December 15, 2009

Another Take on Gifts that Give Back

I love the idea of gifts that give back, and had fun over the weekend perusing all of the gifts that give back sites that Britt Bravo listed on her Have Fun Do Good blog.

What struck me as I perused these lists, however, was how many were actually "things" - kind of a reverse of what happens when you respond to your local pubic radio station's regular campaign. With public radio, you give money and get a mug, a CD, an umbrella. With these gifts, you buy something and whoever is selling that something makes a contribution to something worthwhile. Yes! I will do this whenever possible.

While we're in the gift-giving mood, I want to share another take on gifts that give back. What about gifts that give back right in your own community? And what about gifts that don't even require money but will give back for years? What about the things you DO rather than the things that you buy? What about thinking of all the ways that you can create a sense of community on your block and in your neighborhood as gifts of hospitality - gifts that strengthen the relationships that people can turn to when they need a hand and the friendships that enrich our lives?

I wonder if we put enough value on the things we do, especially if those things are right there on our block and aren't thought of as "volunteering". I think, however, that the gift of hospitality is the most powerful and meaningful gift that anyone can give. And it's at the heart of big thinking on small grants - with small grants as a vehicle for honoring, encouraging, and supporting the acts that join people together right on their own block.

So in that spirit, here's my list of holiday gifts that give back all year, right in your own neighborhood:
  1. Ask someone you wave to but don't really know over for a cup of coffee.
  2. Be the spark that gets your neighbors together to decorate your street (mailboxes, light posts, front porches).
  3. Host a holiday block party (make it quirky and fun - best done when everyone chips in with an idea, see previous post).
  4. Organize a neighborhood cookie exchange.
  5. Give coupons for small neighborly favors, such as picking up mail or newspapers when neighbors are out of town (coupons will send the signal that you won't regard this favor as an imposition).
  6. Make a simple "map" of your block, and write in names and phone numbers of your neighbors. Share as an insert in a holiday card.
  7. Organize a neighborhood baby-sitting co-op that give parents baby-sitting support over the holidays and then other day to day obligations (and help neighborhood children get to know each other).
  8. Help an elderly neighbor put up her Christmas tree or holiday lights.
  9. Connect with 3-4 neighbors to start a neighborhood walking group, and up your chances of sticking to your "move more, sit less" New Year's Resolution.
  10. Team up with a neighbor for a holiday meal.

What are some other gifts that give back that have to do with strengthening the fabric of community right on your block? Join in by posting a comment.

December 7, 2009

A Christmas Story

I always think about my Memphis neighborhood at this time of the year. One of the holiday memories that I treasure most is of Christmas caroling with my Evergreen neighbors - caroling that included a parade float, a brass band, and an after-caroling party somewhere in the neighborhood. This has been going on for more than twenty years - and I was there in the beginning.

It's the story of how this tradition got started that I want to share today. And, believe it or, there's a message here for funders who are thinking big about small grants.

Evergreen is the neighborhood that I've written about in earlier posts - the neighborhood where I learned what it meant to have neighbors as family, what people can do when they come together and what it means to be a leader. It's the neighborhood that had been torn apart by an interstate highway project that took down 200 houses right through the middle of the neighborhood while the route for the highway was being challenged in court.

I was a new member of the neighborhood association's board when Christmas caroling began. We didn't have a long range plan or any idea that we were launching something important or enduring. The first year it was a group of 10 or 15 people, walking from house to house with Mrs. Brown serving as our song leader. It was freezing that year. I remember my children so bundled up that they could hardly walk and, needless to say, not very delighted to be participating.

The next year someone in the group - someone who was a big thinker, but whose ideas were often too big (or too creative) to fly - came up with an idea for a Christmas caroling contest. Our neighborhood would challenge organizations in other Midtown neighborhoods to participate in a contest for the best neighborhood caroling event. The idea guy also said he would be the get-it-done guy and rallied a small group of people to work with him to get the other neighborhoods on board and to come up with a Christmas caroling event that would bring home the trophy for our neighborhood. A few other neighborhoods signed on and the contest actually happened, but what was truly amazing was what began that year in Evergreen.

Out of nowhere, a parade float, decked out in holiday garb, appeared. And then came a horse and wagon to carry a group of University of Memphis music students with their brass instruments. Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman arrived. The last minute addition was the "bell guy" with strings of jingle bells on leather cords that he passed out to everyone so that we could jingle along the way. Mrs. Brown was still there to lead us in song as our entourage - parade float full of jingling people, horse and carriage with the brass quarter - made its way through the neighborhood, drawing people out of their houses along the way to hop on board. After the caroling we gathered at my across the street neighbor's house for mulled wine and cookies. The mulled wine was my contribution and remained a constant from year to year. The two plates of cookies the first year grew to an amazing pot-luck in future years.

When I think back to that first year, I'm still amazed at how it happened. It couldn't have been planned. It was about everyone pitching in - Carl using his connection to get the parade float, Talbot talking to his friend who ran the horse and carriage business downtown, someone else finding the bell guy, Rose showing up as Frosty the Snowman, Sue offering her house for the party, me deciding that mulled wine would be good on a cold day, Irma drawing out the "parade route", someone else make song books, and on and on and on.

It also amazes me that it's still happening. In the early years, we kept fending off ideas that would have made the day more trouble to plan - thinking that keeping it simple (as simple as it could be with a parade float and a brass quartet) would be the secret to keeping it going. After the second year or two, we began sending special invitations to the new people who had moved into the neighborhood - our honorary guests for the day - but that was about as complicated as it got. But don't think that not complicated meant not important. At the point that we were working hard to rebuild 200 homes in the abandoned expressway corridor (a major project by any funder's definition), Evergreen's way of Christmas caroling helped bring us together, strengthen our shared identity as a neighborhood, and remind us that this was a neighborhood worth saving.

We did all of this without money. That's important, but what's perhaps more important is what this story says about ideas that work to bring a neighborhood together. It began with an idea and had room to grow as people discovered what they could contribute and came forward. It worked because it had someone at the center who had the big idea, not someone who held tight to that original idea or who needed to be in charge. It worked because it was fun. And it was fun because it was about community coming together, with everyone doing what they could do and no one feeling over-burdened.

I wonder what would have happened if we had taken that original idea and turned it into a grant application. What project would have resulted if we had been required to lay it all out on the front end and stay with the original plan? What would we have said if we had been asked to list expected outcomes and to demonstrate of plan for sustainability? How would we have responded if we had been asked to combine efforts with adjoining neighborhoods in the interest of achieving scale? What if our commitment had been judged by how many dollars we had put on the table or how many neighborhood businesses we had lined up as sponsors?

Who can say for sure, but my best hunch is that we would have either squashed the idea (and the creative off-the-wall thinker in our midst would have found some other ways to share his gift in other more fertile soil) or we would have had done something that was more about meeting our funder's expectations and less about building community. And I doubt that what we began would be still going on twenty years later as a neighborhood tradition. It might be that adding money to the equation would have been the deal-killer. Or maybe it's that other thing - the hoops that come with money that we funders think are necessary and responsible - that would have stopped us in our tracks.

I'm sharing this story because I've been on both sides of this picture - the neighborhood group member who saw how something amazing happened, and the funder who was trying as hard as I could possibly try to support neighborhood groups and small projects such as Christmas caroling to build community and to encourage the community to think bigger. In spite of knowing how much room we needed to experiment, modify plans, and discover the resources we had within our neighborhood, I too have ladled on restrictions and pushed for guaranteed outcomes - all with the best intentions of being helpful and responsible. What has kept bringing me back from the isolation chambers of the funding world (where our isolation leads us to believe that we really know best), is the experience I had in my own neighborhood with projects like the Evergreen Christmas caroling.

I'm curious. Does this story ring any bells with you? Have you had a similar experience in your own community that you use to keep you grounded in your work as a funder? Have you used a similar experience to talk with a funder about funding that supports rather than stifles community building in your community? Is there a moral in this Christmas story? Join in by posting a comment.

And if mulled wine during the holiday season sounds good, email me and I'll share my recipe!

November 30, 2009

The Language Problem

The language of grassroots grantmaking is challenging. We use words and talk about concepts that don't seem to be in the philanthropic mainstream. And we run into words that are commonly used that are loaded with multiple meanings and thus can be obstacles to clear learning and communication about grassroots grantmaking. A colleague mentioned this recently and commented that I write about language a lot on this blog. I hadn't thought about it that way but yes, he's right.
  • What's a "small grant"?
  • What word do we use to describe the people in a community? "People"? "Resident"? "Citizen"?
  • What do we mean by "grassroots"?
  • What is "community resilience", "community capacity", "civic capacity", "civic engagement"?
  • What is "technical assistance"? Is that just another way of saying "help"?
  • What is "community"? What is "neighborhood"? What is "place-based"?
  • What do we mean by "active citizenship"? What's the difference between "volunteer" and "active citizen"?
Language came up again when I was talking with a program officer at one of our member foundations. This time the problem word was "suburbs".

The person I was talking with works at a foundation in a metro area on the east coast - most specifically, in a community on the edge of a really big city, a community that is thought of as a suburb of that city. She was telling me about a bias that she has detected - a bias against investing in suburbs. She went on to say that yes, the area where she is working was at one time a place where people of means went to escape from the city. But now it is an area that is incredibly diverse in all ways that a community can be diverse - with the problems that come with a complex community that includes both the "haves" and the "have nots".

After our telephone conversation, it occurred to me that this was once again a language problem. Just as some communities are labeled as places that are dangerous, distressed, and needy, others are labeled as places that are too good for philanthropic investment. And that label, like all labels, is loaded with assumptions that are too seldom questioned. Assumptions possibly like wealth equals health, or that communities who were founded for one reason (escape from the big-city problems, for example) deserve what they get when the big-city problems show up there. I also thought about another conversation with another member organization that is working on-purpose with suburban neighborhoods that fall outside of standard definition of "needy" because they were "needy" when it comes to a sense of community and for that reason, were seen by the foundation as vulnerable.

I'm not calling for more funding for suburban communities. What I am suggesting instead is that we keep our radar out for words that generate an automatic reaction - especially when the automatic reaction is to exclude. I'm also encouraging us all to remember just how powerful the language problem is in the community change business.

What are other words that you have spotted that come loaded with assumptions that get in the way of the discussions that we really need to have about how best to support residents as active citizens and generators of community vitality? Post a comment and join my discussion about language.

November 18, 2009

A Reminder about the Power of Relationships

I'm sharing a wonderful 2-minute video, Be That Woman, that the Washington Area Women's Foundation recently shared in an email.  While the Washington Area Women's Foundation developed this video to help demonstrate the importance of investing in women and girls, I see a message here as well for place-based funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking - with its simple yet moving message about the power of relationships. 

Grassroots grantmaking is inherently a relationship business, isn't it?  At its core, it's about investing in the power of relationships to make our communities work and to address the things that are causing them to not work.  It's also about putting a human face on grantmaking - about building the people to people relationships between funders and community residents that enable the grant process and the grant award to move dreams into action rather than to just move dollars from one account to another.  It's about the change that comes from the cumulative effect of a lot of small things - person to person, one thing after the after.

This video says that to me.  Check it out and see what you think.  And thanks to the Washington Area Women's Foundation for sharing!

November 9, 2009

Real Time Relationship Building

I just completed the rigorous process of officially changing my name to my married name - officially and legally now Janis Foster Richardson.  No, I'm not recently married - I've been married for 16 years.  There were a lot of good reasons I didn't change my name at the time of my marriage and a lot of additional good reasons I decided to change my name now.

One reason is that two names was just too complicated - professional colleagues know me as Foster, recent friends know me as Richardson, and, believe it or not, I would often stumble around when people asked me my name.  Who should I be to you, or what name have I used before?  So this was as much about making things simpler as it was about a statement of confidence in my marriage - it was about being the same person to everyone I meet, wherever I am.  And I've been surprised about just how much better this feels - getting rid of this seemingly small thing that had complicated my life.

Here's why I'm sharing this.  I've been thinking about the genuine relationships that I experienced at Grassroots Grantmaker's recent "on the ground" in eastern Ohio, and noticing how much angst there seems to be in the funding community about building good relationships with grantees and people at the community level.  Our recent report, Building Resident Power and Capacity for Change, includes a whole chapter focused on building strong relationships with communities - derived from conversations about relationship building at another "on the ground".  And, I've seen numerous other reports and guides abouts about building relationships with grantees, stakeholders and community members.  The people side of the grantmaking business is obviously on our minds.  And I think it has something to do with being who we are wherever we are - about being authentic when it comes to building relationships.

I was struck when I was talking with a seasoned philanthropic colleague about the Ohio "on the ground" experience, and he marveled at how comfortable the conversations were - marveling because half of the people there were not paid grantmaking professionals. Teams from Detroit, Battle Creek, and Cleveland were with us - with these teams composed of neighborhood residents who serve on grantmaking committees, people who staff the grantmaking programs, community organizers and technical assistance providers, and more senior staff with the sponsoring funding organizations.  My colleague said that in his experience, neighborhood residents and others who don't call themselves Program Officers, Vice-Presidents, or Directors often defer or hold-back - at least initially - when they are in conversation with foundation staff.  This didn't happen in Youngstown.  We talked as the equals that we are - equals in working together on a shared goal.

What I said to my colleague is that the conversations that we had in Youngstown reflect the relationship building work that had gone on/is going on in Detroit, Battle Creek and Cleveland.  The neighborhood residents were comfortable because this wasn't the first time they had been at these tables, in these conversations.  They were comfortable because of the real-time relationship building that had occurred over weeks and months of being in conversation with funders and about funding.

And because I know the people that staff the grassroots grantmaking programs for The Skillman Foundation, the Battle Creek Community Foundation, and The Cleveland Foundation, I'll go further to suggest that the real time relationship building that is going on in Detroit, Battle Creek and Cleveland is also about these people.

I look back on my own work with neighborhood grantees and my behavior as a Program Officer or Program VP and see that I had a lot to learn about relationship building.  I know that I would have viewed learning opportunities such as the Ohio "on the ground" as for mostly for me, not really for them.  I would have also expected to see some special "funders-only" break-outs where we got to the real questions.  I would have taken care of the grantees that came along like a mother-hen, but then sought out my funder colleagues in my down-time.  I would have done what I suspect many of us do when we forget who we really are and what we know about building relationships when we're not at work.  Without even realizing what I was doing, I would have been saying "I belong here, you don't" in a hundred subtle ways.

If I had another opportunity, I would do whatever I could to make it simpler - to bring my most authentic self to real time relationship building with grantees and neighborhood residents rather than to try so hard to be a good Program Officer.  I think this would require me to not overly-intellectualize the relationships I was forming and to let my heart come into the picture, with fewer self-imposed rules. This is what I've learned from watching the good work in Detroit, Battle Creek and Cleveland and what can happen if you take relationship-building seriously.

So how about you?  What are you learning about real-time relationship building between funding organization staff and people who live in the communities that are served by the funding organization?  What are you doing to make it simpler, to be more authentic, and to get where you can really talk about what matters?

November 6, 2009

A Refreshing Insight about Grant Size

Yes, I know that I'm writing a lot about money.  But isn't it our thinking about money that mucks up the works when we're doing something noble and important such as investing in the future of our communities?  Not money itself, but our thinking about money.  And by "our" I mean both grantmakers and grant seekers.

I heard from neighborhood grantmaking team this week at the Battle Creek Community Foundation with a refreshing insight that I want to share.  What they shared made me flash back to a set of comments that I heard almost every meeting from one of the members of the grantmaking committee that I once staffed:

"What? Most of these proposals are for $5,000.  This happens every grant round.  It can't be that everyone needs $5,000. These budgets must be padded. I move that we reject every proposal that comes in for $5,000 - that's an obvious sign that whoever wrote the proposal didn't do their homework on the budget and we shouldn't fund someone who doesn't do their homework.  Who's going to second my motion?"

Guess what our grant maximum was for that fund?  Yep, you guessed it - $5,000.  Did we ever think that the problem was with us and not the grantseekers?  Nope.  Instead we complained and then in our grantmaking wisdom, pared down budgets to what we thought they should be, as a lesson to the grantseeker about budget padding.

Apparently the same thing was happening in Battle Creek with the community foundation's neighborhood grantmaking - except instead of jumping to conclusions, members of the neighborhood grantmaking there looked at the situation with fresh, curious eyes and a willingness to consider that it might be something that they were doing or not doing that was triggering this reaction.  Refreshing, right?

So they wondered if stating the maximum amount that could be requested - stipulating a grant ceiling - might be a subtle suggestion about how much a group should request.  It's human nature, isn't it - to want the biggest cookie on the plate, to go for the mirror ball prize, to want to come out on top?  So if we say that you can apply for up to $5,000, don't we assume that this should be our goal? 

So they started with themselves.  They decided to see what happened if they removed the grant ceiling, stepped up conversations with potential applicants about fleshing out their idea and developing a grant proposal.  They began asking groups to attend a pre-application workshop and offered more coaching to groups.  And what they found is that the average request actually declined - with budgets more in line with the scope and scale of the project that they are intended to support.  Kathy Szenda Wilson, Director of Neighborhood Grantmaking at the Battle Creek Community Foundation, says that this experiment has taught them that removing artificial boundaries allows for much deeper, more meaningful dialogue around what is really necessary, and helps resident-led groups have a better relationship with the investment itself, understanding very well the importance of scope and scale.

Here's what I find refreshing about this story:
  • It recognizes that there are two sides to the funding equation - funder and grantseeker.  
  • It begins with the funder looking in the mirror rather than passing judgment on the grantseeker.
  • It acknowledges the power of money to make things happen and to muck things up - and demonstrates how a funder can put more emphasis on "make things happen" and recognize their power to minimize "muck things up".
  • Instead of simply changing the policy - simply taking the lid off of funding requests - there was careful thought given to what else they, they funder, could do to build the capacity of grantseekers to develop smart budgets.  With the grantseeker orientations and the coaching that they initiated, they demonstrated skill in knowing when help, not money, is the right thing to offer, and what to require and what to make optional.
  • And, simply sharing the story tells me that the neighborhood grantmaking team at the Battle Creek Community Foundation has learned something from this experiment - that they are about learning how their philanthropic capital can truly be helpful to the residents of Battle Creek neighborhoods.  
Way to go!  This is type of story about money I love to write!

November 2, 2009

Grassroots Grantmaking & Community Organizing: Are You Seeing What I'm Seeing?

I noticed something last week in northeast Ohio that I've been seeing across the grassroots grantmaking network - something that I'm hoping is really a trend and not something that I've conjured up from years of wishing it was so.

What I'm spotting is more synergy between the resident-centered work that some place-based funders are doing and practice of community organizing.  And I'm being deliberate when I say the practice of community orgnaizing.  What is exciting is that I'm seeing more direct, practical connections between funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking and community organizers.  This has a different flavor from what I've seen in the past - funders holding their nose while making a community organizing grant and then praying that the "action" won't bite them in the behind, or community organizers trying to convince funders that all they need to do is to give them money and get out of the way.  What I'm seeing is about working together - it's about synergy.

What this looks like is more comfort on the funder's side with having community organizing in the picture, and more openness on the community organizing side to having funders at the table. It's about dialogue, learning exchange, working in partnership, each side recognizing that they need each other. Perhaps place-based funders are realizing that resident-centered work doesn't add up to social change magically or naturally - that there are skills, attitudes and practices that residents need to move from short-term fixes to long-term change, and that these skills, attitudes and practices are squarely embedded in the work of community organizing.  Organizers may be spotting the shared values and goals associated with the resident-centered work that some place-based funders are doing as natural points of connection with the funding world - and that these connections can indeed advance their own work as well in ways that go beyond more money to do the work.

We heard the story at Grassroots Grantmaker's recent "on the ground" gathering in Ohio's Mahoning Valley of the synergy between the Raymond John Wean Foundation's Neighborhood Success grants program and the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  The Organizing Collaborative serves as fiscal sponsor for some of the groups that receive Neighborhood Success grants - meaning that the new groups are introduced to community organizers and community organizing right away.  We heard Big Jim talk about beginning with 8 people in his neighborhood and growing his group to 300 members.  When asked how this happened, he talked about a Neighborhood Success grant and his relationship with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  I'm not sure which came first - the grant or the relationship with the Organizing Collaborative.  But "first" doesn't really matter, does it?  It's the synergy that made the difference.

I've heard similar stories when I have been in Denver visiting the team associated with The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program - and it's no coincidence that the team now includes two people who have been trained as community organizers and were hired specifically because of that experience.   I've heard about the close relationship between Strengthening Neighborhoods and MOP (Metro Organization of People, the PICO affiliate in Denver.  And I've heard about board-level conversations at The Denver Foundation on the value that comes from funding "spicy groups".  Sounds like synergy to me.

Cleveland, Battle Creek, San Diego, Seattle......just a few of the other places where there are growing relationships between grassroots grantmaking and community organizing.

I mentioned earlier that I've been wishing for the change that I think that I'm now seeing.  In the years I was working in Memphis, I knew that we were missing something that community organizing could offer, but couldn't find a way to make the connection.  One of the national faith-based organizing networks had an affiliate in Memphis, but their work was clearly not neighborhood based and being part of a congregation was the only entree to the organizing training that they offered.  What they did and how they worked was a bit mystical and mysterious to those on the outside - creating the sense that they were a force to be respected, but also keeping the practices, skills and attitudes associated with organizing out of reach for the resident-led groups that we were funding.  I was hearing the same thing from my colleagues in other cities - that there was a disconnect between the faith-based or issued-base organizing that was going on in their communities and an unmet need for organizing training for residents who were accessing small grants for work on their own blocks.

The gap in Memphis was unfortunate - leading, I believe, to the ultimate demise of the grassroots grantmaking program there.  We didn't have what we needed to help the leaders chart a path between mowing the grass on the overgrown vacant lot on the corner and addressing the question behind the issue - why are there some many neglected vacant lots in their neighborhood and in similar neighborhoods all over Memphis?  So it became a game of blaming the victims (why don't these leaders figure it out - stop mowing the grass, ask deeper question and get the root cause) and associating success with the size of the grant (these grants are too small to make a difference).   End of story is that the program - the only program that made funds available to block clubs and neighborhood groups in Memphis - was cut. Unfortuante.  But what is really unfortunate is that this story is not unique to Memphis.

If indeed there is a new day with new synergy between grassroots grantmaking and community organizing, we may finally be breaking through a barrier that has limited possibilities for grassroots grantmaking and community organizing alike.  The new working relationships that I'm seeing introduces and integrates organizing into the grassroots grantmaking picture as technical assistance, training and coaching - technical assistance, training and coaching that develops leadership potential, builds groups, and helps people move from addressing symptoms to working on what is causing those symptoms. And, the long-term patient money approach of grassroots grantmaking is the perfect companion for organizing - an invitation that the organizers can use to encourage groups to take the next step when the time is right.

I can also imagine that this new synergy, if it indeed exists, opening some new funding avenues for community organizing, supplementing more traditional sources of funding - those social justice oriented funders who have long seen the wisdom in funding community organizing. This new synergy can help a new set of funders see community organizing as an important vehicle for reinvigorating active citizenship and local democracy.  There are the place-based funders who are directly engaged in grassroots grantmaking in their own communities for sure - but then there are also the funders who support civic engagement and capacity building but may have shied away from direct action organizing.  A win-win, in my mind.

So this is what I think I'm seeing.  I'm interested in learning how it looks it you - and if you're sensing a change, what we might do together to support, encourage and celebrate this change.  Post a comment or send me an email to share your thinking.

October 28, 2009

The On the Ground Ohio Experience

Here's a short animoto video with photos from our recent "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers" in Ohio's Mahoning Valley.  Check it out and watch for info about dates and places for two more in 2010.

There's music with this, so check your volume if you're at the office!

October 27, 2009

The Two Faces of Money

I just returned from a week on the road with three days in the Youngstown-Warren, Ohio area, "on the ground" with my peers from the grassroots grantmaking community. I'm full of new enthusiasm for the work of I'm privileged to do with Grassroots Grantmakers. I'm also deeply appreciative of the people and organizations that make up our network - the cream of the crop of the place-based funding world.  That's obviously my opinion, but an opinion that I'll comfortably share whenever and wherever I have the opportunity.

I'll have some pictures to share shortly from last week's "on the ground" learning gathering, but for now, I'm starting off with a few tidbits about this "on the ground" experience and more about the "two sides of money" theme that ran through the discussion.

It was the first day and fifty of us (an incredible mix of paid staff from funding organizations, neighborhood residents who are serving on grantmaking committees at those organizations, and community organizers) had spent the morning on a bus, traveling around Warren and Youngstown to get a lay of the land - a visual picture of what it looks like when an area has lost half of its jobs and now has half the people that it had 30 years ago.  We then heard from Gordon Wean and Joel Ratner about the Raymond John Wean Foundation, our local host for this "on the ground" - Gordon talking about the Wean Foundation's transition from a family foundation that gave to the pet causes of family members to a foundation that has committed its resources and energy to the Youngstown-Warren area.  This was a transition that was described later as the foundation dropping its Clark Kent demeanor and becoming Mae West - from being quiet and unassuming to being visibly bold.  Joel, the President of the Foundation, talked about gearing up the foundation for this transition.

When it was time for us to talk about the bus tour and what we had learned about the Wean Foundation, one of the small groups shared two powerful quotes from the morning.
"It only took $1200."
"It's not our money."
"Big John", a neighborhood leader who joined us for part of the bus ride, told story after story about the difference that people are making in their neighborhoods - neighborhoods in the shadow of hulking steel mills and factories that now sit empty.  He talked about his own desire to make amends for the part of his life that had landed him in prison and to give back to the community that he now called "home".  He talked about beginning with 8 people around a table and growing the group to 300.  And at one point he mentioned money - saying that a $1200 "Neighborhood Success Grant" from the Wean Foundation had started the ball rolling on that particular block.  With all the money that had left the area with the steel industry, and all the money that will be needed to do something with those gigantic empty structures, Big John reminded that $1200 made a difference in his neighborhood.

"It's not our money" is a quote from Gordon Wean.  Gordon was talking about the change in perspective that was needed to refocus the Wean Foundation.  It is indeed Wean family money that sits in the Raymond John Wean Foundation bank accounts, yet at some point for Gordon at least, it became "not our money".  With that transition came a different idea of accountability, a different picture of who should be sitting around the board table, and a world of new opportunities for using the money in powerful ways to benefit the Youngstown, Warren and the Mahoning Valley.

So here are two interesting threads that wove through the discussion on the next day when we gathering in "world cafe" style to dig into questions associated with our theme for the gathering - building a strategy for change from the ground up.  One thread is about the power of money - even a little bit of money - when invested with and through residents.  The other thread is about the thinking inside a funding organization that allows this type of investment to happen.  We wove these threads together as we explored three different but related questions:  1) What does money have to do with building community and creating resident-driven change? 2) What other than money is needed? and 3) What is getting in the way of the change that residents want?

It was interesting that everyone began their discussion of money with the assertion that money is necessary but evil.  Statements like "it shouldn't be about the money", "it's a mistake to ever lead with money" were in the mix.  After a while, the conversation turned to acknowledging what money can do. Of course it can pay for things.  According to our 50 "on the ground" funders who gathered in Ohio last week, here's what else it can do:
  • Money can invite people into the action;
  • Money can keep people at the table;
  • Money can acknowledge and reward.  
I think it was the appreciation for the Wean Foundation's "it not our money" posture that led the way from "money is necessary but evil" to the "money can" discussion.  And I think that's an incredibly important journey.  More often than you might guess, I run into people who are in the money business (i.e. they work for funding organizations) but are really nervous about bringing money into the "active citizen" world.  They're not nervous about using money to pay for services.  They're really nervous about money in the democracy mix - helping people in fulfill the rights and responsibilities that come with living in a democracy.  And to these people I ask - if you're working for a funding organization, and if that funding organization is about the quality of life in a place - like the Wean Foundation is about the quality of life in Ohio's Mahoning Valley - how can you leave the residents in that place out of the picture?  And how can you pretend that money isn't also in that picture as one of your primary levers of change?

That's why we were "on the ground" in Ohio for two days last week.  That's why it was important that the two faces of money were in the picture.  This is what it's about, isn't it?

October 17, 2009

The Apples & Apples of Due Diligence

I've been thinking about a number of conversations I've had with funders recently who are intrigued by the idea of grassroots grantmaking but are a bit nervous.  And the source of their jitters?  Due diligence.

I'll take a guess at what you're thinking.  The due diligence associated with making a grant to an unknown, unproven group (such as a group of neighbors who are getting together with a good idea) takes more time than the due diligence that goes with funding a proven, non-profit performer that you've made grants to previously.  So perhaps these funders are nervous because they're wondering about the time that will be required of an already over-busy staff.

No - that's not it exactly.  Instead, over numerous conversations with numerous funders, whenever due diligence comes up as a concern, I can usually spot one of these two assumptions behind the jitters:
  1. It's inappropriate to think about due diligence when it comes to grassroots grantmaking - that grassroots groups play by a completely different set of rules that don't mesh with the idea of due diligence and that it's not fair or right for a funder to approach a relationship with a grassroots group with due diligence in mind.  So grassroots grantmaking will require us to do away with due diligence and fly by the seat of our pants.
  2. Good due diligence will eliminate all grassroots groups from the running; grassroots groups just can't measure up.  We'll put the invitation out there and then be the bad guys when we turn everyone away.
    Here's an example of a recent conversation.  I was talking with a funder recently who is intrigued by the idea of grassroots grantmaking but a little nervous.  Somewhere in the conversation, the funder said something like this:  "But we're known for our due diligence.....that's an important part of the value added that we offer our donors.  If we aren't seen as responsible in this area, we'll lose credibility (and donors)".

    When I first started noticing due diligence as an obstacle to grassroots grantmaking, I was confused at first. And that's because in my mind, of course due diligence is in the grassroots grantmaking picture!  I don't mince any words when I talk about the essential role that staff play in effective grassroots grantmaking programs.  Enough staff time from the right person in the staffing role.  And enough of the right staff has a lot to do with due diligence.

    And I think I'm target. Just to be sure, I checked in on some common definitions of due diligence. This one from Wikipedia, selected on purpose as the most basic definition I could find:
    With origins in the private-sector world of business and finance, the term “due diligence” [in philanthropy] refers to the process through which an investor (or funder) researches an organization’s financial and organizational health [and capacity] to guide an investment (or grantmaking) decision. The decision to fund or not to fund is based upon a balance of objective data analysis, insight into the general state of organizational health and stability, and intuition. A sound and thorough due diligence review is the process through which all the factors that make up that equation are uncovered and understood. It is the process in which a program officer seeks the “truth” about an organization.
    But then it occurred to me that I may be thinking about due diligence in a different way. Maybe we're talking apples and oranges.

    I'm not thinking about due diligence as limited to what you do to qualify an applicant and develop an informed recommendation on a grant decision. It's that plus what you do to increase the chances that the funding investment that you are making is effective. And if capacity building is your goal and grants are just one tool that you have in your capacity building toolbox, due diligence isn't just about the transactional side of grantmaking. It's also not working down an established checklist that applies to all groups and all situations.

    So how do I think about appropriate due diligence for grassroots grantmaking?  What would due diligence include? Here's my opinion:

    It is indeed about what you do before a grant is made. But it's not just about qualifying and researching.  It's about qualifying, researching, and increasing the chances that you receive good applications from the types of applicants that you are seeking. So it's about effective outreach and pre-application assistance so that your reach into the community is deeper than the usual suspects and you demystify the grant process for those who may have never applied for a grant before.

    It's also about giving careful thought to how you might reframe questions that you ask and what support information that you request. For example, instead of asking for a copy of an audit or last year's budget, you might ask for evidence that the group has a bank account established in their name. Instead of asking to see who is on their board of directors, you might ask for copies of minutes from a meeting where neighbors talked about the idea that is being proposed and voiced their support for seeking grant support. Instead of making a judgment about the group's ability to do the project on the basis of the budget they submit, you might use the initial budget as an entree for a discussion and as information about what technical assistance might be appropriate after the grant is awarded.

    I believe good due diligence also requires careful thought about how decisions are made on proposals. The insights and information that you and members of a grantmaking committee need to make an informed decision might not be in the written proposal; my experience has taught me that a site visit or a casual interview are invaluable supplements to the proposal and well worth the extra time and effort.

    Good due diligence also requires training for grantmaking committee members so that everyone is on the same page about your approach to due diligence and what should be considered in making a decision.  I've seen people turn into checklist fanatics during grant review processes - insisting in the name of due diligence that there are checks in all of the boxes, that an organization should have absolutely all their ducks in a perfectly straight row before funding is awarded.  I've also seen people back away from expecting anything from a grassroots group other than passion.

    It's also about establishing the trusting relationships that are needed for a grantee to talk with you about challenges that could derail or may be derailing their efforts rather than pretending that everything is just fine. It's about knowing when to challenge and when to cheerlead. It's art and science. It's checking up and checking in, but more importantly, it's being comfortably in an ongoing conversation that is more about joint learning and pulling together than it is about judging success or failure.

    I've also been wondering if some of the angst about the relationship between due diligence and grassroots grantmaking isn't really about due diligence at all.  Maybe it's more about what gives you confidence and who you trust.

    If we trust tried and true nonprofits and see the indicators of services provided as evidence that your money is well spent, then our due diligence is going to be oriented to assess an applicant's "fit" with our understanding of what makes a nonprofit tried and true. If that's where we spend most of our time and where we are most confident that we are on top of our game, that's where we're naturally most comfortable. And the "we" I'm talking about is staff, donors, and board members of funding organizations.

    If we're open to the possibility that tried and true nonprofits are really good at some things but not all things, we may be more open to developing trust - and the due diligence approaches, tools and measures - that fit with grassroots organizations and the world of active citizens.

    So I don't think it's apples and oranges after all.  I think it's apples and apples.  It's still due diligence.  It's still important for it to be done well.  It's still something to lift up to donors as a value added.  It's still fundamental to effective work.  Done right, it can be incredibly useful to everyone involved - grantmaker and grantee.

    It's just that it's not one size fits all.  It's a different kind of apple.  What do you think?  Post a comment and join the discussion.

    October 5, 2009

    Why Does a Definition of Grassroots Matter?

    I just read over my last post and realized that I left out something important:

    Why am I thinking about a definition of grassroots?

    Why does a definition of grassroots matter?

    It's simple. For once, we're at a loss for words. When we talk about the "who" and "why" of grassroots grantmaking, we don't have a comfortable vocabulary. As Executive Director of Grassroots Grantmakers, I experience this every day. When I talk about who these small grants are for, I know exactly what I mean. It's the words that are lacking.

    I'm confident that the word I want is NOT volunteer. I was not a volunteer when I was tirelessly at work in my own neighborhood in Memphis. That work wasn't optional or selfless or charitable - it was survival. And it was the same with my neighbors. We were doing what we were doing because, like it or not (and many times our like-it tolerance was "not), this is the way our system works. Call it democracy, capitalism, or just "good ole boy", if our neighborhood (and our away investment in our homes) were to escape the path of the bulldozer, we had to be in the game. We didn't have a choice. It was do or die.

    If it's not volunteer, what is it? We've come close to banning use of the word "citizen" - caving to the smallest common denominator, the definition of "citizen" as legal status rather than the combination of rights and responsibilities that individuals share when they are part of a democracy. We instead use watered-down words such as "residents" or even more watered down words such as "people". Or community organizing's favorite word, "leader".

    It was in this word vacuum that we chose Grassroots Grantmakers as the name of our network - the network of funders who are investing in residents/people/leaders who are acting in a role that doesn't fit the pervasive social service definition of "volunteer".

    Wouldn't it be amazing if we had a comfortable vocabulary to describe what we do in our ordinary lives that makes our community work? I'm starting with getting clearer about what we mean by "grassroots", thinking that "grassroots" conveys some gut level image that jives with what I want to express. It's somewhere in the definitions that were shared by the group that gathered in Vermont last week. It's something about people who are directly affected by something, acting together to change the future that they share.

    So that's why I think it's important to talk about what we mean by "grassroots". That's why I want "grassroots" to be right up there with the word "volunteer", and for people (especially people who control the money that is invested in community change, resilience and sustainability) to know the difference.

    October 2, 2009

    What Do We Mean by "Grassroots"?

    I'm still thinking about last week's visit in Vermont with the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund (NEGEF).

    I was in Vermont to say a few words at a funder's briefing that NEGEF hosted. Benno Friedman, NEGEF's board chair, kicked off the morning by asking everyone to define "grassroots". I was paying close attention because I was speaking next, but more importantly, because we (Grassroots Grantmakers) both ask and are asked that question regularly. And what we hear varies tremendously.

    Before I get to definitions shared that morning. here are other definitions we've heard along the way:
    Grassroots = people of color
    Grassroots = low income people
    Grassroots = disenfranchised people/people at the margins
    Grassroots = activists (with the implication that activists = bad)
    Grassroots = angry people who are hard to work with
    Grassroots = opposite of "grasstops" or people who sit in lofty towers of privilege
    I've had my own definition in mind that didn't exactly jive with anything of these. So it was with real excitement that I heard these definitions last week in that rural inn in Vermont where we were meeting (and keep in mind that these were funders speaking, and that the definition was evolving with each person who spoke):
    • 22 parents working on something together
    • people who work on something they care about without pay (volunteers)
    • people coming together to make something happen
    • living room groups - people together around a shared challenge
    • local action that leads to empowerment
    • a way we work together for self-determination
    • a seed that grows
    • you know it when you see it
    • when people whose lives are affected work together to solve the problem
    • people based, the essence of democracy
    • inherently local
    • starting from the community with people who understand local context and dynamics
    • everyday people who are not connected to an organization or cause, but mobilize to act
    I was inspired by what I heard and have been trying to weave the words that I heard into my own definition.

    Here is where I am with my definition of grassroots:
    Grassroots = people who are drawn together by something that they have in common that has both personal and community consequences, and grant themselves the authority to solve the problem they are facing or create the future that they desire.
    Continue the weaving by posting your own definition. How do you define "grassroots"?

    September 29, 2009

    The Double Helix of Grassroots Grantmaking

    I'm embarrassed to admit this - but I only recently realized that Nova Scotia means New Scotland. Have you also had the experience of finally seeing something that is so blatantly obvious?

    Well, here's another one for me (and I'm showing my vulnerable side here, so be nice!).

    Until recently, it hadn't dawned on my that ALL grassroots grantmaking has two sides. When I was heading off to Vermont last week for two days with the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund, I was thinking of this great group as the only group in the Grassroots Grantmakers network that is utilizing the civic engagement oriented big thinking about small grants approach of grassroots grantmaking with an issues focus.

    Wrong. What I realized when I was Vermont was that the duo of issues focus/civic engagement focus that is so beautifully articulated by the fabulous team at the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund (see this in their mission statement - to energize and nurture long-term civic engagement in local initiatives that create and maintain healthy, just, safe and environmentally sustainable communities) is pervasive across the Grassroots Grantmakers network. And, that this dual focus is one of the things that sneaks up on funders and derails their well-intentioned efforts to fund from a "we begin with resident" perspective. It's our double helix. This is where our work is intricate and can get tricky.

    I want to talk about the challenges of this dual focus. But first I want to talk about why I didn't spot the issues focus of so much of the grassroots grantmaking work that I know. It's because for the most part, the funders in the Grassroots Grantmaking network are working in urban neighborhoods and the issue side of the equation includes all of those issues that are associated with troubled urban neighborhoods. Education. Crime. Housing. Jobs. Transportation. Health. Youth. Seniors. Families. Not just one clear issue but lots of issues that are tangled up in work in urban neighborhoods. But there are clear assumptions about the interplay of civic engagement and these issues. Civic engagement will impact crime. Active citizens and better schools go together. Engaged residents will demand affordable housing, more accessible transportation and health care, etc.

    NEGEF's environmental focus is complex and multi-dimensional as well - food, climate, energy, water, smart growth, toxins, natural resource management, consumption and sustainability - but for some reason, I can see the issue side of their work so easily. Now that I'm looking, I can also see the issue side of the grassroots grantmaking work that goes on in urban neighborhoods. Perhaps it's that I have just preferred not to focus on that side of the work. I'll get to why in a minute.

    I was en route to the Burlington airport last week, chatting with Bart, one of NEGEF's staff members, about NEGEF's work and the funder's gathering that had just concluded. I asked Bart how NEGEF balances their dual interests in civic engagement and environment. He talked about how tough that is - how hard it is to know what to do with a group that brings in very strong environment proposal but doesn't have much going on in the civic engagement department, and how to respond to proposals that are home runs in the civic engagement area but strike out in the environment area.

    A big light bulb turned on for me at that moment in our conversation. I remembered struggling over a proposal from one of my favorite neighborhood groups in Memphis and dreading the call I had to make after the committee voted to turn down their request. This wasn't a first grant. After funding this group four or five times and offering lots of help that we were sure would actually be helpful, this group was still the same three women doing the same work in just the same way. If it had been now ten people doing the same work, or the same three women making incremental progress on their issue, we would have stayed in the game. Movement in either area would have worked. Movement in both the engagement and the issue impact area is what we were hoping for eventually. The hope for that amazing result is why we were willing to be patient and stay in the game.

    Bart is so right. As funders, we are hoping for both but rarely get both at the same time. So how do we decide? What do we do?

    Here's what I do. If there's something going on one side of the equation and an "itch" to get going on the other side of the equation, I'm on board. If there's something going on one side of the equation and a lack of interest in the other side, that's a harder sell for me. If I could just have one side of the equation strong and had to pick which side that would be, it would be the civic engagement side. My assumption is that we can always bring in issue help.

    But here's where things get interesting and why getting burned over the years may be part of why I have been avoiding the issue focus side of the grassroots grantmaking double helix as it plays out in urban neighborhoods. One part is that we pretend to ask groups that are seeking grants to define the issue side of the equation - what is an issue to them. The other side is about experts, the people who we turn to when we think about issues.

    There are so many issue experts. It is so easy to become overly fascinated with them (aka more comfortable with them) because they come dressed in all of the professional cloaks that give funders and their boards confidence. There are the urban planners, the childhood education people, the housing people, the small business development people, the community health people, the urban planners, etc. They speak our language and live in our professional world.

    All great people. So we invite them to the table and they do what we want them to do - speak intelligently about the issue and come up with solutions. Once they're at the table, we get so fascinated with them and the solutions that they are proposing that we forget that the community members at the table are experts in their own right - that they are experts in their community with credentials that come from living there. We forget about the "leading from behind" posture that is needed when residents are at the table and active citizenship/civic engagement is (also) the goal. Then we wonder why the community members either check out or defer and we're in charge again, doing the same old thing.

    What we've learned after years and years of investing in the smartest issue experts we can find is that the issue experts without the people in a community don't generate change that is viable. We've tried to load up on the issue side and train issue people to be civic engagement experts. We've also tried to load up on the community side and train residents to be issue experts. What we struggle with is how to get the two sides connected in a way that is as strong and spiraling and life producing as a double helix of DNA.

    I don't have an answer for what to do, but for me, it is helpful to have a clearer picture of what we're trying to do (create a viable double helix) and to recognize that this is indeed the brain surgery part of grassroots grantmaking.

    What do you think? Have I been in the fresh air of Vermont for too long? Or does this resonate with your experience?

    September 11, 2009

    Shining the Light on Community Weavers

    I was perusing my favorite blogs over the weekend and found a piece on the power of networking weaving on the Network Weaving blog that I want to share with my fellow big thinkers on small grants, and riff on a bit from a grassroots grantmaking perspective.

    These days I read everything I can find about social networks - especially those on the ground social networks that are the backbone of communities that are powerful, resilient and good places to live. I love two things about this piece. First, it is succinct and almost jargon free - the perfect piece to print and share with grantmaking committees and grantees as fodder for discussion. I love the clear theory of change statement about social networks:

    One of the principles in social network science is that when people are
    better connected, they are more individually and collectively productive,
    cohesive, and resilient.From a social network perspective, every social problem
    is a symptom of fragmentation in networks. Everything we call a problem today is
    a manifestation of unengaged citizens, siloed institutions, divisive politics,
    and fragmented industries. Few new possibilities can occur in a world of
    disconnections. When connections thrive, new possibilities thrive.Where people
    are thriving in the world today, their social networks are the fabric of their
    thrivancy. When people are better connected in social networks, they become more of a community.

    Clear, concise, useful.

    Second, it focuses on the one thing that has been shown to accelerate the development of network connections - the presence of someone with a gift for network weaving.

    Here where the idea of network weaving meets the practicality of grassroots grantmaking.

    Where in the groups that you fund can you spot the network weavers - people who:
    1. Have an uncanny talent for spotting the assets and opportunities (tangible or intangible, shared or isolated, well-engaged or unengaged talents, resources, funds, space, expertise, and knowledge) in the community and, and are always on the job of asset and opportunity spotting;
    2. Are constantly learning about the dreams of people in the network - the passions inspiring what people are striving to create and pursue;
    3. Are are constantly introducing and connecting people with complementary dreams and assets.

    In the asset based community development world's words, these are the capacity finders and mobilizers in the community. These are the people who are in a perpetual and natural state of conducting mental asset inventories and and moving assets from the sidelines into action. They are the people who are in the business of building and nurturing the dense spider web of relationships that make the community stronger. And they may not hold office or embrace the title "leader".

    Here is what I would love to happen:

    For those grassroots grantmakers who are who are reading this - and for others who don't identify with the grassroots grantmaking terminology but who are working from a big thinking on small grants perspective - click on the link above, read the piece, hit "print" and take this to your next meeting to seed some interesting discussion.

    Talk about network weavers. Identify the ones that you can spot among your current grantees and what they are doing that tells you that they are indeed network weavers. Talk about the questions that you are asking in your grant applications that provide an opening for people in communities to tell you about the network weavers in their midst and how their weaving is part of the idea that they are presenting. Talk about the leadership training that you offer - ask yourself if it is helping to develop network weavers or if it is unintentionally trying to transform network weavers into project managers, deadline meeters or outcome generators. Talk about how you can lift up and honor these special people for the important role that they play in creating stronger and more resilient communities - and how they can mentor others who have that same "glass half full" orientation and love for spotting and connecting.

    And then let me know how the conversation goes and where it leads you.

    August 31, 2009

    The Diarist Approach & Grassroots Grantmakers' Newest Report

    We're releasing a new report this week - Building Resident Power & Capacity for Change. As interested as I am in this topic, it's the subtitle of this report that really interests me.
    An "on the ground" reflection of what it takes for funders to work effectively with low income communities.
    We began working on the idea for this report when we began plans for the first "on the ground" gathering that Grassroots Grantmakers hosted - using a "non-conference" format with an intentionally small group of people, using the work of one of our member organizations as a platform for learning about a specific topic associated with grassroots grantmaking. We were searching for a face-to-face meeting format that set the stage for deeper conversations, deeper learning and more meaningful networking among peers. Our first "on the ground" was held in Chicago last fall and co-designed with our two Chicago partners, the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Steans Family Foundation. Our topic was building power and capacity for change - using The Woods Fund's work in Chicago's Southside and the Steans Family Foundation's work in the North Lawndale community on Chicago's west side to inform the discussion.

    When we began talking about how to capture and continue the learning that began in Chicago, we thought of the "diarist" approach that the Annie E. Casey Foundation had used with Making Connections. We liked the reflective tone of the diarist publications and the focus on learning - sharing successes and struggles of real people doing real work from their own perspectives. These pieces were more than descriptions of what happened or what conversation occurred - they were a different type of report that seemed to match the different type of gathering that we had in mind.

    We contacted Tim Saasta, the visionary leader of The Diarist Project and began exploring how the diarist approach might be used to promote the learning that happens at a two-day gathering (rather than learning over time in one of the Making Connections sites). Kristin Senty, diarist for the Des Moines Making Connections work (and now my co-worked with Grassroots Grantmakers) joined us in Chicago to document the gathering via notes and photographs. She then continued the conversation via interviews with six of the people (Consuella Brown from the Woods Fund of Chicago, Alison Janus from the Steans Family Foundation, David Portillo from the Denver Foundation, Jennifer Roller from the Raymond John Wean Foundation, Andy Helmboldt from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, Lisa Leverette from The Prevention Network, who were with us in Chicago, focusing on five of the most pronounced threads running through the Chicago conversation:
    • building strong relationships between funders and community residents;
    • building the capacity of low-income communities;
    • building the capacity of your foundation to do this work and of the funding community to support this work;
    • building new approaches for insuring accountability;
    • looking for new ways for this work to add up to broader social change.
    Tim Saasta then wove Kristin's documentation, interviews and photographs together into the diarist report that we are now preparing to share.

    Segue now to my confession:

    I love this report. It is all that I hoped it would be - and more.

    This report is deeper and meatier than I thought it would be. And, I must say, I have some mixed feelings about that. Even though everyone who was interviewed has seen the report and okayed quotes that were used, I have been surprised at some of the anxiety I have felt about how it will be received. Will the candor of this report - the digging into questions that many funders don't discuss or only discuss behind closed doors - be a turn off? Will the discussion of challenges scare people away from work that I believe is so vitally important? What will happen when we take the cover off of elephant-in-the-room issues such as how a funder can work effectively with low income communities when there are race-class-culture challenges inside the funding organization itself? Will the commitment and passion that was in the room when we were talking about these questions in Chicago come through when someone who was not there reads this report? Do we really mean it when we say that we want to create a culture of learning, to share the challenges as well as the successes? How does that play in an economic climate when people are in a retreat mode? With a scarcity mentality, do we want to candor about what it takes, or a promise that something will work?

    So, in the spirit of reflection that is concert with the diarist approach, I share the report with both my delight in how it was done and how it turned out, and my surprising anxiety about how the reflective spirit of the report will be received. Check it out and let me know what you think.

    August 27, 2009

    Wanting More from Place-Based Philanthropy

    Someone asked me recently to define the term "place-based funder". More and more, I am using that term to describe the group of funders who make up Grassroots Grantmakers, and have begun to describe the range of approaches a funder can use to connect directly with the people who live in a place - grassroots grantmaking - as an essential ingredient of place-based funding. I welcomed this question.

    And then after the fact, I checked out what other people had to say. Before I share what I think, here's what I found:
    • The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation uses community foundations as the standard, but considers other funders that are geographically oriented and have a place-based focus similar to a community foundation to be place-based funders.
    • In a paper commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Backer, Miller and Bleeg of the Human Interaction Research Institute describe place-based philanthropy as a philanthropic strategy that focuses on a particular community or neighborhood; their paper includes six principles for place-based philanthropy developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:
    (1) focus on a pressing social need,
    (2) involve residents in philanthropic strategy,
    (3) take a results orientation within a theory of change,
    (4) use data to set priorities and evaluate results,
    (5) use the Foundation’s convening ability and other strategies to promote community collaboration, and
    (6) use the Foundation’s unique standing in the community to leverage political, human, and
    financial capital to support good outcomes.
    • James Murdoch, in his paper "The Place-Based Strategic Philanthropy Model", draws a comparison between traditional philanthropy and place-based philanthropy, describing place-based philanthropy as a type of strategic philanthropy. Murdoch lists characteristics of effective place-based philanthropy, including the need for a multi-dimensional (vs. single issue) approach.
    I like all of these. But I want more.....and my clumsy definition of place-based funding was an attempt to both describe the basic bottom-line of geographic focus with the loftier goal of using place in all of its dimensions as an organizing framework.

    Here's what I said: "A place-based funder has an intimate tie to a particular place that you can find on a map, and is focusing their work in that place with the people who live there and the organizations and institutions that are highly invested in that place. A place-base funder uses a wide-angle, multi-faceted lens in work that is about community resilience and vitality. They may work on one problem or issue at a time, but do so with respect for local history and culture, a commitment to identifying and mobilizing local assets, and an interest in building local capacity to weather the next storm."

    I was making this attempt because I want to distinguish between funders who use geography to "limit" or "define" (we only give grants to organizations that serve this area....) and those like the Raymond John Wean Foundation (where we will gather for our upcoming "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers" - yes, that's a plug, but this is exactly why we will be there) who are deeply focused on "place".

    While it's true that community foundations, family foundations and other funders (local governments, United Ways?) are associated with geographies, I suspect that many do not identify with their geographies in the same way. Isn't it true that some think of their geographies as service areas for the organizations that are eligible to receive their grants, where others think of their geographies as multi-dimensional systems, within which non-profits are just one moving piece? When it gets down to what people do versus what they say, isn't there a range of functional definitions out there for "place-based funder"?

    I know you can say that more and better services result in a better community. And I know that you can say that a permanent institution that serves as a vehicle for local philanthropy results in a better community. Both of these statements are true, but they're not enough for me.

    I want to know how a community is functioning, what draws people there and compels them to invest their time and passion to make the community better. I want to know what is holding the community (and the people who live there) back, what is making it vulnerable, what is pushing people to the edge and making them feel like strangers in their own community. I want to know why some communities are places where people are quick to act, and some communities are places where people wait for someone else to fix what is broken. I want to know about the community's infrastructure - the skeleton formed by local policies, local relationships, and local culture that enables a community to deal with the little things and the big things. I want questions like these to be the basis for a place-based funder's work, with "place" in all of its dimensions on the table.

    The "more" that I want is a clearer distinction between using place as a delimiter and using place as an organizing principle. But that's not all.

    I want more recognition that you can't be a hands-off funder in a place-based world. I want to see that you are seeking relationships with the people in your place as active citizens rather than passive players or problems to be fixed through professionalized services. Somewhere in your bag of tricks, I want to see work that builds meaningful relationships with people who are traditionally not at the strategy table, and I want to see grants that reach beyond the professional grantseekers and go all the way to the block level. Somewhere in your strategy for change, I want to see that you're clear that you can't be place-based without having the people who live in that place squarely in the middle of that picture.

    What about you? What is your definition of place-based philanthropy? What more do you want?

    August 14, 2009

    A Working Definition of "We Don't Begin with Residents"

    In the grassroots grantmaking world, we talk about working from a "we begin with residents" point of view. We're talking about institutions - funding institutions, primarily - working intentionally to control their tendencies to think that they know best and to put residents in the driver's seat when it comes to setting priorities and moving agendas that affect their own neighborhoods.

    Everyone these days is facing budget cuts, so it was no surprise when I read today that the City of Memphis is slashing budgets to make ends meet. I lived in Memphis for most of my adult life and still think of Memphis as my second hometown. I know the neighborhoods in Memphis, admire the keep-on-keeping-on spirit of the people in Memphis' inner city neighborhoods.

    It appears that the city parks budget is taking a hit, and that community centers are adjusting their hours. That's bad but not surprising. What surprised me is how community centers are cutting their hours. Most will now be closed on Saturday, many will close at 5:00 p.m. That's dandy (aka convenient) for the staff who run the community centers, but what about the community? It appears that there has been some seemingly logical "Sophie's choice thinking" going on - make a choice between accommodating the senior citizens groups or the young people. If seniors want to use the centers in the morning, then the kids find doors locked after school. If the centers are open for the young people after school, the seniors need to find another place for their day-time activities. Take your pick. I wonder what other more creative options would have surfaced if the Parks Department had asked for help with this dilemma, beginning with a question of what to do rather than the answer of what will be done.

    The Parks Department director commented that while the parks department has determined hours, community groups are free to meet among themselves and make suggestions for different hours. Right.

    So here is a working definition of "we don't begin with residents".

    August 13, 2009

    A Reminder of What This Is About from Playing for Change

    What do I mean by funding that is too much intellectual and not enough physical? I wrote about that in my last post and then spotted this wonderful Playing for Change video. This doesn't answer the question, but provides a reminder of what we miss when we're too much in our heads and not enough in our hearts. Watch and enjoy.

    August 11, 2009

    Are We Starting Over - Again?

    I've noticed something about the grassroots grantmaking world, and my hunch is that it is one of the biggest obstacles to thinking big about small grants.

    Funding organizations that really get it seem to completely forget it when there is a change at the top. It's almost as if someone hit the organization's ctrl/alt/del keys to reboot the organization. All of the learning, insights and commitment associated with the organization's big thinking about small grants work is cleared out of the memory, and the organization's strategy and culture is reset.

    Yes, I know that changes at the top almost always mean a new chapter for the organization, and that new chapters often come with new energy and enthusiasm for a clearer and more compelling vision. I've seen organizations get stale right before my eyes under the overly watchful eye of a leader who really needs to move on. So I'm not at all about resisting change. What I'm resisting is whatever is contributing to positioning grassroots grantmaking in the part of the organization's memory that is cleared away with a new leader "reboot".

    So what might these things be? You know, don't you, that I'm itching to be asked what I think about this question. Since you asked....
    • The organization's grassroots grantmaking work has been encapsulated. It has been sitting on the side as a nice program and not really touching the other work that the funding organization is doing. The relationships that the person who staffs the grassroots grantmaking work are that person's relationships rather than that organization's relationships. And, my hunch is that that person is one of the most junior people on staff - not someone who is in on conversations about strategy and priorities or who is going to lunch with the new leader on his/her first day at work.
    • The organization's grassroots grantmaking work is seen as a grant program rather than an organizational strategy. It's about getting small amounts of money out the door to unknown groups. It's about bootstrapping or seed money rather than resident voice, civic capacity, leadership development or community resilience.
    • There is very little physical connection between those in the organization and the on the ground work of grassroots grantmaking, meaning that for those other than the program staff, the work is easy to intellectualize and professionalize. My hunch is that there are few opportunities for staff, board and grantmaking committees to sit around dining room tables or in branch library meeting rooms to talk with the people who are doing the work that these small grants are supporting. I bet that the processes associated with grantmaking - grant applications, grant review, grant reporting - are primarily paper processes rather than people processes.
    • There's just one champion for grassroots grantmaking inside the organization. And that one champion is probably a program officer rather than a vice president or a board member.
    What I know is that when grassroots grantmaking is a strategy rather a program, when it's not encapsulated and sitting on the sidelines, when it's physical rather than intellectual, and when there are multiple champions, it becomes more of a way of working than a piece of work to do. And, it's hard-wired into the organization's culture in a way that's still there when a new leader arrives and hits "reboot".

    Why am I writing about this now? The easy answer is that I've just seen it happen again. The real answer is that I don't think we talk about this enough. The community side of the work of grassroots grantmaking can be challenging, but it's not brain surgery. Common sense and the collective experience that's at easy reach through Grassroots Grantmaker's community of practice can help a new funder get up to speed quickly.

    The hard part of this work is positioning it inside the funding organization. When it is well positioned, it can do what it is designed to do - expand the lens through which place-based funders see their work and bring the people who live in that place into the picture as creators of community vitality rather than recipients of services. When that piece of the work is done well, that's when you see place-based funding that is more passionate, more strategic and more effective. And that's where the work endures.

    Do you agree that we don't give enough attention to building capacity INSIDE a funding organization for grassroots grantmaking? And if so, what do you think is getting in our way? Post a comment to join the discussion.