September 25, 2008

Here's the New Gizmo: Flip Video Ultra

I somewhat of a tech nerd, but that doesn't extend to cameras. I'm a basic camera idiot and that especially applies to video cameras.

That's why I've gone wild over the Flip Video Ultra. This little point and shoot video camera is about the size of an ipod, runs on 2 AA batteries, and has just 6 moving parts - buttons for on/off, record, zoom, play, delete, and a flip-out USB connection that lets you connect this camera to your computer to see what you have recorded.

The only other accessories that come with the camera are a fabric pouch, a strap and a short, easy to follow instruction book. I just ordered a tripod that screws into the bottom of the camera - discovered I needed that after my first time out recording an interview.

I've only had this for a month - in time for the Chicago "On the Ground" gathering and my recent trip to Denver. But I'm taken with the possibilities - to capture on the spot reflections and to help people connect the idea of grassroots grantmaking with the real life experience of grassroots grantmaking. This is incredibly easy to use (even for me) and so affordable - I paid less than $130 (I purchased this one from Amazon.com). Seems like it could change the way we collect the stories of grassroots grantmaking. Seems like this little camera should be in every program officer's pocket when they head out the door on a community visit!

Check out this review of the Flip by Computerworld:


September 23, 2008

What It's All About: Strengthening Neighborhoods in Denver

I just returned from a day in Denver that was a wonderful reminder about the power of thinking big about small grants. Last Friday, I spent half a day with Patrick Horvath and the Strengthening Neighborhoods team from The Denver Foundation. Patrick had organized a half-day site tour on neighborhood grantmaking that was part of the Association of Small Foundations' annual conference. He asked me to partner with him and The Denver Foundation's team on the site tour to set up the tour with some remarks on grassroots grantmaking and the "think layers, not ladders" strategy of grassroots grantmaking. My pleasure.

Really my pleasure. The Denver Foundation's work with Strengthening Neighborhoods is exemplary - some of the best of the best in the grassroots grantmaking world. I have followed The Denver Foundation's work for more than ten years and have seen it grow and deepen. Over those ten years, I have admired the keen interest in learning that permeates the work there. Our network has benefited from the spirit of generosity with which the staff there have shared their work - what they are learning, what they are working on, where they are challenged. Nothing is on automatic pilot with this group and each new phase of their work benefits from this learning orientation.

I have also noticed the deep commitment that is there at all levels - board, senior leadership and on the ground staff members. To me, making the Strengthening Neighborhoods work a permanent program of The Denver Foundation rather a special time-limited initiative speaks of this commitment. As does annually dedicating a percentage of the Foundation's unrestricted grantmaking to Strengthening Neighborhoods. As does the Board's openness to funding "spicy groups". And then there's the Foundation's ability to attract (and keep) a talented staff. Not to mention inviting some of the remarkable neighborhood leaders that they have discovered over the years to join The Denver Foundation's board. For me, all of this is about commitment to walking the walk of grassroots grantmaking.

We began the day with a casual lunch and time to talk about what was in the store for the day. I talked about the "layer cake" strategy of grassroots grantmaking and some of the unique aspects of the Denver program. Of the 30+ people with us for the afternoon, about half were already engaged in neighborhood grantmaking and the other half were curious about what it takes. I was trying to help people see some of the choices that funders can make about staffing, providing technical assistance, and making grant decisions and to let them know that what they would be seeing with Strengthening Neighborhoods is just one combination of options. And that there is not just one way to manage a grassroots grantmaking program - that it's more about knowing your community and doing what works best in your particular context.

The site tour was well-designed and inspiring, with three stops that allowed us to witness and experience the work of Strengthening Neighborhoods - from relatively simple grants for community gardens to the leadership training to helping residents band together to change the way things work in their community. The people who signed up for the tour, primarily staff and trustees with small foundations, were savvy participants. They were incredibly attentive and asked wonderful, thoughtful, and appreciative questions. After the first stop, I heard one person say that the conversation had been so rich that this one visit had made the experience worthwhile for her. And by the end, someone else mentioned that this site tour was the most well-designed that he had ever experienced. Yes, indeed.

I am the lucky one. Because of my position with Grassroots Grantmakers, I am privileged to travel from place to place, visiting with members and participating in tours like this with good people who are investing in the power of ordinary people to change their (and our) communities. What struck me this time, however, were the stories of personal transformation that we heard. At every stop, we met people who shared stories of how they had been changed as they worked to change their community.
  • Young mothers who banned together as the Aurora Traffic Safely Organizing Committee to make sure the streets around their children's school are child-friendly - and are now impacting traffic planning in Aurora.
  • A former gang-member who had been gunned down and incarcerated but who is now working with young people in the Norhteast Park Hill neighborhood and serving as a policy advisor on youth violence to elected officials.
  • A licensed clinical social worker who wanted to do more than provide counseling in the tradition way and discovered drumming as a powerful vehicle for conflict resolution and healing.
  • A woman who found amazing ways to use art to build community after giving some serious thought to what she was supposed to be doing with her life.
  • Neighbors who are honoring the work of a visionary neighborhood leader in the Whittier neighborhood by using gardening to create common ground in a divided community.
Everyone talked about what this experience - becoming a more active citizen - has meant to them, how much it had taught them about themselves, and how much stronger they have become.

It's easy to get focused on the big picture of community change and overlook change in neighborhood residents as they find their voice and their own personal power. This day was a powerful reminder for me that when we talk about grassroots grantmaking and wonderful programs such as Strengthening Neighborhoods, we're really talking about people. Amazing people who are doing exceptional things every day on their active citizenship journey. And amazing people at The Denver Foundation who are doing this wonderful work. Can you tell I'm smiling? Wouldn't you be?

Visit the profile of Strengthening Neighborhoods that is on Grassroots Grantmakers website.

Take a look at Strengthening Neighborhoods' recent "lessons learned" report on neighborhood leadership.

September 15, 2008

To 501(c)(3) or Not to 501(c)(3): Who's Asking the Question?

To 501(c)(3) or not to 501(c)(3)? I was with a group of funders recently who got into an interesting debate about this 501(c)(3) question. We were talking about "getting real" about grassroots grantmaking - what staff resources, technical assistance resources, and knowledge resources are needed to work effectively as a grassroots grantmaker?

The conversation, which I thought could veer into group hang-wringing about the perils of trying to do too much with too little, instead turned into a discussion about the appropriateness of 501(c)(3) status for grassroots groups. We had two camps represented in this discussion. One was the 501(c)(3) status equals power and more capacity camp. The other was that grassroots groups should not pursue a 501(c)(3) designation until they graduate from beginner group to more advanced group.

I hear this discussion a lot, and for a while now, have been trying to figure out what is really going on when funders talk about 501(c)(3) status for grassroots groups. Sometimes I hear anxiety about working with groups that do not have the designation. The assumption might be that grants to 501(c)(3) organizations are safer investments - that grant money will be well managed, projects will happen as outlined in the grant proposal, and reports will come in on time when a 501(c)(3) is in the picture. Sometimes it's about sustainability - that the 501(c)(3) status is an indication that a group has been around for a while and will be around for a while longer. My experience is that time on the ground and a network of more experienced peers ease these anxieties.

I hear about too many 501(c)(3)'s. To that I say "so what?" And also "why might that be?"

Other times I hear about what a group needs and doesn't need - and this is when I get a bit nervous.
  • A grassroots group doesn't need a 501(c)(3) designation and therefore should not have one.
  • A fiscal sponsor can provide all that a grassroots group needs.
  • A grassroots group should not unduly burden themselves with the organizational infrastructure "stuff" that comes with having a 501(c)(3) designation and should trust someone else to handle all of that.
Grassroots Grantmakers, the national network of funders who are investing in resident-initiated and resident-led work in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, doesn't have a 501(c)(3) designation - by choice. We work with a fiscal sponsor - by choice - and have done so for almost ten years. And as the organization's Executive Director, I have a keen sense of the trade-offs of having/not having a 501(c)(3) designation. As an organization, we revisit that choice NOT to seek a 501(c)(3) designation periodically and weigh the pros and cons. We very well could choose to begin the 501(c)(3) designation process this week or this month or this year. Or we might stay as we are. But we'll decide.

That's how it was in my own neighborhood too. At some point, we decided that we wanted a 501(c)(3) designation. And we got one. Our world didn't change much, but it did indeed change. And it wasn't as much about the designation as it was about the process of deciding with eyes open and good information. It was also about knowing that we had to accept the responsibility of a little higher level of self-management so we could be sure that we could keep the designation that was so much work to obtain. We had not received a grant at that point, so this wasn't about grants. It was more about our developing sense of our own power, what we were trying to achieve, and where we saw our organization in the pecking order of the world around us. This was after we had been around in some form or another for fifteen years.

I'm not by any means suggesting that all grassroots groups should pursue 501(c)(3) status. Or that pursuing a 501(c)(3) status is an indication that a group is "growing up". What I am suggesting, however, is that funders should stay away from that question - and most questions that come from assumptions about what a group needs or doesn't need. There are, after all, many ways to get to the same end, and it is the group itself that must make its path. Assuming that fiscal sponsorship is a viable option for providing grants to groups that don't have the 501(c)(3) designation (and the impetus for seeking 501(c)(3) status is not permission to put a proposal on a funder's desk), the most appropriate role for a funder, in my opinion, is to be sure that grassroots groups have access to good information about the pros and cons of 501(c)(3) status, encouragement to revisit the 501(c)(3) question from time to time, and permission to say "yes" or "no" to the 501(c)(3) pathway without fear of judgment or funding repercussions.

For me, this question about 501(c)(3) status is an example of one of the challenges that face funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking. When it comes to getting real about what is required to be a grassroots grantmaker, it seems that so much goes back to the tag line that we adopted for our national network - "we begin with residents". When we care so much and are working so hard at the "doing" of grassroots grantmaking, it can be challenging to maintain that "we begin with residents" stance. But with the 501(c)(3) question, it does indeed all begin with residents. And it is the resident-led groups that we are funding who get to decide.

This is my take on the question. But I'd love to know what you think. Do you think it is appropriate for a funder to weigh in on the "to 501(c)(3) or not to 501(c)(3)" question with their grassroots grantees? And how do you see the "we begin with residents" value fitting into this question? Let's use this opportunity to talk more about "getting real" about the work of grassroots grantmaking.

September 14, 2008

Wow! "On the Ground" Chicago

I'm still learning about blogging reality. My intention was to blog from Chicago to share the "on the ground" experience" there in real time. Up early/up late days that included lots of wonderful networking and information reminded me that the real-time blogging intention required more super-powers than I could muster.

And I didn't count on Mother Nature. Hurricane Gustav rains in Chicago. Tropical Storm Hannah in coastal North Carolina where I went for a post-event long weekend. Hurricane Ike preparation when I returned home to Texas. Fortunately, all we had to do for Hurricane Ike was prepare. I live 75 miles from the Texas Gulf Coast but the Texas Gulf Coast is very long. When the storm honed in on Houston, 100 miles to the east, we landed on Ike's "dry side". And dry it was. No rain. No wind. No nothing. Crazy as it sounds, that was initially disappointing. Not so anymore, however, as post-Ike footage from Port Arthur (my birthplace) and surrounding communities have come across the television. I'm happy to have this extra stash of water, batteries, lamp oil, canned goods and chocolate - along with my roof, my comfy bed and all of my "stuff" high and dry.

So what would I have said about "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers in Chicago" if I was blogging "real time" or even immediately post event? Thanks to the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Steans Family Foundation, and the extraordinary group of people who gathered from all over to focus on building resident power and capacity for change, Grassroots Grantmakers' premiere "on the ground" gathering was all I hoped for and more. Not the typical "show and tell" site visit. Not another opportunity to be intellectual and talk about building community as if it was a science project. Not another self-serving "hats-off" to funders who have all the answers. Instead, these two days were, to my great delight, about "getting real".

Dr. Arvis Averette got us off to a wonderful start. A long-time South side activist and scholar, Dr. Averette provided commentary as we headed from downtown to Chicago's South side. Funny but full of painful truths. Arvis talked of the flip side of changes that look good on the surface. About welcomed ecoonomic prospertiy than came with pressures that pushed long-standing community residents out. More home ownership but less opportunity for renters. Gentrification that wasn't just about whites pushing out blacks, but instead went to core questions associated with our recent trickle down economic policy. Stories of what it really took for community activism to help shape the face of Chicago's South side.

We continued with time at the amazing Gary Comer Youth Center and the opportunity to hear about community organizing on the South side from Rey Lopez-Calderon (Executive Director of Alianza Leadership Institute), Bryan Echols (Executive Director of MAGIC), and leaders from two of the Woods Funds Southside grantee organizations, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP). We spent the afternoon on Chicago's West side in the North Lawndale neighborhood and visited with leaders of the Crib Collective and the North Lawndale Juvenile Justice Collaborative.

On Friday, we gathered at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus downtown to debrief and connect lessons from Chicago to our "back home" work. We began the morning hearing from Deborah Harringtons (Woods Fund President) and Reginald Jones (Steans Family Foundation's Executive Director), with Consuella Brown (Woods Fund Senior Program Officer) offering questions to Deborah and Reginald that set the perfect stage for the following "getting real" discussions about the challenges that funders face in building resident power and capacity for change. Three dynamic duos led us through energetic discussions on three topics:

In the afternoon, we spent time in "role-alike" groups - neighborhood residents, intermediary organizations, funders who are new to grassroots grantmaking, and experienced grassroots grantmakers.

There is a lot of I could share about the two-day experience - and I'll be blogging about some of the issues that surfaced in the discussions. Kristin Senty-Brown, a diarist who has worked documenting learnings with the Annie Casey Foundation supported Making-Connections investment in Des Moines, was with us for the experience. Kristin will capture the two-day experience and learnings that the 50+ participants brought to the discussion from their home communities in a document that we will be eager to share. But in the meantime, here are some comments from people who joined me "on the ground" in Chicago:

Wonderful networking and information/idea exchange opportunity.

I am a community member on a small grants neighborhood grantmaking committee. This helped a lot in giving me a wider perspective on this grassroots "movement".

Chicago was a great place to host this workshop.

Great examples of neighbors and neighborhoods stepping up to their challenges and finding success.

This grassroots conference was a great experience and I learned a lot about what people are doing to make their communities better........I look forward to attending again.

September 1, 2008

What We're Doing On the Ground

I'm packing my bags for Chicago - headed there for Grassroots Grantmakers' first "on the ground" gathering with fifty of my most respected colleagues. With this event, we're combining two practices that have been at the heart of our network since its inception - learning in place and learning from each other.

The learning in place part is about context - that the work of grassroots grantmaking is tailor made to where it exists "on the ground". This week, the place is Chicago, and specifically the neighborhoods on Chicago's South and West sides. We are partnering with two Chicago member organizations, the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Steans Family Foundation to help us get grounded in their work in these places. And, since this is Chicago, where community organizing is in the water, the theme that runs through our time together will be building resident power and capacity for change. We'll spend this Thursday out in Chicago neighborhoods, getting an "on the ground" perspective of the work of these two funders in these two areas of Chicago.

On Friday, we'll use our common experience "on the ground" to go deeper into the work that we are all doing in our hometowns to build resident power and capacity for change. This day will focus on learning from each other - what happens when people engaged in the practice of grassroots grantmaking from different communities having enough time together, face to face, to do more than compare notes. Since networking and sharing is the goal, this gathering is small by design. But the people who are coming are big in vision, experience and perspective, an indication that the sharing will be extremely rich. Included will be foundation presidents, program officers, community residents, grantmaking committee members, technical assistance providers, community organizers, evaluators, and bankers - an amazing group of people and perspectives that will allow us to get a unique look at the question that we're all asking - "why is this so hard?"

I'll be blogging this week from Chicago to give you an update on how it's going and to share some of the gems that we're sure to discover. Stay tuned.....