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.

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