December 5, 2008

Harwood's Community Rhythms: Grassroots Grantmaking Through a Different Lens

I follow Rich Harwood's blog, Redeeming Hope and am a fan of the work of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Here's just one reason why I'm a fan: Community Rhythms.

Community Rhythms is a framework for thinking about community context, and aligning change strategies with a community's readiness for change. It's a way for understanding why a change strategy that worked so well in one community has different results in another. Its goal is to help communities do the right thing at the right time - to build from where they are to the change that they desire.

Community Rhythms suggests that that there are five stages to community life, that each stage builds from the one before, and that knowing where you are will help you know what to do that will nurture change. Fascinating. But what is truly fascinating to me is that when I dove in to the information, especially when I looked at the description of the third stage - the Catalytic Stage - and the more detailed information about to do and not to do that in that stage, I saw the work of grassroots grantmaking.

Here's a snapshot of how Harwood describes what is going on in the Catalytic stage:
  • The Catalytic stage starts with small steps that are often imperceptible to the vast majority of people in a community.
  • Small numbers of people and organizations begin to emerge, taking risks and experimenting in ways to challenge existing community norms in how the community works.
  • The size of their actions is not the vital gauge. Their actions produce some semblance of results that give people a sense of hope.
  • As this stage unfolds, the number of organizations and people stepping forward increases, and links and networks are built between them.
And the work that is important to do in this stage? According to Harwood:
  • Try lots of small things, with room for failure. Emphasize learning.
  • Build Centers of Strength that can generate change.
  • Encourage informal conversations, natural networks, and new engagement norms.
  • Develop a new cadre of leaders.
  • Tell authentic stories of progress over time.
The tools of grassroots grantmaking are here. Small grants to emerging groups of people at the community level who are ready to begin moving their ideas into action - delivered in a way that is highly relational and supportive of learning. Convening and connecting the new groups so that they can learn from and inspire each other. Support for emerging leaders. Recognition and celebration as tools that help people claim their victories and feel hopeful about what is possible.

Seeing grassroots grantmaking in this picture is affirming - a positive signal that the road we're on is the right road if we are interested in supporting active citizens work toward community change. But placing the work of grassroots grantmaking in this bigger "community rhythms" picture is powerful. Imagine looking at your community through the lens of community rhythms. Imagine using the community rhythms framework to inform decision making about when to introduce grassroots grantmaking, when a community may have outgrown those beginning grants and are ready for something else , and how to think about progress. Imagine engaging community residents in thinking about stages of community life in their community, and what they can do to accelerate change. Imagine using community rhythms as a common language that makes it okay to acknowledge that we (not just you) do not have the capacity that we need to bring about the change that we desire, but that together we can find the path.

I encourage you to take a look at the Harwood Institute's materials. And to listen to Rich Harwood talk about Community Rhythms.

December 3, 2008

An Invitation, Not a Destination

Have you ever been thinking about something, feeling an itch to try something or tackle something, and something or someone appeared that eased you from the path of "just thinking" to the path of doing? That's how new things generally start with me.

My active citizen journey began with a knock on my door from a neighbor. It took a new turn when an elderly woman down the street took me under her wing and connected me to an amazing network of local activists who came together to save our neighborhood from an interstate highway project. It took yet another turn when I accepted my neighbor's offer to give me a ride to the annual meeting of our neighborhood group - where I was asked to help hand out materials and later to help with a project and even later to serve as president of the group.

A series of seemingly inconsequential "invitations" is how things began for me. A series of seemingly inconsequential "invitations" is what has helped me continue my journey down increasingly interesting and surprising pathways ever since.

I've begun to think that one of the most powerful "tools" of grassroots grantmaking is the "invitation" aspect inherent in the small grants programs. The notice that small grants are available and accessible to people who are not experienced grant seekers and are not associated with sophisticated non-profit groups is like my neighbor's knock on my door. Some people may not open the door. But others - those who have an idea or an "itch" that would move them from spectator to active citizen - may hear the knock and open the door. And, by opening the door, they begin a journey that will change them and change their communities.

One of the assumptions associated with grassroots grantmaking is that it requires "patient money" - a consistently available source of funds that is available to continually re-prime the active citizen pump at the block level. Isn't the power of patient money really the power of the invitation? If no one in a community hears the invitation this time, there will be another opportunity. If life gets too busy or complicated to answer the invitation this time, there will be another opportunity. If the "itch" isn't strong enough this time to make the effort to respond this time worth the effort, there will be another opportunity. And when you have begun your journey into active citizenship, the next invitation may take you around the bend in the path and deeper into your own and your community's journey toward the community that you envision.

When I think about an invitation, I think about something that is enticing, exciting, and full of possibilities. I think about a warm reception and a feeling of hospitality. When I think about some of the best small grants programs in the grassroots grantmaking world, I think about funders who have managed to bring these qualities into the grant process.
  • I think about simple applications that are written in plain language rather than funder's jargon and questions that get help people think through their idea rather than fit their idea into a box that the funder has created.
  • I think about welcoming pre-application workshops that de-mystify the application process and are respectful of people's time.
  • I think about review processes that include conversations and site visits rather than score cards and formal presentations.
  • I think about reporting requirements that foster learning and honest "taking stock", with no "cut and paste" type reports that are filed but seldom read.
  • I think about an invitation rather than a destination. A grant as the beginning of a journey rather than a means to an end. A relationship rather than a transaction.
I would love to hear how the concept of "the invitation" resonates with you and your work to support active citizenship, and what you are doing to make your work more powerfully inviting. A comment here is a great way to share. You're invited!