March 29, 2008

New Thinking from Steve Mayer on Just Philanthropy

I received a note from Steve Mayer with a new resource that I want to share. Steve's firm, Effective Communities, has launched a website, to help philanthropy move closer to social justice and racial equity. The site carries a practical and optimistic tone, insisting that progress is possible. It includes key pathways and promising practices for philanthropic investment, benchmarks, links to practitioner organizations, resource articles, and tools.

Take a look at pathways to progress on the website - a tool that can help you see where you are and where you can move forward in ways that can close gaps and level playing fields. Steve says that helping your own organization and others make progress on these pathways is what spells success. The paths include:

  • Preparing: Gearing your organization’s efforts to achieve greater effectiveness in its mission along with success in reducing disparities.

  • Talking: Searching for the high road – learning how to talk about challenging issues without flaming the room.

  • Solutions: Moving promising solutions from idea to successful implementation.

  • Leadership: Strengthening relationships based on trust inside and outside the organization, strengthening and broadening networks, and surfacing leadership that can bridge divides.

  • Philanthropy: Gathering philanthropic assets – time, talent, and treasure – and focusing them on the chosen goal.

  • Fixing: Putting these all together to fix a particular broken part of our society’s systems and markets to achieve better balance.

The funders in my world - those involved with grassroots grantmaking who already have at least a foot in social justice and racial equity work - may find that these materials can help them be more intentional about taking their work deeper. The relationships that they have because of their grassroots grantmaking work and the organizational commitment that funding resident-initiated and led neighborhood work requires gives them a head start for the deeper work that Steve describes.

For those of you who don't know, Steve Mayer was the founder of Rainbow Research and the author, with David Scheie, of Supporting Low-Income Neighborhoods: A Guide for Community Foundations - a 1989 publication that has stood the test of time as one of the best basic resources for funders who want to get into grassroots grantmaking.

March 25, 2008

Top-Down/Bottom-Up: Part 2

Here's a question that I've been thinking about since last week's top-down/bottom-up posting on the closing of branch libraries and community centers in Memphis:

If branch libraries and community centers are indeed valuable neighborhood anchors, why aren't neighborhood residents outraged, or at least speaking out, about their imminent closure? If the "top" has made a decision that will be bad for the neighborhood, where is the "bottom" (and why aren't we hearing from them)?

This question led me to a wonderful new report issued by the Woods Fund of Chicago on Chicago's South Side Initiative. After looking at the distribution of their grants over the past decade, the Woods Fund, with its long history of support for community organizing in Chicago, asked why some of the poorest and most distressed neighborhoods in Chicago were not engaged in community organizing. What they learned is that residents in these communities thought that organizing was about asking the government to provide needed services - not increasing the power of citizens to shape the future of their neighborhoods and the larger community. The Woods Fund learned that they needed to invest in increasing organizing capacity on the South Side - identifying opportunities to connect with residents and grassroots groups in new ways, and supporting their learning journey about the difference between asking for services and working from a position of knowledge and power.

Community organizing is in the water in Chicago. It's not in the water - or anywhere else - in Memphis and many other cities, especially in the South. This plays out with neighborhood residents taking on a service agenda as volunteers - volunteering to clean up their park, volunteering to fight crime as part of a walking patrol, volunteering to provide kids with more options after school or in the summer.

Volunteering is wonderful. But there are questions behind the issues - parks, crime, youth - that need more than volunteering. They need people acting as "active citizens" - bringing their values, their wisdom, and their hopes for their community to policy and decision-making tables with authority and power. When volunteering is the only perceived role for residents, it's a lot easier for residents to accept decisions such as those the Memphis Mayor made about branch libraries and community centers as outside of their control and not really their business.

There are important lessons from the Woods Fund's South Side Initiative for such places. And, a reminder from Memphis about why this lesson matters.

March 21, 2008

Lessons from Memphis on Top-Down/Bottom-Up

Please excuse me while I rant a bit about some recent news from Memphis, my second home town.

This week, Memphis' Mayor of 16 years made two startling announcements. On Thursday he announced that he is closing 5 branch libraries and 4 community centers as a cost-cutting measure. On Friday, he announced that he is stepping down as Mayor - just 5 months after his latest re-election.

It may be time for him to go. But my heart aches when I think of how much money and civic energy went into the last election-for-nothing, and how much damage to some of the most fragile neighborhoods in Memphis will be done by closing some of the only neighborhood anchors - branch libraries and community centers - for the sake of a few pennies in the big financial picture.

(If you're curious about what's going on in Memphis, Tom Jones, in his recent post on his Smart City Memphis blog, Cutting the Threads in Memphis Neighborhoods, does of great job of putting some context around the situation.)

Implications for Grasssroots Grantmaking:

As someone who worked with and on behalf of Memphis neighborhoods for two decades, here is the lesson for me in this announcement (and this is one that I have had the opportunity to learn many times!).

Bottom-up needs top-down.
Top-down needs bottom-up.

A lot of good bottom-up neighborhood work has been done in Memphis neighborhoods over the years. Support for this has been sporadic, however. There seems to be a "new day for neighborhoods" on a regular basis that is just that - a new day, rather a week, a month, a year or what is really needed - a consistent effort. In places where there is a consistent effort, there is something in the water about this bottom-up/top-down lesson.

I have seen how powerful it can be when major institutions such as place-based philanthropies have the foresight and acumen to work both bottom-up and top-down. I have also seen unrealistic expectations placed on bottom-up strategies when there is no top-down strategy in place. And, guess what. The bottom-up strategy fails to meet expectations so it is deemed a failure and business goes on as usual.

I've seen the same thing happen when top-down strategies fail to meet expectations. In Memphis, the spin-doctors move in with a "let's pretend this was successful" message or the out-of-town expert associated with the strategy gets appointed flak-catcher. But business goes on as usual.

Working both bottom-up and top-down is tricky. It is hard to see the other way when you are deeply involved in one. It's hard to carve out the time from the day-to-day to look for the top-down/bottom-up connections. And it's often hard to convince the believers in one way or the other that both approaches are needed and equally valuable. And if you can get over the believing hump, then there's knowing what to do.

When I was managing the grassroots grantmaking program in Memphis, I was carrying the bottom-up banner inside my foundation, and, as this banner carrier, found it especially challenging to make the case for the top-down connection - for example, work with city government on issues such as community centers or neighborhood libraries. We were doing top-down work, but not work that was linked to our bottom-up work. I'm not sure that I knew how to make the connection, and guess that the top-down folks in our world felt the same way. At times we came together in our heads but not on the ground. We were doing good things, but if we could have made that top-down/bottom-up connection really work, we could have found some magic.

The news from Memphis this week has been discouraging. I can imagine some win-win scenarios if the Mayor had offered the City's dilemma with branch libraries and community centers as a question (how can our community come together to strengthen these valuable neighborhood anchors?) rather than an answer (5 libraries and 4 community centers will be closed). I can also imagine what might have happened if the neighborhoods in question had more actively "owned" their library or community center (a topic for another time).

I know from my work with Grassroots Grantmakers that others are struggling with and learning about this bottom-up, top-down challenge too. I'm curious about how this question looks from your vantage point. How do you keep the parallel tracks of top-down, bottom-up going - and going in sync?

March 18, 2008

A Map is Worth 1000 Pictures

Kathy Pettit (Research Associate with the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership) and John Stern (Executive Director of Nashville's Neighborhoods Resource Center) were guests today on a topical call hosted by Grassroots Grantmakers. The topic was "Connecting Grassroots Groups to Data: Lessons form the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership".

John made two points that I flagged as particularly important.

John talked about ground truth - what people who live in an area know about their community. He talked about the power of connecting data and ground truth. He noted how close ground truth often is to what the data says is happening in a community. He talked about sharing the intersection of data and ground truth with code enforcement people or police officers or university data crunchers, and how this intersection can help these well-intentioned outsiders really believe for the first time that neighborhood residents have something to contribute - that they really are the experts on their community.

He also reminded us that a picture is worth 1,000 words, but that a map is worth 1,000 pictures.

His statement reminded me of a time before GIS-era mapping when I was heading up the Center for Neighborhoods in Memphis, and in a desperate hunt for maps that neighborhood groups could use to see spatial relationships in their own communities. I finally sweet-talked my way into one map - one map that hung in OUR office and I guarded with my life!

In these days of GIS and public access to data that we only dreamed about in those dark ages, how powerful - and ridiculously easy - it would be for a funder to see that every neighborhood grantee has easy access to maps. Big maps to post on the wall of the neighborhood meeting place. Maps that people can draw on, stick things to, and use to chart progress of all kinds. Special maps that are designed to inform thinking on special issues. Maps to kick-off planning of all kinds.

When we think about the big things, let's not forget the easier, but powerful things, like maps. And, remembering that the neighborhood residents that we are funding with our grassroots grantmaking programs have special expertise that cannot be found elsewhere.

Thanks, John, for these reminders. With grassroots grantmaking, we are funding experts - with ground truth that makes the data come alive. And, as funders, we have the power to make help big things happen with a phone call. Like maps.

March 13, 2008

Grassroots Grantmaking at GEO's 2008 Conference

I've just returned from San Francisco and 3 days at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' 2008 conference.

Here are 3 quick highlights that relate to grassroots grantmaking:

1) I attended a session on Movement Capacity Building, designed by Frances Kunreither (Building Movement Project), with presenters Maya Wiley (Center for Social Inclusion) and Sylvia Yee (Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund). I may have been engaging in selective listening, but the call for grassroots grantmaking came through loud and clear in this session:

  • Maya Wiley noted noted that we (philanthropic organizations) are not sufficiently building base constituencies and providing opportunities for citizens to experience and practice democracy - investing in the groundwork for social movements;

  • Sylvia Yee called for more attention to developing "bench strength" - the second tier of leadership in organizations and communities that allows organizations and communities stay engaged for the long-haul and work through social networks;

  • The speakers suggested that funders should guard against providing too much support too soon - that doing so often pushes the funders agenda and stymies leadership development.

Isn't this how grassroots grantmaking fits in a larger social change/social movement landscape? It provides an invitation to people to take on the role of "citizen" and the support needed to practice democracy via projects right on their block. It builds bench strength by expanding and nurturing community-level leaders. It utilizes grantmaking practice that does is built on relationships rather than money in the interest of supporting resident agendas, not pushing funding agendas.

2) I also attended Foundation Transformation for Community Transformation: Lessons Learned from Place Based Grantmaking, designed by Marie Columbo (The Skillman Foundation) with presenters Carol Goss (The Skillman Foundation), Prue Brown (Independent Consultant), Lise Maisano (S.H. Cowell Foundation), and Susan Curnan (Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis University).

There were several points made in this session that are particularly relevant for grassroots grantmakers - those funders who are committed to supported residents as change-makers in their communities:

  • Prue Brown talked about the difference between grantmaking and change-making. Making grants as your primary mission or using grants (and other tools at your disposal as a foundation) to make change? The grassroots grantmakers that I know are in the change-making column (or are working hard to get there).

  • Prue also talked about pace - the importance of not letting community transformation get ahead of foundation transformation. Why? A foundation may not be able to see progress or identify next steps if the internal transformation from grantmaker to change-maker is lagging. This is not to suggest that a foundation should put the brakes on community change, but instead to suggest that adequate time and attention be devoted to foundation transformation and the learning that comes with a new role.

  • Carol Goss shared the story of The Skillman Foundation's transformation from a grantmaker to a change-maker. She talked about the change-maker role as exciting and seductive, and followed up on Prue's point about pacing by saying how essential it is to keep a foundation's board engaged, informed and learning, so that the foundation does not disappoint the community. She talked about the importance of identifying short-term wins while framing the work as long-term work. The short-term wins are key to pacing the work - working simultaneously on community change and foundation change.

3) Finally, I was surprised and delighted to hear people I didn't recognize as participants in Grassroots Grantmakers' activities talking about grassroots grantmaking! It was less than two years ago that Grassroots Grantmakers adopted its new name and began talking about grassroots grantmaking as a practice. Hearing casual reference to grassroots grantmaking - with hints that what people were talking about is a pretty good match to what we have in mind when we talk about grassroots grantmaking - was tremendously exciting. Grassroots Grantmaker's vision is for grassroots grantmaking to be in the philanthropic mainstream. Is this evidence that we're making progress toward that vision?

March 11, 2008

True Confession from a Neighborhood Gatekeeper

Neighborhood gatekeepers....who are they and what do they have to do with grassroots grantmaking?

Grassroots grantmaking is a powerful tool that funders are using in creative ways to support community residents as creators of the communities that they want. Grassroots grantmaking is how funding by-passes the nonprofit service providing filter that is in place with so many funding organizations to support associations - those building blocks of active citizenship that Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight describe as in their now classic book, Building Communities from the Inside Out. My experience - like the experience of dozens of funders with grassroots grantmaking experience - is that grassroots grantmaking can use small grants as the invitation to people in neighborhoods to join with a neighbor to move a desire, dream or good idea into action. It is that "getting into action" that so often helps people find their voice and find their place as active citizens in their neighborhood. More people involved, more connections among residents, more room at the table for neighborhood voices and perspectives that have been missing – this is the promise of grassroots grantmaking.

I was visiting recently with a funder that has been at this work for some time – doing a wonderful job – but now finding that they are receiving the same applications from the same organizations for the same activities. There’s the sense that the neighborhood leadership well is running dry.

My hunch is that the well is not dry. It's probably dammed up by something that might be hard to recognize as a dam – the established neighborhood organizations and old-time leaders in the neighborhood. These may be the noble people who have been carrying the banner for the neighborhood for years – the ones who have made sure that their group is registered with City Hall, who religiously attend public meetings to speak for the neighborhood, who are the people that reporters call when they need a comment from a neighbor, the ones who you as a funder may have recruited to provide the neighborhood perspective on an issue. All with the best intentions.

I know because I've been a gate-keeper - President at one time of one of the best-known and most powerful neighborhood organizations in Memphis, my hometown for a time. We - 25 people in a neighborhood of 1450 households - were the volunteer leadership of an organization that navigated our neighborhood through some very tough issues and came out with wins on all fronts that benefited everyone. The price we paid, however, was that we had to stay focused on our big issue and run a tight ship. Not much room at the table for people who weren't so focused on our big issue or who weren't comfortable in a tight ship. I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, but yes, I was a neighborhood gatekeeper. And, with an understanding heart, I see others who have assumed that role and appreciate the hard road that they are traveling.

If you’re grassroots grantmaking program is “drying up” – you might look around to see if it is really being “dammed up” by those well-intentioned leaders and neighborhood groups in your community - people like me who have "neighborhood leader" down to an art, and are unintentionally cutting others out of the action. And if that’s the case, get out your divining rod to help you spot the new pools of community energy that are there in every community - ready to bubble up!

Divining rod? Not really. But this would be a good time to take a fresh look at how you are reaching out, what messages your funding application/cycle/criteria/requirements are sending, and consider tweaks or even program face lift. The established organizations and leaders are important to keep in the fold, but what else can you do to create more pathways in to your grassroots grantmaking program for those groups and people who are now on the sidelines?

I could talk about my friends at The Denver Foundation, who are experts at creating new paths and new doorways that invite for new groups and people - and probably will in future posts - but invite you now to join me in thinking about neighborhood gatekeepers.
  • What have you learned about spotting and honoring neighborhood gatekeepers?

  • What "divining rod" tactics have you found to help you connect with new people and groups who may be right outside the gate?

March 6, 2008

More People, More Organizations

I'm working on a report for Grassroots Grantmakers - getting into the full report writing mode that requires compiling things, counting things, and thinking about trends.

Grassroots Grantmakers has been hosting "topical conference calls" for ten years or more, with good records on topical call participation for the last five years. I have been involved with topical calls for many of those years, and directly managing them for four years. It felt like something was happening in 2007 - more energy, more interest - but I was amazed when I looked at 2007 in light of previous years:
  • 294 people registered for topical calls in 2007 - that's an increase of more than 300% from our previous best year. And, many of these 294 people participated in more than one topical call.

  • These people represented 210 different organizations - that's four times as many different organizations from our previous best year.

We offered a few more calls in 2007 than in previous years and continued to tweak the registration process and call format, but such tweaks are typical for us - nothing there to fully explain the jump in interest in 2007.

I'm wondering if what we're seeing says something about a shift - dare I say a trend - that extends beyond the funding world where we spend most of our time. I'm wondering if more people and organizations are rediscovering the essential role that people play in bringing change to their own communities, and are seeing that it is time to invest in strategies that are based on people, not programs? And, if that is true, I'm also curious about the role that Grassroots Grantmakers can play in supporting - no, encouraging - this rediscovery.

What does our jump in topical call interest suggest to you? Do you also sense a shift?

March 5, 2008

Place-Based/Face-Based Grantmaking

David Derbyshire, program coordinator for the Hamilton Community Foundation's Growing Roots, Strengthening Neighbourhoods Program, says that grassroots grantmaking is not just a place-based's a face-based strategy. Bingo! Thanks, David, for this insight. You've hit the nail on the head with a simple way to talk about what distinguishes grassroots grantmaking from other place-based social change strategies.

What is the difference between place-based and face -based? Here's how I see the difference.

With a place-based strategy, the focus is! Yes, residents are part of the place, and good place-based work puts residents center-stage. With a face-based strategy, however, the focus is on.......people! Not people as clients or recipients of services, but people in community - actively connecting and bringing their dreams, talents, skills, frustrations, passion, and energy to community life.

David talks about the different relationship you have with someone when you are actually face-to-face - when you sit together and talk. This is so much more intimate - so much deeper - than reading what someone writes or hearing what they want or are doing. Sending time together - there - face-to-face - is how David does his work as coordinator of the Growing Roots, Strengthening Neighbourhoods program.

Which brings me to staffing. Grassroots Grantmakers has seen the importance of proper staffing for grassroots grantmaking work - enough staff . the right staff, and enough breathing room to spend time in the community. We have talked about grassroots grantmaking as a relationship business -acknowledging the power of relationships between the funder and neighborhood residents, among neighborhood residents, and between neighborhood residents with policy makers and resource providers. The idea of name-based grantmaking puts a whole new ring on the building relationship question.

The type of relationship-work that works best with grassroots grantmaking break down the traditional professional barriers of grantee/grantor, working best as a first-name basis, "have a cup of coffee and talk" type of relationship. If you are staffing a grassroots grantmaking programs, you not only know about funded projects and groups - you also aspire to develop the type of relationships where grantees are comfortable calling to talk or chatting over coffee. In turn, you find that you are comfortable letting your non-work self show. The result? That funder/grantee thing is still there, but moved over the side as much as possible - opening opportunities for real talk about real things between two people.

This sounds easy but it's not. I've found that it's more comfortable for some people - and some funders - than others. It takes time and a real faith in the power and possibilities of people. People - whose faces (and stories) that you know - that is the power of bringing a face-based approach to place-based work.

March 1, 2008

"Contagious" Support for Active Citizenship

I’ve noticed something remarkable about those places where there is active citizenship seems to be in the water. When I visit those places – usually at one organization’s invitation – I discover lots of organizations there in the active citizenship business.

In Omaha, the Omaha Community Foundation, the City of Omaha, the Neighborhood Center of Greater Omaha, the Mutual of Omaha Corporate Giving Program, and an impressive group of family and private foundations are nurturing active citizenship in a variety of creative ways.

In Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Making Connections Indianapolis, Indianapolis LISC, the Indianapolis Parks Foundation, and Keep Indianapolis Beautiful are creating opportunities and space for people to practice active citizenship.

In central North Carolina - Greensboro and Winston-Salem - the Winston-Salem Foundation, Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods, the Building Stronger Neighborhoods Coalition, the Community Foundation for Greater Greensboro, the Greensboro Public Library are working to strengthen the local civic engagement infrastructure by what they do and how they do it.

In Denver, the The Denver Foundation, The Piton Foundation, Metropolitan Organizations for People, the Chinook Fund, Making Connections Denver, and some other amazing groups such as Civic Canopy are creating the patient support (with an impressive social change edge) needed to nurture active citizenship in a community.

For lack of a better term, I’ve started thinking about places like Omaha, Indianapolis, Central North Carolina and Denver as “clusters”. Instead of one organization serving as active citizen “home base”, there are many organizations that are nurturing active citizenship in one way or another. There are grant programs for resident-initiated and resident-led groups that we clearly recognize as “grassroots grantmaking”, but there is so much more. Training, technical assistance, connections, recognition, open access to information, seats set at important tables.

Maybe the most important common denominator in these "clusters" is the presence of influential institutions who are expressing the high value that they place on active citizenship as a critical ingredient of social change and quality of life. They are not just talking the talk - they are walking the walk. This expression gets played out in how things are structured, how things are done, and who's at the table.

In other places I see wonderful work by a committed organization - making good and important strides to till the active citizenship ground, but working essentially alone, rowing upstream.

I’m curious about the path from the committed, solo organization to many organizations supporting active citizenship in many ways. What is it that makes embracing active citizenship contagious? And why do some organizations and institutions seem to have a natural immunity?

What do you think?