January 8, 2009

Me as a Neighbor

Here I sit in an incredible seat that lets me see work that is going on in dozens of cities to encourage active citizenship as a vehicle for strenghtening neighborhoods and communities. Here I sit in my own house here in Hallettsville, not knowing my own neighbors and, frankly, a bit timid about walking next door or across the street and saying hello.

That's a bit weird, isn't it? Especially since my passion for grassroots grantmaking goes back to my own experience in the Evergreen neighborhood in Memphis - a neighborhood where neighborliness was in the water. Activism was also in the water, since this was a neighborhood that had been fighting for survival for years - cut in half by a swath of land (that was once filled with houses) by an ill-fated interstate highway project. Maybe it was that shared threat and the history of activism that planted those seeds of neighborliness.

My neighborhood here in Hallettsville is struggling in other ways, not nearly as dramatic as being in the path of an interstate highway project, but with some challenges that neighbors pulling together could address. Seems that in this small town, living in town is what you do until you can move out to the country. So a lot of the "in town" folks are here just for a time. And, like many small towns, a lot of people have long-time connections (they are related) - so alot of that discretionary time that people have for friends and neighbors is already largely committed to long-time friends and relatives. The reality of "neighborhood" just isn't too important here. I suspect it's that way in many small towns.

So that's what it's like here. But it was also like that for me in another Memphis neighborhood - one not very far from Evergreen where neighborliness was in the water. This neighborhood had been stable for years, saved from threats like highways. It was stable, beautiful, but, for me, not very welcoming. In that neighborhood, I waved to people but wasn't comfortable showing up at their door. I knew their names but not much about their lives.

So what does this have to do with big thinking on small grants? I'm sharing this to remind funders who are working in the grassroots grantmaking world of just how special the people are who show up at their door - those people who are the ice-breakers in their neighborhoods, those who are seeding "neighborliness" in their own neighborhoods. And when encouragement is given to "get more people involved" as a condition of a grant, to think about just how challenging this might be. For me, getting more people involved would have been simple in one neighborhood - really challenging in another. Important in both cases, but requiring completely difference approaches, expectations, encouragement and "indicators of success".

Some of this is about me, but some of this is about a place's "culture of neighborliness". I don't think it's about how friendly people are or what people want in their hearts. I know that the people here in my Texas town are some of the friendliest, warmest people I've ever met. I think it's more about how things work, how people regard the idea of "neighborhood" and how things have been done in the past. So as grassroots grantmakers, when we are making those small grants that promote neighborliness, we may be actually sowing seeds of some pretty significant change. We may be adding "neighborliness" to the water and creating neighborhood as a social or politcal unit - and making it easier for people like me to walk across the street and knock on the door.

What do you think? Is this just about me and my quirkiness, or does neighborhood culture make a difference?

January 5, 2009

Top 5 List of Promising Grassroots Grantmaking Trends

As we begin a new year full of new possibilities, now seem seems like a good time to share my top 5 list of promising trends in the world of grassroots grantmaking.
  1. Decision-making closer to the ground

    A growing number of grassroots grantmaking programs are going "all the way", entrusting the "who gets what" decision making in the grassroots grantmaking process to neighborhood residents. I could count the programs that worked this way on half of one hand in the past. I now need two hands and both feet. I'd call that a trend. And a promising trend, bringing new and deeper meaning to the commitment that grassroots grantmakers make to embrace a new style of grantmaking that begins with residents. When you "follow the money", and see who is at the table when the money decisions are made, you can learn a lot. And when you see residents there, or better yet, a table composed of all residents, you see the real deal.

  2. The return of citizen:

    Thanks in part to The Case Foundation, and specifically their wonderful Citizens at the Center white paper, it's now okay to use the word "citizen" again. Hallelujah! For me, there's no other word that speaks to the combination of rights and responsibilities that people have in a democracy. And, no other word that goes to the heart of who we are hoping to engage and support with grassroots grantmaking. Not resident, not volunteer, not leader, not person/people. As funders, when we talk about encouraging people to claim their active citizen role, it is easier to get comfortable with funding outside of the typical nonprofit service world, and connect with citizen-oriented groups that are a better fit for work that is geared to building community and supporting local democracy.

  3. Place but not just place:

    Traditionally, grassroots grantmaking has been about neighborhoods and only about neighborhoods, with neighborhood associations and block clubs the primary recipients of grants. That tradition is continuing and remains strong and vital. A promising new trend is that a growing number of funders are using grassroots grantmaking to engage and support people who may reside in the same part of town but who are more strongly affiliated through their culture, their children's school, their passion for a particular issue than with with their neighborhood. This work has a slightly different feel from the more place-based work but nevertheless shares the values and philosophy of grassroots grantmaking. Here we have people who are comfortable with the concept of grassroots grantmaking, and sufficiently confident in their proficiency with grassroots grantmaking to try it in a new setting - to think in new ways about grassroots grantmaking can be used with new populations and to address new issues. Wonderful! Can't wait to see where this goes.

  4. Community organizing as an essential part of the grassroots grantmaking picture:

    I remember when funding community organizing was something that funders engaged in grassroots grantmaking might view as important, but thought of as something outside of grassroots grantmaking. It also seemed that community organizing funders (and groups) thought of grassroots grantmaking as a very distant relative. Thankfully, the lines are not so clearly drawn now, with a growing number of grassroots grantmaking funders recognizing and embracing community organizing as an essential part of the grassroots grantmaking picture. The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods program has been a trailblazer in this area, but more and more funders are developing relationships with community organizing groups, supporting community organizing training, and actively bringing community organizing approaches and practices into their grassroots grantmaking work. What is important about this trend is that it provides a clearer pathway for "what's next" for groups of active citizens who want to tackle the deeper systems-change oriented issues in their community. When it comes to citizens at the center of change in their communities, it's great news when funders are adept at calling on the right approach in the right place at the right time - using the right tool the the job. And it's also great that there's a growing appreciation for the role that those beginning project-oriented grants play in helping people connect with each other and begin to see themselves as community change-makers. This trend suggests that what once was a solid line between grassroots grantmaking and community organizing is now a dotted line. How promising!

  5. Expanding beyond the traditional definition of funder:

    I led a workshop recently at the NeighborWorks Training Institute on grassroots grantmaking, and began the workshop by reminding everyone in the room that they were funders - or could be. I was pleasantly surprised to see lots of heads nodding - telling me that this wasn't a new idea to the people in the room, all associated with organizations that are not conventionally defined as funders. Looking at the list of organizations participating in Grassroots Grantmakers peer learning activities, I'm seeing more and more groups who don't have "foundation" in their name or who would be recognized as part of organized philanthropy. This is only one indication of an emerging trend for place-based groups whose primary work is not funding to embrace grassroots grantmaking as a strategy for community engagement and active citizenship - sometimes in partnership with organized philanthropy but sometimes solo with funds from annual fundraising. What excites me about this trend - even beyond my excitement about the growing numbers of groups who are using grassroots grantmaking - is the opportunity for a new dialogue between organized philanthropic and groups who are entering the funding arena via the grassroots grantmaking door. This dialogue has the opportunity to be more collegial than the funder-grant seeker dialogue. It also promises to provide opportunities to re-examine long-accepted practices that may or may not be best practices. Here's another place where the lines separating groups who have the same goal in mind are becoming more porous. Here's to more of that in 2009!

So here they are - my take on five potentially important trends in the big thinking on small grants arena. Join in to add your perspective as a comment or another trend that I've missed.