November 27, 2008


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love everything it stands for. I love the traditions that we honor in our family and in our country and how those traditions are changing but staying the same as our family and our country changes. I love that it is simply about being thankful and remembering what really matters.

So in this time between the pie-making and the turkey stuffing, I am pausing to say thank you for joining me over the last year on this blog. Thank you for supporting my efforts to share the view across the grassroots grantmaking landscape and for giving back by subscribing, commenting, challenging, sending encouraging words through email, and passing my posts on to colleagues - helping in these and other ways to enliven and expand our community of citizen-centered grantmakers. May your day and the weekend that is to come be filled with your favorite people, your favorite foods and victory for your favorite team!

November 22, 2008

Where Do Small Grants Fit with Big Problems Like Foreclosures, Vacancies, and Neighborhood Stabilization?

I was a guest at last week's meeting of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a collaborative effort by the Urban Institute and local partners to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems in local policymaking and community building.

A major topic of conversation at this meeting was the foreclosure crisis and the neighborhood de-stabilization that foreclosures and accompanying vacancies are having on neighborhoods. Allan Mallach from the Brookings Institute made an excellent presentation about foreclosures and the federal government's Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, which created the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) under which states, cities, and counties will receive a total of $3.92 billion to acquire, rehabilitate, demolish and develop foreclosed and abandoned residential property. Mallach's presentation was followed by presentations on local perspectives on the foreclosure crisis by Phyllis Betts (University of Memphis) and Michael Rich (Emory University, Atlanta).

In the years that I worked in Memphis, I came to know neighborhoods and the pattern of investment/disinvestment in Memphis neighborhoods well. I also had the privilege of working with Phyllis on two neighborhood initiatives. So when Phyllis took the podium after Mallach's presentation and displayed a GIS map of foreclosures and associated vacancies in Memphis, I was stunned and surprised. Stunned by the numbers. Surprised by "where". The "where" was not the neighborhoods that had been labeled as "troubled" and where public sector community development dollars and philanthropic energy have been focused. They were the next set of neighborhoods - the neighborhoods we (at the community foundation) were beginning to think about from a prevention perspective.

From what I could tell from the discussion, the Memphis pattern is a rather typical pattern. Here is a new set of neighborhoods - to add to the old set of neighborhoods - that are dealing with destabilizing influences that are not of their own making.

Mallach defined a stable neighborhood as a one where residents feel confident that their investment - financial and psychological - is secure. He reminded us that "when it comes to trying to stabilize an area, it is critical to understand that even one vacant, boarded-up property can undermine the vitality of an entire city block. The harm done, whether measured in the impact on property values or the effect on neighbors’ health and safety, does not increase linearly with each additional vacant property – the first few do nearly all of the damage."

He suggested a targeting strategy for the investment of NSP funds - with three possible targets:
  • neighborhoods that are close to market recovery, where it is possible to move the recovery forward by buying and restoring a small number of properties,but where costs or other factors make it impossible for the private sector to do the job;
  • neighborhoods with significant market weakness, but with an intact but frayed physical and social fabric, where it is possible to build a functioning market by eliminating blighting problem properties or by reducing housing supply to reflect realistic levels of demand;
  • severely distressed neighborhoods, where acquiring properties can create potential land assembly,reduce housing supply, or stabilize remaining occupied areas.
So where do small grants fit into the picture of big problems?

The neighborhoods with the "dots" on the Memphis map were, by and large, not neighborhoods with organized block clubs, neighborhood groups, or other citizens groups. They are either too new, too transient, or too insulated from the day to day challenges associated with disinvestment and blight that often brings people together. So here comes a vacant house. There goes a family. Here comes another vacant house. There goes another family. The cycle begins.

We need to remember that when we talk about neighborhoods, we are also talking about people. And people together in challenging times are much stronger than people alone in challenging times. People together in neighborhoods that are being hit hard by the foreclosure crisis can do things to shore up confidence that their investment in their neighborhood - yes, their financial investment, but especially their psychological investment - is secure. They can pull together in a spirit of mutual aid and help manage the fear that can so quickly escalate. They can work on the code issues, neighborhood appearance and neighborhood safety issues that come with vacant property. They can communicate in a way that no one else can that lets house and apartment shoppers know that this is a good neighborhood that got caught in something that didn't have anything to do with neighborhood quality of life.

So funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking, who believe that small grants can make a big difference, who invest in active citizenship, who approach their work through an asset lens rather than a deficit lens: Here's a golden opportunity to expand your work into neighborhoods in your community where foreclosures have hit hard and where NSP funds will be invested. If you're not already tracking how your community will be using NSP funds and which neighborhoods are being hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, start tracking. And if you're not already investing in these neighborhoods, now is the time to do the groundwork that will bring your grassroots grantmaking experience to the neighborhood stabilization picture in your community and invest in the bottom-up community building that is needed to complement the more top-down NSP strategies if neighborhood stabilization is going to be a reality.

If you're already there, are already making plans to be there - or want to thing more about what you can do - I would love to hear from you. This is truly the moment to do some big thinking about small grants.

November 18, 2008

Dear Grassroots Grantmakers

Dear Grassroots Grantmakers:

I'm confused. For the first time, I feel like I'm part of a neighborhood. I don't know everyone but I've met some great people on my block and on the next street. We help each other out and have fun when we get together. I like feeling connected - that there are people around me who know me. And I'm surprised by the difference we've already made in our neighborhood and how good it feels to do something that we didn't think we could do!

Here's the problem. I saw something in the newspaper about grants for neighborhood projects and decided to find out what this was about. I went to a workshop and learned that yes, there's money for groups like ours and for projects like the one we have in mind. But here's what else I learned:
If we fill our a 10 page application (maybe not 10 pages......5 pages are instructions, so maybe it's only a 5 page application), show that we can raise half of the money that we will need, "float" the other half until we're reimbursed with grant funds, partner with a nonprofit that we don't even know, open a bank account in our organization's name, attend "leadership classes", show that we have a way to do the project next summer without a grant, come before a committee to answer questions, and agree to submit written reports with receipts for our purchases, we'll find out in 2-3 months if we get a grant that we can put toward purchasing paint that we'll use for the paint-up/fix-up project that we have in mind to help out the senior citizens in our neighborhood.
So here's my question. When you talk about the value of "active citizenship" and encourage people like me to add "neighborhood" to my everyday to-do list, are you also saying that I really need to add 20 more things to my list in order to get help buying paint that I apply on my day off to someone else's house? And that I should aspire for more - to become a "sustainable" organization or a "more inclusive" organization?

When I add it all up - the time I took off from work to go learn about these grants, what it will take to meet all of these requirements, and then what it will take to actually do this project, I'm wondering if this is a good idea after all.

So tell me, Grassroots Grantmakers.......what do you think? If we have just so much time and so much energy, wouldn't that time and energy be better used in our neighborhood than on these 20 things? Maybe we should just skip the paint and stay with raking leaves like we did last year.

CAC (Confused Active Citizen)

Dear CAC:

Sounds like you've had a close encounter of the funder kind.....and with a funder who is trying to do the right thing, but is pulled in many different "right thing" directions. There's the "right thing" of setting aside money for groups like yours that is clashing with the some well-intended but overboard notions about the "right thing" when it comes to being responsible about managing grant funds. And, doing the right thing by offering support other than money that will help your group be able to do even more in the future.

What I've seen is that funders who have been at the business of grassroots grantmaking for a while relax a bit when they learn that groups like yours are often even more responsible about managing grant funds - and just as good (or better) at making grant dollars go further - than many of the tried and tried nonprofit organizations that they have funded for years. It's a learning curve rather than a curve ball.

So here is my advice. In the spirit of "everyone is a teacher and a learner", I would go for it and slug away through the 20 things, get the money for the paint and do one heck of a job. And in the meantime, use every opportunity to help your funder navigate this learning curve. Invite him/her out so you can build a relationship that isn't just about the money, get to know the other groups that are receiving grants and compare notes, be frank in the reports you submit about the "cost/benefit" of all the extras that you've been asked to do and suggest some alternatives if you find these extras aren't actually helpful.

Then wait and see what happens. You may find that someone is actually listening and values what you're doing more than it appears at this point. Or you may find that they are in the funder-knows-best isolation chamber. If that's the case, there will be seniors in your neighborhood with freshly painted houses, you'll have a great project under your belt that you can use as a door-opener with another funder when you have another great idea that needs some money.

So yes, when I encourage you to keep "neighborhood" on your to-do list, I guess there are some other tasks that inevitably come along. Hopefully that list will get smaller, boiling down to just those things that are really worth doing. But I know one thing for sure. What you are doing in your neighborhood is definitely worth doing and the best recipe for "sustainable" is keeping it real, keeping it fun, and keeping it about what you and your neighbors value the most.

Here's to active citizens - and to-do lists that matter!

November 14, 2008

Should We Talk (More) About Belonging?

I've been on the move for the past 10 days - lucky to have the opportunity to spend some time in some interesting places, getting a look at grassroots grantmaking from some different perspectives. Here's the first quick debrief from this trek.

I began my trek with a trip to Montreal to attend the Community Foundations of Canada's annual conference. Grassroots Grantmakers' community of practice includes three Canadian community foundations - The Calgary Foundation, The Hamilton Community Foundation, and The Vancouver Foundation. I was privileged to join Julie Black (Calgary), David Derbyshire (Hamilton) and Lidia Kemeny (Vancouver) for a presentation - Grassroots Grantmaking: Putting the Community in Community Foundations. My primary reason for the trek to Montreal was this session with these people, showcasing their wonderful work and inviting other community foundations to try out grassroots grantmaking. And that alone would have been worth the trip.

But right from the start, a difference in perspective that I began hearing from the Canadian community foundations was intriguing and exhilarating. Beginning with the plenary on the first morning and continuing through every session and presentation that I attended - including ours - there was this word that we seldom hear in the United States. Belonging.

Belonging appeared first in John Ralston Saul's opening plenary when he talked about the collapse of globalism and the need to re-examine assumptions that are behind the charity-model. Saul called for the more aggressive pursuit of an alternate way of thinking - especially about belonging, a concept he feels is central to understanding how we rebuild citizenship.

Belonging appeared again in the session that I attended on Vital Signs, an annual community check-up conducted by community foundations across Canada that measures the vitality of cities, identifies significant trends, and assigns grades in at least ten areas critical to quality of life. One of the ten critical areas that is measured in cities across Canada is belonging and leadership.

And belonging was an important theme that emerged again in our session. Julie Black talked about using grassroots grantmaking to promote belonging and neighborliness - to help people in neighborhoods be good neighbors. Lidia Kemeny talked about the partnership that the Vancouver Foundation has with eleven neighborhood houses that has allowed their grassroots grantmaking investment to show up in very local, resident-centered ways; each neighborhood house serves as a grantmaking locus, with residents from the surrounding neighborhood serving as the grant award panel. David Derbyshire talked about The Hamilton Community Foundation's strategic decision to move their highly successful Growing Roots program from inside the foundation to the community - housing it in various neighborhood locations. And, all three said that in these difficult economic times, this very local, belonging-oriented work is more important than ever - that other programs might be cut, but not these.

On my way home from Canada, I was thinking about belonging - how we talk about belonging in the United States and what evidence there is that belonging is something that we value. I couldn't find the word that suggests the blend of personal and community - that captures the relationship that we have with places where we feel welcomed and at home - that comes with "belonging". Not civic engagement, not citizen participation, not resident - at least not to me. So is there a word that I'm missing? Or is belonging missing from our conversations because belonging is not something that we value? Or is belonging something that we value but have not associated with our grantmaking? And if that's the case, is it something that deserves more attention - and if so, what would you think about and look for if you were tracking "belonging" in the same way that you track other indicators of success?

What do you think? Click "comment" to share your thoughts.