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!

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