great way to share. You're invited!

November 27, 2008


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love everything it stands for. I love the traditions that we honor in our family and in our country and how those traditions are changing but staying the same as our family and our country changes. I love that it is simply about being thankful and remembering what really matters.

So in this time between the pie-making and the turkey stuffing, I am pausing to say thank you for joining me over the last year on this blog. Thank you for supporting my efforts to share the view across the grassroots grantmaking landscape and for giving back by subscribing, commenting, challenging, sending encouraging words through email, and passing my posts on to colleagues - helping in these and other ways to enliven and expand our community of citizen-centered grantmakers. May your day and the weekend that is to come be filled with your favorite people, your favorite foods and victory for your favorite team!

November 22, 2008

Where Do Small Grants Fit with Big Problems Like Foreclosures, Vacancies, and Neighborhood Stabilization?

I was a guest at last week's meeting of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a collaborative effort by the Urban Institute and local partners to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems in local policymaking and community building.

A major topic of conversation at this meeting was the foreclosure crisis and the neighborhood de-stabilization that foreclosures and accompanying vacancies are having on neighborhoods. Allan Mallach from the Brookings Institute made an excellent presentation about foreclosures and the federal government's Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, which created the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) under which states, cities, and counties will receive a total of $3.92 billion to acquire, rehabilitate, demolish and develop foreclosed and abandoned residential property. Mallach's presentation was followed by presentations on local perspectives on the foreclosure crisis by Phyllis Betts (University of Memphis) and Michael Rich (Emory University, Atlanta).

In the years that I worked in Memphis, I came to know neighborhoods and the pattern of investment/disinvestment in Memphis neighborhoods well. I also had the privilege of working with Phyllis on two neighborhood initiatives. So when Phyllis took the podium after Mallach's presentation and displayed a GIS map of foreclosures and associated vacancies in Memphis, I was stunned and surprised. Stunned by the numbers. Surprised by "where". The "where" was not the neighborhoods that had been labeled as "troubled" and where public sector community development dollars and philanthropic energy have been focused. They were the next set of neighborhoods - the neighborhoods we (at the community foundation) were beginning to think about from a prevention perspective.

From what I could tell from the discussion, the Memphis pattern is a rather typical pattern. Here is a new set of neighborhoods - to add to the old set of neighborhoods - that are dealing with destabilizing influences that are not of their own making.

Mallach defined a stable neighborhood as a one where residents feel confident that their investment - financial and psychological - is secure. He reminded us that "when it comes to trying to stabilize an area, it is critical to understand that even one vacant, boarded-up property can undermine the vitality of an entire city block. The harm done, whether measured in the impact on property values or the effect on neighbors’ health and safety, does not increase linearly with each additional vacant property – the first few do nearly all of the damage."

He suggested a targeting strategy for the investment of NSP funds - with three possible targets:
  • neighborhoods that are close to market recovery, where it is possible to move the recovery forward by buying and restoring a small number of properties,but where costs or other factors make it impossible for the private sector to do the job;
  • neighborhoods with significant market weakness, but with an intact but frayed physical and social fabric, where it is possible to build a functioning market by eliminating blighting problem properties or by reducing housing supply to reflect realistic levels of demand;
  • severely distressed neighborhoods, where acquiring properties can create potential land assembly,reduce housing supply, or stabilize remaining occupied areas.
So where do small grants fit into the picture of big problems?

The neighborhoods with the "dots" on the Memphis map were, by and large, not neighborhoods with organized block clubs, neighborhood groups, or other citizens groups. They are either too new, too transient, or too insulated from the day to day challenges associated with disinvestment and blight that often brings people together. So here comes a vacant house. There goes a family. Here comes another vacant house. There goes another family. The cycle begins.

We need to remember that when we talk about neighborhoods, we are also talking about people. And people together in challenging times are much stronger than people alone in challenging times. People together in neighborhoods that are being hit hard by the foreclosure crisis can do things to shore up confidence that their investment in their neighborhood - yes, their financial investment, but especially their psychological investment - is secure. They can pull together in a spirit of mutual aid and help manage the fear that can so quickly escalate. They can work on the code issues, neighborhood appearance and neighborhood safety issues that come with vacant property. They can communicate in a way that no one else can that lets house and apartment shoppers know that this is a good neighborhood that got caught in something that didn't have anything to do with neighborhood quality of life.

So funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking, who believe that small grants can make a big difference, who invest in active citizenship, who approach their work through an asset lens rather than a deficit lens: Here's a golden opportunity to expand your work into neighborhoods in your community where foreclosures have hit hard and where NSP funds will be invested. If you're not already tracking how your community will be using NSP funds and which neighborhoods are being hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, start tracking. And if you're not already investing in these neighborhoods, now is the time to do the groundwork that will bring your grassroots grantmaking experience to the neighborhood stabilization picture in your community and invest in the bottom-up community building that is needed to complement the more top-down NSP strategies if neighborhood stabilization is going to be a reality.

If you're already there, are already making plans to be there - or want to thing more about what you can do - I would love to hear from you. This is truly the moment to do some big thinking about small grants.

November 18, 2008

Dear Grassroots Grantmakers

Dear Grassroots Grantmakers:

I'm confused. For the first time, I feel like I'm part of a neighborhood. I don't know everyone but I've met some great people on my block and on the next street. We help each other out and have fun when we get together. I like feeling connected - that there are people around me who know me. And I'm surprised by the difference we've already made in our neighborhood and how good it feels to do something that we didn't think we could do!

Here's the problem. I saw something in the newspaper about grants for neighborhood projects and decided to find out what this was about. I went to a workshop and learned that yes, there's money for groups like ours and for projects like the one we have in mind. But here's what else I learned:
If we fill our a 10 page application (maybe not 10 pages......5 pages are instructions, so maybe it's only a 5 page application), show that we can raise half of the money that we will need, "float" the other half until we're reimbursed with grant funds, partner with a nonprofit that we don't even know, open a bank account in our organization's name, attend "leadership classes", show that we have a way to do the project next summer without a grant, come before a committee to answer questions, and agree to submit written reports with receipts for our purchases, we'll find out in 2-3 months if we get a grant that we can put toward purchasing paint that we'll use for the paint-up/fix-up project that we have in mind to help out the senior citizens in our neighborhood.
So here's my question. When you talk about the value of "active citizenship" and encourage people like me to add "neighborhood" to my everyday to-do list, are you also saying that I really need to add 20 more things to my list in order to get help buying paint that I apply on my day off to someone else's house? And that I should aspire for more - to become a "sustainable" organization or a "more inclusive" organization?

When I add it all up - the time I took off from work to go learn about these grants, what it will take to meet all of these requirements, and then what it will take to actually do this project, I'm wondering if this is a good idea after all.

So tell me, Grassroots Grantmakers.......what do you think? If we have just so much time and so much energy, wouldn't that time and energy be better used in our neighborhood than on these 20 things? Maybe we should just skip the paint and stay with raking leaves like we did last year.

CAC (Confused Active Citizen)

Dear CAC:

Sounds like you've had a close encounter of the funder kind.....and with a funder who is trying to do the right thing, but is pulled in many different "right thing" directions. There's the "right thing" of setting aside money for groups like yours that is clashing with the some well-intended but overboard notions about the "right thing" when it comes to being responsible about managing grant funds. And, doing the right thing by offering support other than money that will help your group be able to do even more in the future.

What I've seen is that funders who have been at the business of grassroots grantmaking for a while relax a bit when they learn that groups like yours are often even more responsible about managing grant funds - and just as good (or better) at making grant dollars go further - than many of the tried and tried nonprofit organizations that they have funded for years. It's a learning curve rather than a curve ball.

So here is my advice. In the spirit of "everyone is a teacher and a learner", I would go for it and slug away through the 20 things, get the money for the paint and do one heck of a job. And in the meantime, use every opportunity to help your funder navigate this learning curve. Invite him/her out so you can build a relationship that isn't just about the money, get to know the other groups that are receiving grants and compare notes, be frank in the reports you submit about the "cost/benefit" of all the extras that you've been asked to do and suggest some alternatives if you find these extras aren't actually helpful.

Then wait and see what happens. You may find that someone is actually listening and values what you're doing more than it appears at this point. Or you may find that they are in the funder-knows-best isolation chamber. If that's the case, there will be seniors in your neighborhood with freshly painted houses, you'll have a great project under your belt that you can use as a door-opener with another funder when you have another great idea that needs some money.

So yes, when I encourage you to keep "neighborhood" on your to-do list, I guess there are some other tasks that inevitably come along. Hopefully that list will get smaller, boiling down to just those things that are really worth doing. But I know one thing for sure. What you are doing in your neighborhood is definitely worth doing and the best recipe for "sustainable" is keeping it real, keeping it fun, and keeping it about what you and your neighbors value the most.

Here's to active citizens - and to-do lists that matter!

November 14, 2008

Should We Talk (More) About Belonging?

I've been on the move for the past 10 days - lucky to have the opportunity to spend some time in some interesting places, getting a look at grassroots grantmaking from some different perspectives. Here's the first quick debrief from this trek.

I began my trek with a trip to Montreal to attend the Community Foundations of Canada's annual conference. Grassroots Grantmakers' community of practice includes three Canadian community foundations - The Calgary Foundation, The Hamilton Community Foundation, and The Vancouver Foundation. I was privileged to join Julie Black (Calgary), David Derbyshire (Hamilton) and Lidia Kemeny (Vancouver) for a presentation - Grassroots Grantmaking: Putting the Community in Community Foundations. My primary reason for the trek to Montreal was this session with these people, showcasing their wonderful work and inviting other community foundations to try out grassroots grantmaking. And that alone would have been worth the trip.

But right from the start, a difference in perspective that I began hearing from the Canadian community foundations was intriguing and exhilarating. Beginning with the plenary on the first morning and continuing through every session and presentation that I attended - including ours - there was this word that we seldom hear in the United States. Belonging.

Belonging appeared first in John Ralston Saul's opening plenary when he talked about the collapse of globalism and the need to re-examine assumptions that are behind the charity-model. Saul called for the more aggressive pursuit of an alternate way of thinking - especially about belonging, a concept he feels is central to understanding how we rebuild citizenship.

Belonging appeared again in the session that I attended on Vital Signs, an annual community check-up conducted by community foundations across Canada that measures the vitality of cities, identifies significant trends, and assigns grades in at least ten areas critical to quality of life. One of the ten critical areas that is measured in cities across Canada is belonging and leadership.

And belonging was an important theme that emerged again in our session. Julie Black talked about using grassroots grantmaking to promote belonging and neighborliness - to help people in neighborhoods be good neighbors. Lidia Kemeny talked about the partnership that the Vancouver Foundation has with eleven neighborhood houses that has allowed their grassroots grantmaking investment to show up in very local, resident-centered ways; each neighborhood house serves as a grantmaking locus, with residents from the surrounding neighborhood serving as the grant award panel. David Derbyshire talked about The Hamilton Community Foundation's strategic decision to move their highly successful Growing Roots program from inside the foundation to the community - housing it in various neighborhood locations. And, all three said that in these difficult economic times, this very local, belonging-oriented work is more important than ever - that other programs might be cut, but not these.

On my way home from Canada, I was thinking about belonging - how we talk about belonging in the United States and what evidence there is that belonging is something that we value. I couldn't find the word that suggests the blend of personal and community - that captures the relationship that we have with places where we feel welcomed and at home - that comes with "belonging". Not civic engagement, not citizen participation, not resident - at least not to me. So is there a word that I'm missing? Or is belonging missing from our conversations because belonging is not something that we value? Or is belonging something that we value but have not associated with our grantmaking? And if that's the case, is it something that deserves more attention - and if so, what would you think about and look for if you were tracking "belonging" in the same way that you track other indicators of success?

What do you think? Click "comment" to share your thoughts.

October 29, 2008

Recommended Reading! "One" on Civic Citizens

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation's publication, One, was in my mailbox today, and I was delighted when I saw the cover story - Civic Citizens: Building Communities Cause by Cause, Person by Person. Even more delighted when I turned to the article and read the lead-in:
Impassioned people change their communities, and community involvement changes people. Call it the hopeful cycle of public progress.

The article tells the story of regular people, "unlikely advocates", who stepped forward or were drawn into public stages and found their public voice. The article notes that "engaged citizens develop the knowledge, skills, values and motivation needed to promote better quality of life in a community." Voila! The perfect description of the power of grassroots grantmaking! Grassroots grantmakers - at the most basic level - use small grants as an invitation to regular people to turn off the television, get off the couch, connect with their neighbor, and move an idea or a dream into action. And central to grassroots grantmakers' theory of change is the change that occurs in people - and in communities - when people accept that invitation.

This article includes lots of wonderful nuggets - about engaging donors, the power of deliberation, the importance of social capital, info on advocacy and lobbying - but I especially loved the attention that the article gives to regular people who have been involved with PACT, San Jose's PICO (Pacific Institute for Community Organization) affiliate, and a Silicon Valley Community Foundation grantee. I loved reading about Adrian Cerda, an electronic engineer who joined PACT - and that Cerda says that his involvement with PACT has helped him be a better a citizen, a better employee and a better leader. And Elizabeth Alvarez, who says that involvement with PACT has taught her that the more civic engagement she sees in a community, the better the quality of life in that neighborhood. And Philip Crosby, a retired scientist who says that civic engagement has redefined his understanding of his faith and behavior. Amazing stories - so much like other stories I've heard from people who are doing "civic engagement at the block level" type of work, but stories that don't often end up as cover stories of publications.

This is recommended reading for any funder who is wondering if grassroots grantmaking is a good investment or for funders who need some help telling the story of the power of grassroots grantmaking.

Kudos to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for shining a light on the power of regular people in this article!

October 19, 2008

Is This Dream Too Big?

It's now less than two weeks until the election. I'm tuned in - in every way possible - to what's going on, simultaneously worried and excited about what might happen on election day.

Oh, and then there's what's happening with the economy, with a new twist every day. And wondering how this will affect grassroots grantmaking - if funding for civic engagement at the block level will be pushed to the back burner as funders grapple with the realities of this crisis.

For me, this feels like the news obsession I experienced after 9-11 and Katrina. A day to day, what's happening now obsession. For me, it's hard to think about next spring or a year from now.

So this was my mindset when I trekked up the highway to Austin for a day at this year's national conference of a group that is new to me - the National Congress for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). NCDD has been around since 2002 and this was their fourth national conference. I discovered NCDD through Matt Leighninger and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium - began following them by joining their Facebook group. When I saw that their national conference would be within easy driving distance, I decided to make the drive and spend a day "in the water" withe NCDD community.

I loved being in that water with 400 other people from quite varied backgrounds who actively practice, promote and study inclusive, high quality conversations - who seek to nurture justice, innovation and democracy throughout society through the widespread use of transformational communication methods like dialogue and deliberation - who believe that elevating the quality of thinking and communication in organizations and among citizens is key to solving humanity’s most pressing problems (not my words - but words from NCDD's website that fit well with the group I found there).

So it was with some hyper-focus that I sat listening in one session as Carolyn Lukenmeyer, President of AmericaSpeaks, talked about this special moment in time when people are not only paying more attention but seem hungry to reclaim their citizen voice.

Carolyn laid out some "what if" scenarios - "what if", for example, new leadership at the national level turned to citizens as co-developers of solutions to major problems such as access to affordable health care? What if we don't have the capacity or know-how to capitalize on this moment in time and work in a way that has citizens at the center? What if this hunger for being part of the solution that so many more people now seem to be expressing is not addressed?

Carolyn's approached these "what if" questions with a sense of possibility. She pointed to all the resources that are waiting in the wings for a large-scale effort to engage citizens as problem-solvers on something as important as health care, including thousands of experienced facilitators, public libraries who are perfectly positioned to provide access to information needed to inform this process, community colleges who are poised to provide the space needed for community dialogue, and pioneering work and research on the use of technology and new media for public dialogue.

A resource that Carolyn didn't mention was the funders who are in our grassroots grantmaking family. Think about it. Funders who have a strong place-identity. Funders who already have strong relationships with people at the block level who have turned off their televisions and connected with a neighbor in the spirit of active citizenship. Funders who already have experience with convening. Funders who are well-positioned to quickly access resources from the public library, the communty college. Funders who probably already have relationships with many of the most seasoned facilitators in their community. Funders who know the non-profit scene in their community. Funders can also feel at home in the elite-leader stratosphere in their community. The perfect combination of interests, expertise and capacity at this particular point in time.

On my drive home from Austin and in the days since then, here is the dream that I've been hatching:

No matter what the outcome of the election
No matter what happens with the economy

There will be funders (hopefully many funders, hopefully the community of funders that we call grassroots grantmakers) who seize this remarkable moment and do something to answer the call. The call may come from our new president - or not. If not, the call is already coming from the millions of citizens who have stepped forward at this time to say in one way or another that they care, they believe in democracy, and they want to move from the couch to the active citizenship role.

There will be funders who see the down-turn in the stock market as even more reason to get serious about mobilizing the largely untapped energy and resourcefullness of everyday people to address everyday issues. And to realize how important it is to think big about small grants.

Is this dream too big? What do you think?

September 25, 2008

Here's the New Gizmo: Flip Video Ultra

I somewhat of a tech nerd, but that doesn't extend to cameras. I'm a basic camera idiot and that especially applies to video cameras.

That's why I've gone wild over the Flip Video Ultra. This little point and shoot video camera is about the size of an ipod, runs on 2 AA batteries, and has just 6 moving parts - buttons for on/off, record, zoom, play, delete, and a flip-out USB connection that lets you connect this camera to your computer to see what you have recorded.

The only other accessories that come with the camera are a fabric pouch, a strap and a short, easy to follow instruction book. I just ordered a tripod that screws into the bottom of the camera - discovered I needed that after my first time out recording an interview.

I've only had this for a month - in time for the Chicago "On the Ground" gathering and my recent trip to Denver. But I'm taken with the possibilities - to capture on the spot reflections and to help people connect the idea of grassroots grantmaking with the real life experience of grassroots grantmaking. This is incredibly easy to use (even for me) and so affordable - I paid less than $130 (I purchased this one from Seems like it could change the way we collect the stories of grassroots grantmaking. Seems like this little camera should be in every program officer's pocket when they head out the door on a community visit!

Check out this review of the Flip by Computerworld:

September 23, 2008

What It's All About: Strengthening Neighborhoods in Denver

I just returned from a day in Denver that was a wonderful reminder about the power of thinking big about small grants. Last Friday, I spent half a day with Patrick Horvath and the Strengthening Neighborhoods team from The Denver Foundation. Patrick had organized a half-day site tour on neighborhood grantmaking that was part of the Association of Small Foundations' annual conference. He asked me to partner with him and The Denver Foundation's team on the site tour to set up the tour with some remarks on grassroots grantmaking and the "think layers, not ladders" strategy of grassroots grantmaking. My pleasure.

Really my pleasure. The Denver Foundation's work with Strengthening Neighborhoods is exemplary - some of the best of the best in the grassroots grantmaking world. I have followed The Denver Foundation's work for more than ten years and have seen it grow and deepen. Over those ten years, I have admired the keen interest in learning that permeates the work there. Our network has benefited from the spirit of generosity with which the staff there have shared their work - what they are learning, what they are working on, where they are challenged. Nothing is on automatic pilot with this group and each new phase of their work benefits from this learning orientation.

I have also noticed the deep commitment that is there at all levels - board, senior leadership and on the ground staff members. To me, making the Strengthening Neighborhoods work a permanent program of The Denver Foundation rather a special time-limited initiative speaks of this commitment. As does annually dedicating a percentage of the Foundation's unrestricted grantmaking to Strengthening Neighborhoods. As does the Board's openness to funding "spicy groups". And then there's the Foundation's ability to attract (and keep) a talented staff. Not to mention inviting some of the remarkable neighborhood leaders that they have discovered over the years to join The Denver Foundation's board. For me, all of this is about commitment to walking the walk of grassroots grantmaking.

We began the day with a casual lunch and time to talk about what was in the store for the day. I talked about the "layer cake" strategy of grassroots grantmaking and some of the unique aspects of the Denver program. Of the 30+ people with us for the afternoon, about half were already engaged in neighborhood grantmaking and the other half were curious about what it takes. I was trying to help people see some of the choices that funders can make about staffing, providing technical assistance, and making grant decisions and to let them know that what they would be seeing with Strengthening Neighborhoods is just one combination of options. And that there is not just one way to manage a grassroots grantmaking program - that it's more about knowing your community and doing what works best in your particular context.

The site tour was well-designed and inspiring, with three stops that allowed us to witness and experience the work of Strengthening Neighborhoods - from relatively simple grants for community gardens to the leadership training to helping residents band together to change the way things work in their community. The people who signed up for the tour, primarily staff and trustees with small foundations, were savvy participants. They were incredibly attentive and asked wonderful, thoughtful, and appreciative questions. After the first stop, I heard one person say that the conversation had been so rich that this one visit had made the experience worthwhile for her. And by the end, someone else mentioned that this site tour was the most well-designed that he had ever experienced. Yes, indeed.

I am the lucky one. Because of my position with Grassroots Grantmakers, I am privileged to travel from place to place, visiting with members and participating in tours like this with good people who are investing in the power of ordinary people to change their (and our) communities. What struck me this time, however, were the stories of personal transformation that we heard. At every stop, we met people who shared stories of how they had been changed as they worked to change their community.
  • Young mothers who banned together as the Aurora Traffic Safely Organizing Committee to make sure the streets around their children's school are child-friendly - and are now impacting traffic planning in Aurora.
  • A former gang-member who had been gunned down and incarcerated but who is now working with young people in the Norhteast Park Hill neighborhood and serving as a policy advisor on youth violence to elected officials.
  • A licensed clinical social worker who wanted to do more than provide counseling in the tradition way and discovered drumming as a powerful vehicle for conflict resolution and healing.
  • A woman who found amazing ways to use art to build community after giving some serious thought to what she was supposed to be doing with her life.
  • Neighbors who are honoring the work of a visionary neighborhood leader in the Whittier neighborhood by using gardening to create common ground in a divided community.
Everyone talked about what this experience - becoming a more active citizen - has meant to them, how much it had taught them about themselves, and how much stronger they have become.

It's easy to get focused on the big picture of community change and overlook change in neighborhood residents as they find their voice and their own personal power. This day was a powerful reminder for me that when we talk about grassroots grantmaking and wonderful programs such as Strengthening Neighborhoods, we're really talking about people. Amazing people who are doing exceptional things every day on their active citizenship journey. And amazing people at The Denver Foundation who are doing this wonderful work. Can you tell I'm smiling? Wouldn't you be?

Visit the profile of Strengthening Neighborhoods that is on Grassroots Grantmakers website.

Take a look at Strengthening Neighborhoods' recent "lessons learned" report on neighborhood leadership.

September 15, 2008

To 501(c)(3) or Not to 501(c)(3): Who's Asking the Question?

To 501(c)(3) or not to 501(c)(3)? I was with a group of funders recently who got into an interesting debate about this 501(c)(3) question. We were talking about "getting real" about grassroots grantmaking - what staff resources, technical assistance resources, and knowledge resources are needed to work effectively as a grassroots grantmaker?

The conversation, which I thought could veer into group hang-wringing about the perils of trying to do too much with too little, instead turned into a discussion about the appropriateness of 501(c)(3) status for grassroots groups. We had two camps represented in this discussion. One was the 501(c)(3) status equals power and more capacity camp. The other was that grassroots groups should not pursue a 501(c)(3) designation until they graduate from beginner group to more advanced group.

I hear this discussion a lot, and for a while now, have been trying to figure out what is really going on when funders talk about 501(c)(3) status for grassroots groups. Sometimes I hear anxiety about working with groups that do not have the designation. The assumption might be that grants to 501(c)(3) organizations are safer investments - that grant money will be well managed, projects will happen as outlined in the grant proposal, and reports will come in on time when a 501(c)(3) is in the picture. Sometimes it's about sustainability - that the 501(c)(3) status is an indication that a group has been around for a while and will be around for a while longer. My experience is that time on the ground and a network of more experienced peers ease these anxieties.

I hear about too many 501(c)(3)'s. To that I say "so what?" And also "why might that be?"

Other times I hear about what a group needs and doesn't need - and this is when I get a bit nervous.
  • A grassroots group doesn't need a 501(c)(3) designation and therefore should not have one.
  • A fiscal sponsor can provide all that a grassroots group needs.
  • A grassroots group should not unduly burden themselves with the organizational infrastructure "stuff" that comes with having a 501(c)(3) designation and should trust someone else to handle all of that.
Grassroots Grantmakers, the national network of funders who are investing in resident-initiated and resident-led work in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, doesn't have a 501(c)(3) designation - by choice. We work with a fiscal sponsor - by choice - and have done so for almost ten years. And as the organization's Executive Director, I have a keen sense of the trade-offs of having/not having a 501(c)(3) designation. As an organization, we revisit that choice NOT to seek a 501(c)(3) designation periodically and weigh the pros and cons. We very well could choose to begin the 501(c)(3) designation process this week or this month or this year. Or we might stay as we are. But we'll decide.

That's how it was in my own neighborhood too. At some point, we decided that we wanted a 501(c)(3) designation. And we got one. Our world didn't change much, but it did indeed change. And it wasn't as much about the designation as it was about the process of deciding with eyes open and good information. It was also about knowing that we had to accept the responsibility of a little higher level of self-management so we could be sure that we could keep the designation that was so much work to obtain. We had not received a grant at that point, so this wasn't about grants. It was more about our developing sense of our own power, what we were trying to achieve, and where we saw our organization in the pecking order of the world around us. This was after we had been around in some form or another for fifteen years.

I'm not by any means suggesting that all grassroots groups should pursue 501(c)(3) status. Or that pursuing a 501(c)(3) status is an indication that a group is "growing up". What I am suggesting, however, is that funders should stay away from that question - and most questions that come from assumptions about what a group needs or doesn't need. There are, after all, many ways to get to the same end, and it is the group itself that must make its path. Assuming that fiscal sponsorship is a viable option for providing grants to groups that don't have the 501(c)(3) designation (and the impetus for seeking 501(c)(3) status is not permission to put a proposal on a funder's desk), the most appropriate role for a funder, in my opinion, is to be sure that grassroots groups have access to good information about the pros and cons of 501(c)(3) status, encouragement to revisit the 501(c)(3) question from time to time, and permission to say "yes" or "no" to the 501(c)(3) pathway without fear of judgment or funding repercussions.

For me, this question about 501(c)(3) status is an example of one of the challenges that face funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking. When it comes to getting real about what is required to be a grassroots grantmaker, it seems that so much goes back to the tag line that we adopted for our national network - "we begin with residents". When we care so much and are working so hard at the "doing" of grassroots grantmaking, it can be challenging to maintain that "we begin with residents" stance. But with the 501(c)(3) question, it does indeed all begin with residents. And it is the resident-led groups that we are funding who get to decide.

This is my take on the question. But I'd love to know what you think. Do you think it is appropriate for a funder to weigh in on the "to 501(c)(3) or not to 501(c)(3)" question with their grassroots grantees? And how do you see the "we begin with residents" value fitting into this question? Let's use this opportunity to talk more about "getting real" about the work of grassroots grantmaking.

September 14, 2008

Wow! "On the Ground" Chicago

I'm still learning about blogging reality. My intention was to blog from Chicago to share the "on the ground" experience" there in real time. Up early/up late days that included lots of wonderful networking and information reminded me that the real-time blogging intention required more super-powers than I could muster.

And I didn't count on Mother Nature. Hurricane Gustav rains in Chicago. Tropical Storm Hannah in coastal North Carolina where I went for a post-event long weekend. Hurricane Ike preparation when I returned home to Texas. Fortunately, all we had to do for Hurricane Ike was prepare. I live 75 miles from the Texas Gulf Coast but the Texas Gulf Coast is very long. When the storm honed in on Houston, 100 miles to the east, we landed on Ike's "dry side". And dry it was. No rain. No wind. No nothing. Crazy as it sounds, that was initially disappointing. Not so anymore, however, as post-Ike footage from Port Arthur (my birthplace) and surrounding communities have come across the television. I'm happy to have this extra stash of water, batteries, lamp oil, canned goods and chocolate - along with my roof, my comfy bed and all of my "stuff" high and dry.

So what would I have said about "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers in Chicago" if I was blogging "real time" or even immediately post event? Thanks to the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Steans Family Foundation, and the extraordinary group of people who gathered from all over to focus on building resident power and capacity for change, Grassroots Grantmakers' premiere "on the ground" gathering was all I hoped for and more. Not the typical "show and tell" site visit. Not another opportunity to be intellectual and talk about building community as if it was a science project. Not another self-serving "hats-off" to funders who have all the answers. Instead, these two days were, to my great delight, about "getting real".

Dr. Arvis Averette got us off to a wonderful start. A long-time South side activist and scholar, Dr. Averette provided commentary as we headed from downtown to Chicago's South side. Funny but full of painful truths. Arvis talked of the flip side of changes that look good on the surface. About welcomed ecoonomic prospertiy than came with pressures that pushed long-standing community residents out. More home ownership but less opportunity for renters. Gentrification that wasn't just about whites pushing out blacks, but instead went to core questions associated with our recent trickle down economic policy. Stories of what it really took for community activism to help shape the face of Chicago's South side.

We continued with time at the amazing Gary Comer Youth Center and the opportunity to hear about community organizing on the South side from Rey Lopez-Calderon (Executive Director of Alianza Leadership Institute), Bryan Echols (Executive Director of MAGIC), and leaders from two of the Woods Funds Southside grantee organizations, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP). We spent the afternoon on Chicago's West side in the North Lawndale neighborhood and visited with leaders of the Crib Collective and the North Lawndale Juvenile Justice Collaborative.

On Friday, we gathered at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus downtown to debrief and connect lessons from Chicago to our "back home" work. We began the morning hearing from Deborah Harringtons (Woods Fund President) and Reginald Jones (Steans Family Foundation's Executive Director), with Consuella Brown (Woods Fund Senior Program Officer) offering questions to Deborah and Reginald that set the perfect stage for the following "getting real" discussions about the challenges that funders face in building resident power and capacity for change. Three dynamic duos led us through energetic discussions on three topics:

In the afternoon, we spent time in "role-alike" groups - neighborhood residents, intermediary organizations, funders who are new to grassroots grantmaking, and experienced grassroots grantmakers.

There is a lot of I could share about the two-day experience - and I'll be blogging about some of the issues that surfaced in the discussions. Kristin Senty-Brown, a diarist who has worked documenting learnings with the Annie Casey Foundation supported Making-Connections investment in Des Moines, was with us for the experience. Kristin will capture the two-day experience and learnings that the 50+ participants brought to the discussion from their home communities in a document that we will be eager to share. But in the meantime, here are some comments from people who joined me "on the ground" in Chicago:

Wonderful networking and information/idea exchange opportunity.

I am a community member on a small grants neighborhood grantmaking committee. This helped a lot in giving me a wider perspective on this grassroots "movement".

Chicago was a great place to host this workshop.

Great examples of neighbors and neighborhoods stepping up to their challenges and finding success.

This grassroots conference was a great experience and I learned a lot about what people are doing to make their communities better........I look forward to attending again.

September 1, 2008

What We're Doing On the Ground

I'm packing my bags for Chicago - headed there for Grassroots Grantmakers' first "on the ground" gathering with fifty of my most respected colleagues. With this event, we're combining two practices that have been at the heart of our network since its inception - learning in place and learning from each other.

The learning in place part is about context - that the work of grassroots grantmaking is tailor made to where it exists "on the ground". This week, the place is Chicago, and specifically the neighborhoods on Chicago's South and West sides. We are partnering with two Chicago member organizations, the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Steans Family Foundation to help us get grounded in their work in these places. And, since this is Chicago, where community organizing is in the water, the theme that runs through our time together will be building resident power and capacity for change. We'll spend this Thursday out in Chicago neighborhoods, getting an "on the ground" perspective of the work of these two funders in these two areas of Chicago.

On Friday, we'll use our common experience "on the ground" to go deeper into the work that we are all doing in our hometowns to build resident power and capacity for change. This day will focus on learning from each other - what happens when people engaged in the practice of grassroots grantmaking from different communities having enough time together, face to face, to do more than compare notes. Since networking and sharing is the goal, this gathering is small by design. But the people who are coming are big in vision, experience and perspective, an indication that the sharing will be extremely rich. Included will be foundation presidents, program officers, community residents, grantmaking committee members, technical assistance providers, community organizers, evaluators, and bankers - an amazing group of people and perspectives that will allow us to get a unique look at the question that we're all asking - "why is this so hard?"

I'll be blogging this week from Chicago to give you an update on how it's going and to share some of the gems that we're sure to discover. Stay tuned.....

August 21, 2008

Grassroots Grantmaking & Local Democracy: Where's the Connection?

Matt Leighninger. author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance and executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, was Grassroots Grantmakers' guest this week for a topical conference call.

Matt talked about a shift in the citizen-government relationship that he feels is impacting just about every field and inspiring new attempts to make local democracy work. He attributes this shift to changes in both citizens and public officials. Citizens are more skeptical, more informed, more pressed for time, and more wired into information than ever before. Public officials have fewer resources and less trust from the public. They are also tired of being in conflict with citizens and less able to hide behind jargon.

As Matt talked about the notion that the relationship between local government and citizens is shifting from parent-child to adult-adult, and how both local governments and citizens are adjusting to that shift, I began to think of the implications for grassroots grantmaking. And there are indeed implications, as suggested by the quick poll that we took of the participants in our topical call. When asked if local democracy is changing in their communities, 80% said yes. And, when asked how central local democracy is to their work in the grassroots grantmaking arena, 80% said that it is "front and center".

As I thought about this, I couldn't help but flash back to my early days as a grantmaker - managing a new grassroots grantmaking program for the Community Foundation in Memphis - only a couple of years before Matt began his work with the Study Circles Resource Center (now Everyday Democracy) that led to his book. As I listened to Matt, I realized that I too have had the opportunity to witness this change, but had not, until this week's conversation, thought much about grassroots grantmaking "then" and grassroots grantmaking "now".


In 1991, we assumed that every neighborhood needs a neighborhood association. Just one. But a good one. A neighborhood association that can represent the neighborhood before City Council as a sort of quasi-governmental entity. A neighborhood association that can speak with authority and confidence about what is good for the neighborhood - what people in that neighborhood want for the future.

Our strategy was to find baby associations or people who wanted to form associations, help them get stronger through grants and technical assistance, encourage them to keep going by acknowledging their success and offering another grant, and position them for bigger grants from other local funders. Bigger grants over time = stronger associations = better representation of the neighborhood at the big tables where decisions are made that affect people's lives.


What we have seen is that it's just not that simple. Neighborhood associations can be wonderful - or horrible. They can be inclusive or exclusive. They can invite people into active citizenship or shut them out, with only a select group of neighborhood experts allowed to play the active citizenship role.

Maybe it's experience with calcified neighborhood associations or simply because of the amount of change that we are now seeing at the community level, but funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking are thinking beyond neighborhood associations.
  • When our friends with The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program, began connecting with people in the Original Aurora neighborhood, they proactively reached out to parents groups and other types of associations - places where the newcomers in the Original Aurora neighborhood gathered around common interests.
  • In Seattle, staff with the Nonprofit Assistance Center find that in their increasingly diverse community, groups are often more strongly defined by culture than by geography, and that grassroots grantmaking through exclusive lens of "place" is limiting.
  • In Greensboro, capacity building work with neighborhood associations and Hispanic immigrant groups is running along parallel tracks.
  • Our friends at The Woods Fund of Chicago are discovering that an interest in building resident power and capacity for change does not reside only in groups that identify with community organizing - and that casting a wider net can yield some surprising results.
It seems to me that the common thread that runs through the grassroots grantmaking that I see today has a much more adult-adult feel than the grassroots grantmaking of the past. More about everyone as a leader than anointing the naturally gifted leaders. More about making room at the table than identifying who should sit at the head of the table. More about being open to a wider array of possibilities of how people find their way to active citizenship and change making.

My early experience in grassroots grantmaking was about being true to one path - the path of helping neighborhood associations get strong enough to connect with the world where the real deals are cut. What I'm seeing now in the grassroots grantmaking world is not nearly so clear cut. It's about many paths, with good, inclusive, neighborhood associations as just one way of many. With community organizing as one path of many. With study circles as one path of many. With cultural groups as one path of many.

This feels right to me. And what Matt is saying feels very right to me.

Thanks, Matt, for being with us. Looking forward to continuing the dialogue!

July 23, 2008

On Citizening-ing and Volunteering

I took some time today to check in on some blogs that I follow and actually began this post as a comment to Robert Thalhimer's Philanthromedia post, "Inspiring Young People About Civic Engagement". I decided instead to come home to this blog when my comment became super-sized and I saw that I was writing about a personal quandary instead of commenting on Robert's interesting post.

When I read Robert's post, I realized that the word "volunteer" has become somewhat of a trigger for me. Here's why:
  1. I think of volunteering as optional - as something that extra-nice people do with time that other people use for work or amusement or just goofing off, or at a time in their life when their lifetime to-do list has a lot of checks.
  2. I think of volunteering as a "should" and associate it with some degree of guilt that I'm not volunteering enough or I'm not willing to volunteer whenever I'm asked or that I have not enjoyed some volunteering that I have done.
  3. I think of the hidden meaning behind the following phrases:
I'm only a volunteer.
She's only a volunteer.
He's only a volunteer.
We're only volunteers.
They're just volunteers.
I believe that "volunteer" and "volunteering" are words that have many meanings. The common denominator among all meanings is "work without pay". But to me, volunteering also suggests a selfless quality; when you are volunteering, you are working without pay AND without personal benefit or gain except the good feeling that comes with doing good. You are selflessly working for someone else - to advance some one's agenda or to help someone else in need.

For this reason, I flinch a bit when I hear people working in their own neighborhoods or playing active citizen roles in their own communities described as volunteers.

When I was most active in my neighborhood - working endless hours without pay - there was a lot of "self" there. It was my life, my children, my house, my street, my neighbors, and my neighborhood that was at stake. Whether or not I was actively involved, I went to sleep and woke up in the same place each day - a place that could get better, stay the same, or decline. There were direct consequences for me if I spent my day on the couch with the soaps rather than at a City Council meeting.

In the years that I've been associated with grassroots grantmaking, I've met hundreds of people just like me who were "volunteering" in their own neighborhoods.

And, I've seen others who could also be described as "volunteers" in these same neighborhoods - the group from the bank who came out to help with a Saturday clean-up, the people from the social service agency who tutored kids from the local school, the group from a church who volunteered to work on a Habitat for Humanity house. With no disrespect to anyone who volunteers, I want to suggest that the volunteering that is done by neighborhood residents is not the same thing as the volunteering that is done by others who go home to other neighborhoods or set of circumstances - people who have a real "opt-in/opt-out" choice when it comes to dealing with that specific set of challenges.

I remember a dinner conversation last summer about the word "citizen" - about how unfortunate it is that we are reluctant to use the word "citizen" now because of its association with legal status and the immigration debate. And, about how uniquely "citizen" describes what is required of us to make our communities work - our day to day unpaid jobs in our communities.

To me, "citizen" is the word that describes my role in my neighborhood. I was involved because it was my responsibility to be involved and because there were consequences if I didn't fulfill these responsibilities. I was not being selfless; I was working from self-interest. And I only described myself as "just a volunteer" when the "getting paid" people in the picture were trying to unfairly unload their work on me in the cloak of citizen participation.

My hunch is that others feel this difference too. And my wish is that we had a different set of words we could use when we're tempted to describe all work-without-pay as volunteering. An expanded vocabulary would help those of us involved in grassroots grantmaking immensely - enabling us to better communicate what we mean when we say we are supporting residents in their active citizenship roles. And, helping us value and validate this type of "work-without-pay".

An expanded vocabulary might also be useful to Robert Thalhimer and others who want to engage young people in civic engagement - making it easier for us to let young people know that it's okay for self-interest to enter the picture. That working from self-interest may be where they find the passion that propels them forward. That this type of "volunteering" may even be noble. That it's expected, not a choice.

What do you think? Is there indeed a difference between "citizen-ing" and "volunteering"?

July 17, 2008

Sponsorships! A Common Sense Approach to the Same Project/Next Year Dilemma

Here's a common dilemma in the grassroots grantmaking world. A neighborhood group does a good job with their first grant. You're glad when they come back the next year with another request. You hope that they have been inspired and energized by their success and are now ready to take on something else - something meatier, something more challenging, something closer to "root cause".

Oops. Here they are again with a request for the same project. The July 4 picnic/pet parade was so successful that they want to do it again - this July 4. They are now adding some craft booths to the activities, but otherwise, this is a same project/next year request. You can say "yes" with some encouragement that they look deeper or even a warning that you won't support the same request next year. Or you could do what the Battle Creek Community Foundation did - get real with a solution that honors the group, acknowledges the role that annual events play in creating community, and preserves your change-oriented grantmaking orientation.

Before I say more about Battle Creek's approach, I want to reflect on the importance of annual events such as neighborhood festivals. The Cooper-Young neighborhood is now one of the "coolest" (also hottest) neighborhoods in Memphis. But it was a throw-away neighborhood at one time - at least to those who didn't live there. It was a festival that played a central role in the neighborhood's turn-around. Yes, yes - the city invested CDBG funds here, and the community foundation made grants here too. But the festival, beginning more almost two decades ago ago as a rinky-dink affair on the Methodist Church's parking lot, was a key contributor. It didn't happen over night, but the festival is now what brings people from all over Memphis into Cooper-Young. It is the festival that helped birth the Cooper-Young Business Association. It is the festival that brought more people into the action in Cooper-Young -creating a venue for friend-making/neighbor-making that has untold spin-off benefits for the neighborhood.

The Battle Creek Community Foundation's sponsorship program is one of the most creative approaches that I've seen for acknowledging the importance of very local recurring activities like the Cooper-Youth Festival and managing this same grant/next year challenge.

Kathy Szenda Wilson, manager of BCCF's Neighborhood Grants Program, says that the sponsorship program has been incredibly gratifying for all involved and is inching its way to creating a different framework for seeking support from those on the doing end. In the past year, BCCF has sponsored 16 projects totaling $40,000 - projects that range from a Juneteenth Celebration to a youth basketball camp to a summer music camp to a youth entrepreneurship showcase.

So how does this work? How is this different from a regular grant? It's wonderfully simple. Here are the basics:
  • The sponsorship program is only open to Neighborhood Grants Program grantees - organizations that have been through the regular grant process;
  • Groups complete a simple one-page application. The foundation and the grantmaking committee already have relationships with the applicants, so it works for the application to get right down to business;
  • The Neighborhood Grants Program's grantmaking committee reviews the application and makes a recommendation;
  • Organizations that receive sponsorships are encouraged to find other sponsors - with the stamp of approval from the Battle Creek Community Foundation as a great ice breaker for those sponsorship conversations.
Kathy says that the Battle Creek Community Foundation originally intended to cap sponsorships to 12 per year, but have since found sponsorships to be such an effective tool that the committee chose to remain flexible and try out working in a more demand-driven way.

There are a couple of things about the BCCF approach that I find particularly refreshing. First, the foundation has put aside the frequent "they might grow to depend on us paranoia" that funders often have to acknowledge what it takes to produce these annual events and the pathway to self-sufficiency. Second, they are getting real about what it means to build a respectful relationship with grantees - saying with this expedited grant process that we trust you, we believe in you, and we think what you're doing has value. And, they are leveraging their money in a practical way that helps groups develop new partners - new "sponsors". Simple, straight-forward, no funder mumbo-jumbo.....and clearly another way to demonstrate the "we begin with residents" value of grassroots grantmaking.

I think that the Battle Creek Community Foundation is on to something!

July 8, 2008

Small Grants are Adding Up in Cleveland

For anyone who might think that small grants are no big deal, book a trip to Cleveland. There you will find Neighborhood Connections, the largest small grants program in the United States. What do I mean by large? I mean large in all ways - large in vision, large in commitment, large in dollars, large in scale, large in impact.

Neighborhood Connections was launched five years ago by The Cleveland Foundation, the granddaddy of all community foundations, founded in 1914 as the world's first community foundation. It is currently the nation's third-largest community foundation, with assets of $1.9 billion and grants in 2006 surpassing $85 million. Probably not who you think of when you think of small grants - right?

But there's a lot that's right about Neighborhood Connections. It began right - with careful and very strategic thinking about how The Cleveland Foundation could better connect neighborhood residents to each other and to the nonprofits that were at work in Cleveland's neighborhoods. The program was launched in 2003 in 11 Cleveland neighborhoods with the idea growing the program year to year until it reached all 26 Cleveland neighborhoods with grants to grassroots groups ranging from $500 - $5,000. Since 2003, Neighborhood Connections has awarded 822 grants totalling $2.98 million to 599 different groups for projects that strengthen the social networks in their communities while creatively addressing their neighborhood's most important concerns.

This is a big small grants program. But being big is not what makes Neighborhood Connections a program that I consider exemplary. Here are just a few of the reasons that I consistently point to Neighborhood Connections as one of the best:

A clear and realistic vision for the program that has grown as the program has grown. Neighborhood Connections began without overly ambitious change-the-neighborhood goals that would have set up the program for failure. Small grants were seen as a vehicle for connecting neighbors to each other. They were also seen as a complement to The Cleveland Foundation's significant bricks and mortar and economic development investments in Cleveland's neighborhoods. Now, after five years of solid work and consistent relationship-building with grassroots groups and leaders, Neighborhood Connections staff is thinking about how to connect groups to more sophisticated change agendas.

Who decides. A 25-member committee of neighborhood residents serves as Neighborhood Connections Grantmaking and Monitoring Committee - with final authority to approve grants. In my opinion, Neighborhood Connections process of recruiting, selecting and empowering this all-resident grantmaking committee has raised the bar for grassroots grantmaking programs, showing what can happen when a funder genuinely sees neighborhood residents as critical partners.

Durability. I've seen wonderful grassroots grantmaking programs wither and disappear when there is a leadership change or staff transition at the sponsoring foundation - especially when the internal champion is no longer in the picture. I've seen this happen so often that I now have a "wait and see" attitude when when I see a wonderful new program appear on the landscape. Is this a one-person show or is this work that will become part of a funding organization's DNA? Will the long-term commitment be there that is essential to reap all the benefits of the a grassroots grantmaking program? I was impressed when Neighborhood Connections continued without missing a beat when the program's original dynamic duo, Program Director Jay Talbot and Program Manager Joel Ratner, left and India Lee and Tom O'Brien took over. And, when I saw that The Cleveland Foundation recently approved another grant to continue the program for the next three years.

A learning orientation. Almost every time I've talked to Neighborhood Connections staff over the past five years, I hear about something else they are trying. Or have tried and tweaked. That's what happens when good people have time on the ground, an environment that tolerates some calculated risk-taking, and flexible resources. This learning orientation has helped the staff and Grantmaking Committee members to be thoughtful about using and custom-tailoring all the tools of grassroots grantmaking - grants, technical assistance, celebration, convening, leadership development, and community organizing.

Neighborhood Connections just celebrated 5 years of work with a day of celebration that also served as an opportunity for neighborhood residents to - guess what - get further connected to each other. Congratulations, Neighborhood Connections! We are all celebrating the way that you're showing us how a big foundation can think big about small grants.