March 13, 2008

Grassroots Grantmaking at GEO's 2008 Conference

I've just returned from San Francisco and 3 days at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' 2008 conference.

Here are 3 quick highlights that relate to grassroots grantmaking:

1) I attended a session on Movement Capacity Building, designed by Frances Kunreither (Building Movement Project), with presenters Maya Wiley (Center for Social Inclusion) and Sylvia Yee (Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund). I may have been engaging in selective listening, but the call for grassroots grantmaking came through loud and clear in this session:

  • Maya Wiley noted noted that we (philanthropic organizations) are not sufficiently building base constituencies and providing opportunities for citizens to experience and practice democracy - investing in the groundwork for social movements;

  • Sylvia Yee called for more attention to developing "bench strength" - the second tier of leadership in organizations and communities that allows organizations and communities stay engaged for the long-haul and work through social networks;

  • The speakers suggested that funders should guard against providing too much support too soon - that doing so often pushes the funders agenda and stymies leadership development.

Isn't this how grassroots grantmaking fits in a larger social change/social movement landscape? It provides an invitation to people to take on the role of "citizen" and the support needed to practice democracy via projects right on their block. It builds bench strength by expanding and nurturing community-level leaders. It utilizes grantmaking practice that does is built on relationships rather than money in the interest of supporting resident agendas, not pushing funding agendas.

2) I also attended Foundation Transformation for Community Transformation: Lessons Learned from Place Based Grantmaking, designed by Marie Columbo (The Skillman Foundation) with presenters Carol Goss (The Skillman Foundation), Prue Brown (Independent Consultant), Lise Maisano (S.H. Cowell Foundation), and Susan Curnan (Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis University).

There were several points made in this session that are particularly relevant for grassroots grantmakers - those funders who are committed to supported residents as change-makers in their communities:

  • Prue Brown talked about the difference between grantmaking and change-making. Making grants as your primary mission or using grants (and other tools at your disposal as a foundation) to make change? The grassroots grantmakers that I know are in the change-making column (or are working hard to get there).

  • Prue also talked about pace - the importance of not letting community transformation get ahead of foundation transformation. Why? A foundation may not be able to see progress or identify next steps if the internal transformation from grantmaker to change-maker is lagging. This is not to suggest that a foundation should put the brakes on community change, but instead to suggest that adequate time and attention be devoted to foundation transformation and the learning that comes with a new role.

  • Carol Goss shared the story of The Skillman Foundation's transformation from a grantmaker to a change-maker. She talked about the change-maker role as exciting and seductive, and followed up on Prue's point about pacing by saying how essential it is to keep a foundation's board engaged, informed and learning, so that the foundation does not disappoint the community. She talked about the importance of identifying short-term wins while framing the work as long-term work. The short-term wins are key to pacing the work - working simultaneously on community change and foundation change.

3) Finally, I was surprised and delighted to hear people I didn't recognize as participants in Grassroots Grantmakers' activities talking about grassroots grantmaking! It was less than two years ago that Grassroots Grantmakers adopted its new name and began talking about grassroots grantmaking as a practice. Hearing casual reference to grassroots grantmaking - with hints that what people were talking about is a pretty good match to what we have in mind when we talk about grassroots grantmaking - was tremendously exciting. Grassroots Grantmaker's vision is for grassroots grantmaking to be in the philanthropic mainstream. Is this evidence that we're making progress toward that vision?

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