May 1, 2008

Working in the Gap Part 2: Gapper Organizations

I just returned from a gathering of senior staff of a particular type of gapper institution that is especially important in the grassroots grantmaking world. They are known by different names - the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods, Seattle's Nonprofit Assistance Center, Neighborhood Resource Center of Colorado, PRO Neighborhoods - but all work in the gapper space. If we are using big systems terminology, we might call these organizations local intermediaries. If we are using community terminology, we might call them funder, trainer, coach, or helper. Whatever we call them, when organizations like these are at their best, the wheels of resident-driven change are turning.

Grassroots Grantmakers sponsored this gathering - a modest gesture to help connect people who serve as leaders of local intermediaries so that they can support each other as colleagues and think together about how to calm the waters in which local gapper institutions work. I served as the director of a local intermediary in the early years of my career, and have informally tracked the comings and goings in the local intermediary world ever since. My interest was peaked recently by two things: the number of gapper organizations that are in a funding role and are tapping into Grassroots Grantmakers information network, and the demise of two organizations that have been around for years and have had, from what I can tell as an outsider, outstanding track records. My peaked interest led me to ask people with a number of gapper organizations if they had access to peers at other like-organizations in other cities; the answer was consistently "no".

So imagine that you're building and leading the one-of-a-kind organization in your community, and have no sounding board, "wise elders" or place to turn for support, problem solving and effective practice info. Thus, this gathering.

After day and a half of networking and focused conversations with this amazing group of savvy nonprofit leaders, I was struck by three things:

  • Yes, indeed - when these gapper organizations are humming, the work is amazing. And, no matter what it is called (training, coaching, information-providing, granting), these organizations do the work of connecting. When the work is good, the connecting is done with a deep appreciation for the people and groups at the grassroots who are so often outside the circle of connections. There was no "us and them" in the air in this gathering (as in those of us who know vs. those of us who don't know). Instead, there was passion for making connections in a myriad of creative ways so the electricity could flow.

  • The bottom up/top down nature of the connecting that these organizations do. Even though these organizations' first priority is grassroots groups, mainstream entities show up as important secondary customers. These groups host focus groups, gather information, provide feedback, manage grant programs, and serve as sounding boards for funders, local governments and other large institutions -a reminder that when a good "gapper" is at work, information flows both ways - that traffic in the gap drives on a two-way street.

  • The flexibility and versatility that this work requires. Work in the evenings and weekends is standard fare. So is facilitating, training, and special event planning......also writing, documenting, publicizing. Then there's the high degree of cultural competency required to move between and among different cultural groups on a daily basis. Oh....and then there's all of the basis "running an organization" matters - budgeting, fund-raising, working with a board, hiring and managing staff, finding office space, etc.
As I sat listening to the discussion at this gathering and thought about conversations I have had with leaders of now defunct "gapper" local intermediaries, I heard about some interesting dilemmas:
  • In order to maintain the funding that is required to do the job, local intermediaries must demonstrate value (of course), but often in outcome language that is an awkward match for their work.

  • In order to maintain healthy capacity building relationships with the grassroots groups on the ground, these same organizations must constantly move to the back of the room and out of the spotlight, letting the credit go to the organizations that they have assisted.

  • They cannot do a good job in the capacity building role without adequate funding, but politically cannot compete for funding with the organizations that they are there to help.

  • While their work is ultimately about magnifying resident voice, they are often asked by main-line organizations to speak for resident groups when it's impractical to have residents at the table.
I can imagine how easy it would be to trip over one of these dilemmas or to find yourself burned out from the constant, in-motion negotiating and translating that leading a gapper organization requires. I wouldn't have been surprised to hear some group whining, but that just didn't happen - even when we turned from trading tips to talking about the last question of the day - what could we do together to help these gapper organizations and others like them be more effective and more stable.

Is there a "gapper" organization in your community? Tell us about how it's working, what difference it's making, and if the observations that I'm sharing here are on target.

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