April 30, 2008

Working in the Gap

In the community building world, when we talk about working in the gap, we're not talking about working in a trendy clothing store. We're talking about working in the gap between the world of institutions and the world of community. And by the odd word "gappers", we mean those special people and organizations who work in the gap.

I just returned from a gathering that Grassroots Grantmakers hosted in Tucson that reminded me of two things: the powerful and critically important role that gappers play in our grassroots grantmaking world, and how easy it is to overlook or misconstrue the work of good gappers.

I'm preparing to head off to the Council on Foundation's 2008 Philanthropy Leadership Summit, and know that I'll come back with information and idea overload, so am doing three quick posts before I leave on "working in the gap" - this one on the general idea, the second on the gathering in Tucson, and the third on some implications of "working in the gap" for those of us involved in grassroots grantmaking.

Ancient history:

Jody Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute and a long-time teacher and friend, provided my first introduction to the gapper concept in a talk (see the pdf, "Jody Kretzmann on Small Grants Programs") that he gave at a gathering of community foundations when Grassroots Grantmakers was in its formative years. This was a while ago, but I remember so vividly the way Jody framed the world of grassroots grantmaking as the intersection of the world of systems and the world of community. The gapper term came later, but Jody, in this talk, clearly described what is essential and what is challenging about the gapper role - the need for people and organizations who in that gapper space to be truly bi-cultural. Gappers are comfortable in the the world of community, at ease in the world of big systems, and have the ability to serve as translator/connector between these two different worlds.

More recent history:

A number of years ago, two of my Asset Based Community Development Institute colleagues teamed up to take the first (maybe only) systematic look at the role of the gapper. Tom Mosgaller (who, I believed, coined the term "gapper") and Tom Dewar collaborated on some research that was supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Sue Reynard served as the principal investigator.

The project has its origins with Tom Mosgaller who began to notice people who received little or no recognition for their work as rebels within institutions, and the role that they were playing in shifting the reality about what institutions could and should be doing. The MacArthur funded project began with the idea of learning how these people did what they did, and what we could learn to help support and encourage their work.

The report from this project is posted Grassroots Grantmakers website (see the last item under the heading "From the Asset Based Community Development Institute Faculty"). The report is a good start at looking at the world through the eyes of a gapper, but my hunch is there's so much more for us to learn. But let's start with the report. Here are some quick excerpts.

What are the common denominators? Who are the people who work in the gap and what is their role?

The report echoes what Jody described in his "ancient history" speech - that it is the combination of community-oriented values and the ability to be effective working within a bureaucracy that sets gappers apart from others. The report identified three specific themes that were uncovered during interviews with people who are in the "gapper" role:

  1. Gappers define the goal of their work as making others self-sustaining (that is,building capacity among individuals and groups in the community) rather than providing services.

  2. Gappers embody the best aspects of community focus and strength-based approaches while operating within the confines of the institutions. They may live in the institution, but their heart, loyalties, and motivation lie in or arise from community.

  3. Gappers face all the challenges faced by their community-based counterparts, plus all the barriers inherent in trying to be flexible and creative within their very ordered bureaucratic structure. They must find ways to conform to bureaucratic requirements but encourage creativity.
What's not said?
What the report does not say is how important it is for a gapper to have someone "up the line" who values this institution-community bridging work, and clears the way. I think of Christine Soto and Jeff Hirota at The Denver Foundation. Lesley Grady at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Brenda Hunt at the Battle Creek Community Foundation. All serving as essential "up the line/clear the way" partners to the wonderful gappers in these funding organizations.

It's easy to forget this "up to line/clear the way" question because it's easy to forget that the role of the gapper is to fan the cross-breezes that bring change to the community AND to the organization in which he/she works. My hunch (and my experience) is that bringing change to the gapper's organization might be the most challenging parts of the job....made almost impossible if there's not some like-minded partners inside the organization who are positioned to help shift the paradigm under which their organization has gathered.

  • Who can help ease people's fears of breaking with established organizational culture and traditions to try a new way?

  • Who can help create more space and opportunities to act on the value "we begin with residents"?

  • Who can help reshape expectations, so that grassroots grantmaking programs are not measured in terms of getting the money out the door and end of project reports in the door? So that performance evaluations and other reward structures are based on the realities of working in the gap vs. conforming to institutional norms?
  • Who can lead the way in some creating thinking about new partnerships and collaborations?

  • Who can help manage the outcome police so make the time and space for the processes that are essential to capacity building?
It's too easy to say "let's find this bi-cultural, multi-lingual person and assign them the job of chief gapper with our grassroots grantmaking program." In the grassroots grantmaking world, I know some amazing gappers. And I know some amazing gappers who were such square pegs in the round holes of their organizations that they burned out and disappeared from the scene.

I'm bringing up this conversation about working in the gap with the hope that having a name for the special role and special sets of skills and abilities that go with succeeding in the gapper role will inform thinking about staffing grassroots grantmaking programs. When I tell people that the success of grassroots grantmaking programs has a lot to do with appropriate staffing, what I'm not saying clearly enough is how important it is to find a good gapper and give him/her some room.

I'm also hoping that grassroots grantmaking organizations will consider how to make the most of the inside-the-organization change making possibilities that having a gapper in the mix provides. Is the gapper in your life a square peg in the round hole you keep reinforcing, or are you opening space for some different geometry?

Stay tuned for a look at gapper organizations (aka local intermediaries) in the next installment on working in the gap.

April 25, 2008

Community is a Verb

Mike Blockstein, Principal with Public Matters, a consulting firm that generates innovative, artistic, place-based projects that build civic and social capital in communities, was Grassroots Grantmakers' special guest this week for one of our monthly topical conference calls - this one on neighborhood narratives.

As Mike was talking about the role that neighborhood narratives play in building community, he shared something that rang a gigantic bell for me as an essential truth of grassroots grantmaking:

community is a verb

What is tricky about grassroots grantmaking is that resources that are invested in community building actually do produce "things" - newsletters, festivals, after-school activities, gardens - and it's easy to focus on those things. When that happens, however, we're missing the point. The point is that community is a verb. It's what's involved in the doing that's the point - that builds people to people connections in a community, creates the opportunity for people to discover and use their gifts, and helps people assume their role as active citizens.

As we've learned more about the strategy of grassroots grantmaking, we've become more and more convinced by the power of the beginning grants - those grants that invite people to join a neighbor and move an idea to action. It is here - with grants as invitations that inspire people to move from wishing to doing - that community building becomes a verb.

I can think back to times in my life when I had been sitting on the sidelines, not even sure that I wanted to get in the game and definitely afraid that I would not measure up. But then I was invited in or had the courage to invite myself - and found myself transformed by what followed. And how situations change - often in wonderful, surprising ways - when new people join a group in situations where there is freedom for people to contribute instead of the expectation that people fit in. My hunch is that we have all had those experiences.

So isn't it curious that when we step into our professional roles as the high-achieving people that we are, we often take the "verb-ness" out of community building opportunities that our resources help create because we are trying so hard to guarantee results?

I'd love to know what you think about the notion of community as a verb. Comments are welcome and easy to post.....so this is your invitation to jump right in!

April 18, 2008

Bill Traynor on the Future of Community Building

I am a Bill Traynor groupie. I first met Bill, a long-time community development professional and current director of Lawrence CommunityWorks in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at a gathering of community foundations who were entering new territory - funding informal neighborhood groups. Bill's job was to provide an introduction to the world of neighborhood groups for funders who had spent their professional lives working with more traditional nonprofit organizations.

The first day of this meeting was my first day at work for a funding organization. I had come from a decade of work in my own neighborhood and with coalitions of neighborhood groups in Memphis and was out of my comfort zone in this room of funders. Bill built a bridge for me, artfully describing the world of community and neighborhood groups in a way that resonated with my experience. Bill was clearly sharing what he had learned from solid, on-the-ground experience. I became a fan that day and have followed Bill's work ever since.

The most recent issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly arrived a few days ago. When I sat down with the issue and a cup of coffee, I was delighted to find an article by Bill - The Bright Future of Community Building. And when I dove in, I discovered an article that should be required reading for everyone in the grassroots grantmaking world.

At my request, The Nonprofit Quarterly has generously posted a copy of Bill's article for those of you who are not current subscribers, so my hope is that you'll follow this link and read the article for yourself. I also hope that you click the "subscribe now" button on the NPQ website. Under Ruth McCambridge's leadership as editor-in-chief, the Quarterly just keeps getting better and better. Bill's article is just one of several that have appeared recently that provide thoughtful reading for grassroots grantmakers (see Trust, Authenticity and Community: Our Vital Assets by Williams Schambra, Founders and Other Gods by Deborah Linnell, Color Blind of Just Plain Blind? The Pernicious Nature of Contemporary Racism by John Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner, and Why Are We Replacing Furniture When Half the Neighborhood is Missing? by Gus Newport, a sampling of the articles from past issues made available to non-subscribers on the NPQ website).

Before I say why I think Bill's article is must reading for place-based funders who are investing in resident-initiated and led work, here are some excerpts from the article that I highlighted when I was reading to whet your appetite for moving the article to the top of your reading list:

  • As powerful and effective as community development efforts have been in the past, we have not embraced the fact that our principal challenge now may be nothing short of creating newly functional civic environments and finding a way to entice people to step back into public life in a way that feels safe, fun and productive.
  • ...place-based community begins with a single relationship of trust and mutual benefit in which one resident or stakeholder shares with another. It is the aggregate of those relationships - along with the loose connections that bind a diversity of them together - that forms, not community, but the structural framework for community to exist. It is the cumulative capacity for collective decision making, problem solving, collective action, information sharing, and most important, the creation and exchange of value (e.g., time, goods and service) - which this infrastructure facilitates - that ultimately constitutes a community.
  • ...for those doing the day-to-day work of community building - meeting neighbors, gettting involved in schools, or organizing clean-ups - it is a simple matter of trying to maximize the value of place for themselves and their families. Our concern should be to support residents and remove the barriers to this process.

What I see in Bill's article is a call to action for grassroots grantmaking - for funders to take seriously the connecting neighbor to neighbor work that is at the heart of grassroots grantmaking. If we need encouragement to look at the projects that we're funding with new eyes - the clean-ups, block parties and babysitting clubs that might seem trivial in the bigger community change picture - Bill's article gives us that encouragement. And, a fresh, hot- off-the-presses article that we can use to invite conversations with others about the community infrastructure rebuilding work that we do as grassroots grantmakers.

Let's make the most of this article to advance our learning about the possibilities and realities of grassroots grantmaking as a strategy for rebuilding functioning civic environments where residents are connected to each other and to public life. You can start by sharing your comments here and forwarding this on to a colleague.

If you want to read more by and about Bill Traynor and his work, here are two additional articles that are available on the web:

Network Organizing: A Strategy for Building Community Engagement (Shelterforce, 2005)
Making Connections: In Lawrence, a CDC Builds More Than Homes and Businesses by Robert Preer (Commonwealth, 2005)

April 12, 2008

The Community Building Power of Not Knowing

I am a city girl living for the first time in a rural area. A few years ago, I moved to Hallettsville, Texas, a charming little town in South Central Texas. My family's roots are deep in this town. My own roots, however, are very shallow.

As I was preparing to move away from Memphis where I had lived for twenty-five years, I became almost hyper aware of insider-outsider messages. I noticed that at almost every public meeting, someone would begin their comments with "I was born in Memphis" - which I heard as an insider-outsider comment and a heart-breaking reminder that no matter what I did, I would never be an insider there in some people's eyes. I noticed how subtly established leaders pushed newcomers aside - and how often newcomer/outsiders discounted the wisdom behind some "been there/done that" comments of insiders.

When I moved to Hallettsville, I wondered how this insider-outsider dynamic would feel for me here. In just a few minutes of conversation, I can find a family connection with almost everyone in town. I came home to Texas, to the town where my grandparents grew up and where my parents are now living. I've been gratified that the town has generously welcomed me and my New England born husband.

It's my city-girl orientation that sets me apart, however - mainly because my vocabulary and my practical experience is missing so much of what people here know. I recognize various breeds of cattle but know next to nothing about what it takes to raise them. I love farm-fresh eggs, but don't have a clue why they are so different from the eggs sold in the store. Seasonal changes for me are more about fashhion than what I do every day to ensure that my year is profitable. Try as I may to hide it - and I knew better than to offer too many "where I came, we did it this way" suggestions - my city-girl orientation labels me as an outsider here in this rural community.

My interest in this insider-outsider question has become more of a curiosity than an obsession: Where are the road signs that mark the way to common ground where insiders and outsiders both feel welcome?

Believe it or not, this is all background for telling you about my garden.

I live on a corner in one of the oddest houses in town and have a big back yard. This year (and yes, I'm talking about THIS year - spring comes early here) for the first time I have a garden. And, it's right in the corner of the back yard that is visible to all who are passing by, because that's the part of the yard that is sunny and where there is a big patch of open ground. This winter, my husband built some raised beds, I studied a book on "Square Foot Gardening", made a diagram of what I would plant on graph paper, and bought dozens of packages of seeds.

From the very beginning, however, I'm sure that it was blatantly apparent to all who walked and drove by that I'm a gardening novice. I have confessed that at every opportunity when people ask me about my garden and humbly asked for help. I have already planted some things too early and some things too late. I've planted some things that don't grow here without super-human effort. I've planted some things that grow here but are more trouble than they are worth. And we're not yet into garden prime-time.

Here's what's been so amazing to me. While I've assumed that the path to common ground would have something to do with what I know or can do, I've found that there is another path that I never imagined.

As I've become more comfortable with my "not knowing" about gardening, people are showing up to help me in surprising ways. One man in a truck - name not known to me - pulled up to chat and then dropped some onion sets by my door with a note that it was time to put those in. Another person brought over "cages" for the tomato plants that are clearly taking over one side of the garden. Someone else brought baby lettuce plants that they had thinned out from their garden and hated to see go to waste. I've been directed time and time again to "Tiny's" as the best place to buy plants....and that when Tiny gets something in, that means it will grow here and that it's time to plant.

The moral of this story?
  • That the "insider-outsider" divider can show up in many ways, and some of the insiders and the outsiders are looking for paths leading to common ground.
  • That my active and quite public plunge into "not knowing" is creating an unexpected avenue to common ground for me.
  • That my garden is growing a lot more than spring lettuce!
And what does this have to with small grants anyway?
  • The type of small grants that I care about are more and more about insiders and outsiders. Kids and seniors, old-timers and new immigrants, home-owners and apartment dwellers. I'm now more curious than ever about how funders are using grants as opportunities for communities to discover common ground - and what new pathways they are seeing.
  • Those of us in the grant world, with the due diligence that we bring to grant review, often look for people with expertise - those who know. I wonder what new possibilities there might be if we also looked for those who are actively and publicly plunging into "not knowing"in the same way that I plunged into gardening. The risks were there but, in the scheme of things, very, very small and well worth taking.
  • And, from the cat-birds seat that we have as funders, how we can be more active about creating opportunities for those who don't know to find those who do know - and vice versa?

I would love to hear what my story suggests to you. And what you're growing in your garden this spring!

April 7, 2008

What's a Small Grant?

In my role with Grassroots Grantmakers - formerly the Neighborhood Small Grants Network - I'm asked this question from time to time:

What's a small grant?

That should be easy enough to answer, right? We have done surveys of Grassroots Grantmakers' member organizations and can talk with confidence about the range of grant size and the average grant size associated with the grassroots grantmaking programs that we follow most closely. But small is a different matter.
  • If we're talking about an established nonprofit organization, what would be small? Would a grant equal to 3 times their annual operating budget be small - or large?
  • If we're talking about a neighborhood group with $500 in the bank - collected as dues from neighbors - what would be small? Or large?

And, why are we asking this question, anyway?

  • Is it because, as grantmakers, we're thinking about our grants budget? How many small grants equals one large grant? How do we do as much as possible with available funds? Do we put our eggs in one basket or in many baskets?
  • Or are we thinking about how much effort it takes to process the grant request? Why should I spend all that time on this (small) grant when I could spend the same amount of time on this (large) grant?
  • Or, because we are in the world of money, are we thinking in terms of what money can do vs. what people can do?
  • Or, are we assuming that the size of the grant is commensurate with the size of impact, assuming that small grants come with limited possibilities and thus lower expectations?

Isn't "small grant" really a funder-centric notion, after all? A $2,000 grant is indeed small to a funder who is accustomed to dealing with lots of commas and zeros - with the total of grants awarded for the year counted in the millions, and total organizational assets in the hundreds of millions. It's certainly not small to my Dad or my daughter or my neighbor or the teachers at our local elementary school.

Perhaps instead of grant size, we should talk about grant scale. Is the grant scale-appropriate for the organization and the project? When we take off the "more money=bigger impact" glasses, it might be easier to look at the long-term possibilities of scale-appropriate grants - and imagine the impact that small amounts of money, invested in the right place at the right time - in people who have passion and a plan - can make.

A scale-appropriate grant to a fledgling organization might be $2,000. And, that $2,000 might be the first investment that anyone outside the neighborhood has made in this group - the first "stamp of approval" by a main-line institution. Is that small to the group? It's huge. A huge vote of confidence, a huge opportunity to begin moving dreams into action, a huge opportunity to learn what money can do - and can't.

I'm not suggesting that size doesn't matter - that money isn't important. Just that it's more than money. Just that size is relative. Just that we don't forget to think big when the dollars are small (to us).

What do you think? How would you answer the question, "What's a small grant?"