November 18, 2008

Dear Grassroots Grantmakers

Dear Grassroots Grantmakers:

I'm confused. For the first time, I feel like I'm part of a neighborhood. I don't know everyone but I've met some great people on my block and on the next street. We help each other out and have fun when we get together. I like feeling connected - that there are people around me who know me. And I'm surprised by the difference we've already made in our neighborhood and how good it feels to do something that we didn't think we could do!

Here's the problem. I saw something in the newspaper about grants for neighborhood projects and decided to find out what this was about. I went to a workshop and learned that yes, there's money for groups like ours and for projects like the one we have in mind. But here's what else I learned:
If we fill our a 10 page application (maybe not 10 pages......5 pages are instructions, so maybe it's only a 5 page application), show that we can raise half of the money that we will need, "float" the other half until we're reimbursed with grant funds, partner with a nonprofit that we don't even know, open a bank account in our organization's name, attend "leadership classes", show that we have a way to do the project next summer without a grant, come before a committee to answer questions, and agree to submit written reports with receipts for our purchases, we'll find out in 2-3 months if we get a grant that we can put toward purchasing paint that we'll use for the paint-up/fix-up project that we have in mind to help out the senior citizens in our neighborhood.
So here's my question. When you talk about the value of "active citizenship" and encourage people like me to add "neighborhood" to my everyday to-do list, are you also saying that I really need to add 20 more things to my list in order to get help buying paint that I apply on my day off to someone else's house? And that I should aspire for more - to become a "sustainable" organization or a "more inclusive" organization?

When I add it all up - the time I took off from work to go learn about these grants, what it will take to meet all of these requirements, and then what it will take to actually do this project, I'm wondering if this is a good idea after all.

So tell me, Grassroots Grantmakers.......what do you think? If we have just so much time and so much energy, wouldn't that time and energy be better used in our neighborhood than on these 20 things? Maybe we should just skip the paint and stay with raking leaves like we did last year.

CAC (Confused Active Citizen)

Dear CAC:

Sounds like you've had a close encounter of the funder kind.....and with a funder who is trying to do the right thing, but is pulled in many different "right thing" directions. There's the "right thing" of setting aside money for groups like yours that is clashing with the some well-intended but overboard notions about the "right thing" when it comes to being responsible about managing grant funds. And, doing the right thing by offering support other than money that will help your group be able to do even more in the future.

What I've seen is that funders who have been at the business of grassroots grantmaking for a while relax a bit when they learn that groups like yours are often even more responsible about managing grant funds - and just as good (or better) at making grant dollars go further - than many of the tried and tried nonprofit organizations that they have funded for years. It's a learning curve rather than a curve ball.

So here is my advice. In the spirit of "everyone is a teacher and a learner", I would go for it and slug away through the 20 things, get the money for the paint and do one heck of a job. And in the meantime, use every opportunity to help your funder navigate this learning curve. Invite him/her out so you can build a relationship that isn't just about the money, get to know the other groups that are receiving grants and compare notes, be frank in the reports you submit about the "cost/benefit" of all the extras that you've been asked to do and suggest some alternatives if you find these extras aren't actually helpful.

Then wait and see what happens. You may find that someone is actually listening and values what you're doing more than it appears at this point. Or you may find that they are in the funder-knows-best isolation chamber. If that's the case, there will be seniors in your neighborhood with freshly painted houses, you'll have a great project under your belt that you can use as a door-opener with another funder when you have another great idea that needs some money.

So yes, when I encourage you to keep "neighborhood" on your to-do list, I guess there are some other tasks that inevitably come along. Hopefully that list will get smaller, boiling down to just those things that are really worth doing. But I know one thing for sure. What you are doing in your neighborhood is definitely worth doing and the best recipe for "sustainable" is keeping it real, keeping it fun, and keeping it about what you and your neighbors value the most.

Here's to active citizens - and to-do lists that matter!


  1. Well said, Janis. Every funder should be open to honest feedback on their grant process and a realistic assessment of their expectations. You're also right that sometimes the paperwork and process that comes out the door is the best negotiation staff can achieve at that point with their board and/or donor. Sometimes the funder's staff will need the constituent feedback to help the board/donor see new ways of doing business.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Tony. I agree that grantees can be extremely helpful to staff in making the case for a different type of process. Too bad we don't have a good way to "trade places" so grantmakers can get a clearer picture of what it's like to be one of their grantees, and grantees can get a better picture of what the grantmaker is managing.