March 11, 2008

True Confession from a Neighborhood Gatekeeper

Neighborhood gatekeepers....who are they and what do they have to do with grassroots grantmaking?

Grassroots grantmaking is a powerful tool that funders are using in creative ways to support community residents as creators of the communities that they want. Grassroots grantmaking is how funding by-passes the nonprofit service providing filter that is in place with so many funding organizations to support associations - those building blocks of active citizenship that Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight describe as in their now classic book, Building Communities from the Inside Out. My experience - like the experience of dozens of funders with grassroots grantmaking experience - is that grassroots grantmaking can use small grants as the invitation to people in neighborhoods to join with a neighbor to move a desire, dream or good idea into action. It is that "getting into action" that so often helps people find their voice and find their place as active citizens in their neighborhood. More people involved, more connections among residents, more room at the table for neighborhood voices and perspectives that have been missing – this is the promise of grassroots grantmaking.

I was visiting recently with a funder that has been at this work for some time – doing a wonderful job – but now finding that they are receiving the same applications from the same organizations for the same activities. There’s the sense that the neighborhood leadership well is running dry.

My hunch is that the well is not dry. It's probably dammed up by something that might be hard to recognize as a dam – the established neighborhood organizations and old-time leaders in the neighborhood. These may be the noble people who have been carrying the banner for the neighborhood for years – the ones who have made sure that their group is registered with City Hall, who religiously attend public meetings to speak for the neighborhood, who are the people that reporters call when they need a comment from a neighbor, the ones who you as a funder may have recruited to provide the neighborhood perspective on an issue. All with the best intentions.

I know because I've been a gate-keeper - President at one time of one of the best-known and most powerful neighborhood organizations in Memphis, my hometown for a time. We - 25 people in a neighborhood of 1450 households - were the volunteer leadership of an organization that navigated our neighborhood through some very tough issues and came out with wins on all fronts that benefited everyone. The price we paid, however, was that we had to stay focused on our big issue and run a tight ship. Not much room at the table for people who weren't so focused on our big issue or who weren't comfortable in a tight ship. I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, but yes, I was a neighborhood gatekeeper. And, with an understanding heart, I see others who have assumed that role and appreciate the hard road that they are traveling.

If you’re grassroots grantmaking program is “drying up” – you might look around to see if it is really being “dammed up” by those well-intentioned leaders and neighborhood groups in your community - people like me who have "neighborhood leader" down to an art, and are unintentionally cutting others out of the action. And if that’s the case, get out your divining rod to help you spot the new pools of community energy that are there in every community - ready to bubble up!

Divining rod? Not really. But this would be a good time to take a fresh look at how you are reaching out, what messages your funding application/cycle/criteria/requirements are sending, and consider tweaks or even program face lift. The established organizations and leaders are important to keep in the fold, but what else can you do to create more pathways in to your grassroots grantmaking program for those groups and people who are now on the sidelines?

I could talk about my friends at The Denver Foundation, who are experts at creating new paths and new doorways that invite for new groups and people - and probably will in future posts - but invite you now to join me in thinking about neighborhood gatekeepers.
  • What have you learned about spotting and honoring neighborhood gatekeepers?

  • What "divining rod" tactics have you found to help you connect with new people and groups who may be right outside the gate?

1 comment:

  1. This is a real salient issue, from my experience. It's a fine line between ensuring progress while honoring the history of long-time neighborhood leaders. I'd love to hear about people's experiences and successes with gatekeeping in neighborhoods!