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.