May 22, 2008

The Risk & Control Equation

A mentor from a previous chapter in my life taught me about the relationship between risk and control, reminding me when I was struggling with a decision that risk and control go together. He was a masterful deal-maker. And used his experience with risk and control to craft deals that almost always worked to his advantage.

He taught me that a bad deal is when you shoulder all of the risk and have little or no control. A fair deal is when the amount of risk that you experience equals the control that you have. And, the best deal (for you, of course) is when you have little or no risk but have all of the control.

Let's look at how risk and control might play out in a setting that involves funders, a technical assistance organization (aka a gapper organization) and neighborhood groups.

The setting is a conversation with a funder who wants neighborhood groups in her community to embark on specific projects on specific time lines – to produce specific results that the funder feels are in the best interest of the neighborhood groups and the funder's community change agenda. But, the money in the picture goes to a technical assistance provider, not the groups that will be doing the work and producing the results. No grants to the neighborhood groups are in the picture.

In terms of the risk and control equation:
  • The technical assistance provider has most of the risk and no real control. They are expected to deliver but have no leverage with the neighborhood groups other than access to information and good relationship karma.
  • The funder appears to have the best deal - little or no risk and all the control (over the technical assistance provider). No money on the table, no direct relationship with the neighborhood groups that might be at risk, and someone to blame (those unappreciative neighborhood groups or that ineffective technical assistance provider) when things go wrong.
  • And the neighborhood groups? They are actually in a pretty good position. They have control (they can vote with their feet and vanish mid-project) and not much risk. After all, the powers-that-be already believe they are not ready to be at the table, so they're not risking their reputations. And, the project may or may not be the right project at the right time for them - so they're not losing ground on something that is near and dear.

Here we are again talking about the slippery world of "working in the gap". Imagine that you are the Executive Director of this technical assistance organization (the gapper organization), and your funder (and board member, by the way) wants specific results from specific neighborhoods on a specific time line and is expecting you to deliver. What do you do?

  • If you go along with the funder/board member, you can "sell" the funder's idea to the neighborhood groups and, in doing so, be on the dangerous side of the risk and control equation. You are at risk of losing credibility with the neighborhood groups - a growing risk as the neighborhood groups in question grow in capacity and understanding of their own power and authority. And you have no authority (control) to require the neighborhood groups in question to produce those results in that time line....unless you do the work FOR the groups, which would violate the principles of good technical assistance.
  • If you don't go along with the funder/board member, your job might be at risk. After all, your performance (in the board member's mind, at least) is tied to the neighborhood groups in question achieving the expected results in the specified time frame.

Yikes! If the technical assistance provider is successful in the eyes of his funder and delivers the product, he is working counter to his organization's mission (building capacity).

This is getting complicated. But isn't this why the real work of grassroots grantmaking can be harder than it sounds when people couch it in terms of making a few small grants? In reality it's about relationships, trust and distrust, learning curves, comfort levels, risk-tolerance, and differing priorities - with people who often come from different worlds.

So what to do, what to do? Is there a win/win/win here? A situation like this is where a good gapper really shines.

  • A good gapper would recognize the dilemmas and not fall into the risk and control trap that the funder has unknowingly set with all the best intentions.
  • A good gapper would point out that the low-risk path that the funder has charted is really a high-risk path, with a type of risk that is equal to (if not greater than) risking money. What about the risk of wasting every one's time and energy and damaging the credibility of the technical assistance provider with the neighborhood groups? What the funder wants is earnest work on a product that will lead to something. What the funder is at risk of getting is a "sit on the shelf" product plus a reason for neighborhood leaders to look at the next outside-in good idea with more skepticism and less willingness to go along.
  • A good gapper would be aware of and sensitive to the funder's anxiety over making grants to groups that don't fit their normal grantee profile, but not "buy in" to that anxiety. Perhaps the gapper could find a way to tap into the experience of hundreds of funders who are having good success making grants to informal resident-led groups to expand the comfort zone of this funder so that these specific projects on specific time lines can be negotiated as grants to the organizations that are sufficiently interested to step up to the grant table. If that could be done - voila! Everyone is sharing some risk, and everyone has some control.

There is much wisdom out there in the grassroots grantmaking world on the risk and control equation. What do you do when you are in a situation like this - with all of the risk and very little control? What have you found to be helpful when you are working with someone who is holding most of the control cards and is avoiding risk that is necessary for success? The floor is open....

May 16, 2008

Kudos to the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center!

This is not the beginning of a video-series - just an opportune moment to say congratulations to the wonderful staff at the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center (and Marc McAleavey, in particular) for taking top prize in Everyday Democracy's "Making Every Voice Matter" video contest. In their announcement of this award, Everyday Democracy says that "the video shows that all kinds of people are having a voice in improving Indianapolis neighborhoods. And it demonstrates that by employing simple production techniques, a community can use video to showcase its work in a medium accessible to lots of people."

I agree. But what I love about the video is the "everyday-ness" of the scenes matched with the dramatic intro. The photos that we see could come from any one of the hundreds of neighborhood meetings that I have attended over the past twenty years. In one sense, there's nothing special about what we see. But in another, everything that we see is special. That's the power in this video for me. It reminds me of how easy it is to take everyday things - like people talking with each - for granted when we are looking for big wins.

Some background:

The Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center (INRC) is one of the gapper organizations that I referenced in my recent Gapper Part 2 post. Such a wonderful organization - every community should be so lucky! The INRC came into focus for me four years ago when Grassroots Grantmakers featured the INRC's innovative work with the Study Circles Resource Center (now Everyday Democracy), the Central Indiana Community Foundation and Making Connections Indianapolis on a topical conference call.

I have been a long-time fan of the study circles process and was excited to see the creative and thoughtful way the team in Indy was using the study circles process for community building in specific neighborhoods. Since 2000, the INRC has engaged more than 1,600 residents in dialogue for change on a number of issues, including building strong neighborhoods, child development, public safety, creating a community vision, and youth. The center offers coaching, help with recruiting, technical assistance with dialogue implementation and action forums, and other support to move action ideas to outcomes with small grants that are made possible through the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

The video:

The INRC's award winning video tells the story of the power of the study circles process to support everyday democracy in Indianapolis. The INRC plans to share this video with facilitators and supporters to highlight all of the dialogue and action that’s happening in Indianapolis so that they can gain a better understanding of the program. They plan to use the $1,000 award money to train facilitators and participants to use video to tell their stories about their dialogue-to-change experience.

Here’s how the INRC describes the video:

Connections. Conversation. Community. Action. Thousands of residents in Indianapolis have joined their voices together to make things happen, to make their voices matter. Be it by way of celebrating a collective identity, restoring peace in a neighborhood, or amplifying the powerful voices of youth, Study Circles in Indianapolis has made a positive impact on life in this place. Conducted in neighborhoods all around the city, Study Circles has been a dynamic vehicle for allowing people to act in the core of democracy. Just see for yourself.

Thanks to Everyday Democracy for inviting organizations such as the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center to tell the story of dialogue in action in their communities through video.

And congratulations again to the Indianapolis Neighborhood Center. I can't wait to see what you do next!

May 6, 2008

Global Greengrants Fund's A Drop in the Bucket

This is a quick post to share a powerful video that Global Greengrants Fund produced to demonstrate the power of small grants.

Chet Tchozewski, Global Greengrants Fund Executive Director, joined me on a panel yesterday (coincidentally named "Big Thinking on Small Grants) at the Council on Foundation's 2008 Philanthropy Leadership Summit in National Harbor, Maryland. Our intention was to include this video in the presentation, but the computer on hand had a different idea of how to spend the afternoon. So for all of you who were there and were intrigued by Chet's description of "A Drop in the Bucket" and for friends who could not be there, here it is.

May 1, 2008

Working in the Gap Part 2: Gapper Organizations

I just returned from a gathering of senior staff of a particular type of gapper institution that is especially important in the grassroots grantmaking world. They are known by different names - the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods, Seattle's Nonprofit Assistance Center, Neighborhood Resource Center of Colorado, PRO Neighborhoods - but all work in the gapper space. If we are using big systems terminology, we might call these organizations local intermediaries. If we are using community terminology, we might call them funder, trainer, coach, or helper. Whatever we call them, when organizations like these are at their best, the wheels of resident-driven change are turning.

Grassroots Grantmakers sponsored this gathering - a modest gesture to help connect people who serve as leaders of local intermediaries so that they can support each other as colleagues and think together about how to calm the waters in which local gapper institutions work. I served as the director of a local intermediary in the early years of my career, and have informally tracked the comings and goings in the local intermediary world ever since. My interest was peaked recently by two things: the number of gapper organizations that are in a funding role and are tapping into Grassroots Grantmakers information network, and the demise of two organizations that have been around for years and have had, from what I can tell as an outsider, outstanding track records. My peaked interest led me to ask people with a number of gapper organizations if they had access to peers at other like-organizations in other cities; the answer was consistently "no".

So imagine that you're building and leading the one-of-a-kind organization in your community, and have no sounding board, "wise elders" or place to turn for support, problem solving and effective practice info. Thus, this gathering.

After day and a half of networking and focused conversations with this amazing group of savvy nonprofit leaders, I was struck by three things:

  • Yes, indeed - when these gapper organizations are humming, the work is amazing. And, no matter what it is called (training, coaching, information-providing, granting), these organizations do the work of connecting. When the work is good, the connecting is done with a deep appreciation for the people and groups at the grassroots who are so often outside the circle of connections. There was no "us and them" in the air in this gathering (as in those of us who know vs. those of us who don't know). Instead, there was passion for making connections in a myriad of creative ways so the electricity could flow.

  • The bottom up/top down nature of the connecting that these organizations do. Even though these organizations' first priority is grassroots groups, mainstream entities show up as important secondary customers. These groups host focus groups, gather information, provide feedback, manage grant programs, and serve as sounding boards for funders, local governments and other large institutions -a reminder that when a good "gapper" is at work, information flows both ways - that traffic in the gap drives on a two-way street.

  • The flexibility and versatility that this work requires. Work in the evenings and weekends is standard fare. So is facilitating, training, and special event planning......also writing, documenting, publicizing. Then there's the high degree of cultural competency required to move between and among different cultural groups on a daily basis. Oh....and then there's all of the basis "running an organization" matters - budgeting, fund-raising, working with a board, hiring and managing staff, finding office space, etc.
As I sat listening to the discussion at this gathering and thought about conversations I have had with leaders of now defunct "gapper" local intermediaries, I heard about some interesting dilemmas:
  • In order to maintain the funding that is required to do the job, local intermediaries must demonstrate value (of course), but often in outcome language that is an awkward match for their work.

  • In order to maintain healthy capacity building relationships with the grassroots groups on the ground, these same organizations must constantly move to the back of the room and out of the spotlight, letting the credit go to the organizations that they have assisted.

  • They cannot do a good job in the capacity building role without adequate funding, but politically cannot compete for funding with the organizations that they are there to help.

  • While their work is ultimately about magnifying resident voice, they are often asked by main-line organizations to speak for resident groups when it's impractical to have residents at the table.
I can imagine how easy it would be to trip over one of these dilemmas or to find yourself burned out from the constant, in-motion negotiating and translating that leading a gapper organization requires. I wouldn't have been surprised to hear some group whining, but that just didn't happen - even when we turned from trading tips to talking about the last question of the day - what could we do together to help these gapper organizations and others like them be more effective and more stable.

Is there a "gapper" organization in your community? Tell us about how it's working, what difference it's making, and if the observations that I'm sharing here are on target.