August 21, 2008

Grassroots Grantmaking & Local Democracy: Where's the Connection?

Matt Leighninger. author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance and executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, was Grassroots Grantmakers' guest this week for a topical conference call.

Matt talked about a shift in the citizen-government relationship that he feels is impacting just about every field and inspiring new attempts to make local democracy work. He attributes this shift to changes in both citizens and public officials. Citizens are more skeptical, more informed, more pressed for time, and more wired into information than ever before. Public officials have fewer resources and less trust from the public. They are also tired of being in conflict with citizens and less able to hide behind jargon.

As Matt talked about the notion that the relationship between local government and citizens is shifting from parent-child to adult-adult, and how both local governments and citizens are adjusting to that shift, I began to think of the implications for grassroots grantmaking. And there are indeed implications, as suggested by the quick poll that we took of the participants in our topical call. When asked if local democracy is changing in their communities, 80% said yes. And, when asked how central local democracy is to their work in the grassroots grantmaking arena, 80% said that it is "front and center".

As I thought about this, I couldn't help but flash back to my early days as a grantmaker - managing a new grassroots grantmaking program for the Community Foundation in Memphis - only a couple of years before Matt began his work with the Study Circles Resource Center (now Everyday Democracy) that led to his book. As I listened to Matt, I realized that I too have had the opportunity to witness this change, but had not, until this week's conversation, thought much about grassroots grantmaking "then" and grassroots grantmaking "now".


In 1991, we assumed that every neighborhood needs a neighborhood association. Just one. But a good one. A neighborhood association that can represent the neighborhood before City Council as a sort of quasi-governmental entity. A neighborhood association that can speak with authority and confidence about what is good for the neighborhood - what people in that neighborhood want for the future.

Our strategy was to find baby associations or people who wanted to form associations, help them get stronger through grants and technical assistance, encourage them to keep going by acknowledging their success and offering another grant, and position them for bigger grants from other local funders. Bigger grants over time = stronger associations = better representation of the neighborhood at the big tables where decisions are made that affect people's lives.


What we have seen is that it's just not that simple. Neighborhood associations can be wonderful - or horrible. They can be inclusive or exclusive. They can invite people into active citizenship or shut them out, with only a select group of neighborhood experts allowed to play the active citizenship role.

Maybe it's experience with calcified neighborhood associations or simply because of the amount of change that we are now seeing at the community level, but funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking are thinking beyond neighborhood associations.
  • When our friends with The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program, began connecting with people in the Original Aurora neighborhood, they proactively reached out to parents groups and other types of associations - places where the newcomers in the Original Aurora neighborhood gathered around common interests.
  • In Seattle, staff with the Nonprofit Assistance Center find that in their increasingly diverse community, groups are often more strongly defined by culture than by geography, and that grassroots grantmaking through exclusive lens of "place" is limiting.
  • In Greensboro, capacity building work with neighborhood associations and Hispanic immigrant groups is running along parallel tracks.
  • Our friends at The Woods Fund of Chicago are discovering that an interest in building resident power and capacity for change does not reside only in groups that identify with community organizing - and that casting a wider net can yield some surprising results.
It seems to me that the common thread that runs through the grassroots grantmaking that I see today has a much more adult-adult feel than the grassroots grantmaking of the past. More about everyone as a leader than anointing the naturally gifted leaders. More about making room at the table than identifying who should sit at the head of the table. More about being open to a wider array of possibilities of how people find their way to active citizenship and change making.

My early experience in grassroots grantmaking was about being true to one path - the path of helping neighborhood associations get strong enough to connect with the world where the real deals are cut. What I'm seeing now in the grassroots grantmaking world is not nearly so clear cut. It's about many paths, with good, inclusive, neighborhood associations as just one way of many. With community organizing as one path of many. With study circles as one path of many. With cultural groups as one path of many.

This feels right to me. And what Matt is saying feels very right to me.

Thanks, Matt, for being with us. Looking forward to continuing the dialogue!