March 30, 2009

The Missing Investment

Here it was, right on the front page of yesterday's Houston Chronicle: Some Subdivisions Blame Housing Crisis for Decay. And, once again, something essential is virtually missing from the picture.

This article tells the story of the impact of the foreclosure crisis on some suburban neighborhoods in Houston - neighborhoods that are now "sliding into slums". These are neighborhoods that were established with homeowners associations, community swimming pools, and other homeowner association dues-supported amenities. Neighborhoods you would never think would ever be described as slums.

But I don't know of any neighborhoods that are built with the idea that one day they would be slums. Something happens - or doesn't happen - or stops happening.

In this case, like in cases in every major city in the United States, an unprecedented number of homes have fallen into foreclosure. And in this case, like in every other major city in the United States, there are people in trouble and blocks in trouble because they have become part of the foreclosure story. The story suggests that here, like in a lot of places where foreclosure has hit hard, the neighborhoods who are now in deep trouble were already beginning to show signs of distress before the big blow that came in the form of the foreclosure crisis. Neighborhoods that are starting to have some problems with their immune systems, so to speak, and are particularly vulnerable.
“With aging infrastructure and no leadership in the community, the civic vitality sort of dies,” said John Walsh, the former president of Friends­wood Development Co. and now the director of real estate and campus planning for the University of Houston System. “At that point, you are entering the death spiral.”
This article closes on a hopeful note - with the community now rallying because of a meeting called by an elected official whose district includes many neighborhoods targeted for Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds.

But this brings me to what is missing from this picture - what I believe is absolutely essential to turning these neighborhoods around and could have put some brakes on the slide.

An investment in the people in the community
and the connections among these people that create the fabric of the community.

What I'm about to say isn't really about Houston. It's about all of us.

Along with taking care of the infrastructure (roads, sewers, lights, sidewalks, power grid) and making sure that sound planning and policy-making are happening, it is my belief that all communities need an investment in making sure that the spider-web of relationships that make a community feel and work like a community remains strong. We have learned that with every significant crisis that has hit our cities, towns and rural areas. When the going gets tough, government help is essential but is never enough. it is the people who keep things going. And people - pulling together - have a strength that is unimaginable during the good times.

Sometimes "community" (or neighborliness, as our good friends in Canada say) just happens on its own. Sometimes it happens for a while on its own. Sometimes it never really happens on its own. My point is that however it happens - invisibly and on its own, or with the nurturing that happens when signals are sent in every way possible (seats at the table, resources such as scale-appropriate grants, recognition - just to begin the list) that this community fabric is valuable, and it needs to be protected and nurtured.

Yes, we now need Neighborhood Stabilization Funds. Yes, we now need monitoring of lending practices and smart, aggressive action when predatory lending is occurring. Yes, we now need significant investment in rebuilding. Yes, we now need elected officials who see a problem and step out to act responsibility.

But all along we have needed an investment in the people who make up these neighborhoods and their connections with each other. We can't get out of this foreclosure mess without this investment. If we want to get really serious about the power of small grants, here is the issue. Where is the investment? What piece of the massive Neighborhood Stabilization Fund package is carved out to invest in this part of the community infrastructure? What are local governments doing to include building block clubs on every block in every neighborhood part of their disaster planning? What are private and community funders doing to get out of their nonprofit service provider response zone to invest in people before they need services?

It's not like this is a new idea. There are hundreds of wonderful examples of the power of this type of investment, just about everywhere. There are people who know what to do and how to be smart about using resources for this purpose. We're outraged by the bailouts of the banks. But I'm outraged that we're still banking on programs, not people - and willing to let millions of dollars of investment go down the tubes in neighborhoods (like these in Houston) that should be viable but are now "sliding into slums", when the investment that banking on people requires is so relatively small.

Am I just having a bad day? Or do you feel it too?

March 25, 2009

Simple = Powerful. Why Is That So Hard?

Sometimes I marvel at how hard we make things. When it comes to using money to support active citizens, some things get a lot easier if we can put aside our funder language and go back to what is practical and simple.

Practical and simple is what I thought about when I read this article about a project that has recently been launched by the City of Manassas, Virginia in conjunction with George Mason University and five neighborhood groups. The City sponsored Neighborhood Services Conference drew about 200 people last November. People came and enjoyed the day. But they wanted more.

Lo and behold, they wanted a chance to go deeper and think about what to do next. That's where George Mason University came in with $1,000 to support training for facilitators for a study circles process (see Everyday Democracy, the national resource on this powerful dialogue-to-change process). The University had used the study circles process on campus to facilitate work on immigration, and brought their experience to the neighborhood table. Study circles in two neighborhoods are just wrapping up their six-week sessions, and another set of study circles in three neighborhoods will begin shortly. How simple (and smart). The City sponsors a neighborhood conference. People come and want more. The University is there to partner with the city and the neighborhood groups on the next step.

A neighborhood resident who participated in the first set said
I've already met four or five people who I think are going to be good friends. I've also realized I'm not alone in wanting to do something for the community. Everyone wants to; it's just a matter of reaching out to them through something like this.
That's powerful, isn't it? And the result of George Mason University thinking big about its small grant.

It's also pretty basic. Not expensive, complicated, over-intellectualized or over-planned. Facilitators, space, and the support that people need to make good on good intentions to move more assertively into their active citizen role. The type of support that is supportive and respectful, not intrusive or directive. Simple yet powerful. Way to go.

Now what I'd like to see is who is going to step up to the plate with some small grants to help remove any barriers that might be there as people begin working on the good ideas that are sure to develop in this process. Those ideas that go with a "we begin with residents" way of working. Shouldn't be so hard - even in this crazy economy - right?

March 23, 2009

Doing What It Takes in Michigan

I excited about an article that I just spotted in the Detroit Freepress - Neighbors Work to Protect Vacant Homes. Here's the story of people all across Southeast Michigan who are using good old-fashioned common sense and gritty self-determination to do something about the mess that the foreclosure crisis has brought to their neighborhoods.

There's the courageous "I'll just buy the problem house myself and fix it up" story, but then there are the stories of hanging curtains in vacant windows, mowing lawns and planting flowers, parking cars in empty drive-ways, and installing motion-detectors to deter vandalism. Little things that won't solve the bigger problem, but will add up in a powerful way to buy some time for these neighborhoods until the "turn-around" happens and we can see some light at the end of this foreclosure tunnel.

I'm on the lookout right now for these stories for several reasons. First, I know (don't we all?) that no amount of money coming from the federal government can fix what is going on in our communities and that the foreclosure crisis - more so than any other challenge that I've seen in my thirty years of neighborhood work - is demonstrating in every way possible that this is going to take all of us, doing what we can, where we can. The foreclosure crisis is sending a signal that all neighborhoods are vulnerable, not just those "across town" neighborhoods that are so easy for some to write off.

Second, from my own experience working in a neighborhood that had suffered years of neglect and red-lining because it was in the pathway of an ill-fated, never to be built, interstate highway, I know that perception matters, and that perception is something that neighbors can address. Hanging curtains in vacant windows may seem silly to some, but it is the combination of dozens of small acts that send the signal to people in the neighborhood and to those driving by (and forming their own impression about what kind of neighborhood this is and deciding if they would want to live there) that this is a place where people care enough to turn "community" into a verb.

Finally, I've been curious about the funding community's response - looking for places where funders are not retreating into the defensive economic bad-time-blues but are thinking creatively about this time of smaller grantmaking budgets and bigger problems. I've seen it in Cleveland where Neighborhood Connections is using small grants to support residents taking block-level action to combat the instability that has come to their neighborhoods with the foreclosure crisis. And hallelujah, here it is again in Southeast Michigan where the Kresge Foundation and Community Legal Resources have provided grants of $4,000 to $9,700 to nine community groups for things like light bulbs, paint and security cameras to boost the effectiveness of stabilization efforts that the community had initiated. This to complement other work that is going on in Detroit to combat the vacant property problem (see Detroit's Vacant Property Campaign).

Yes, $9,000 is real money. But in the scheme of things, that's not a lot of money - especially when you think about the magnitude of the problem that it is intended to address. What it's buying is not really the light bulbs, paint and security systems - it's investing in residents of these neighborhoods to hang in there and maintain their belief in themselves and their community. And, if you really believe that it's going to take all of us - not just government officials, nonprofit organizations, and business leaders - but all of us - what better investment can you make?

March 11, 2009

Craig McGarvey on "We Begin with Residents"

Most of the funders that I know who think big about small grants practice grassroots grantmaking - grantmaking that is done from a "we begin with residents" perspective.

Grassroots Grantmakers, the network of funders in the United States and Canada who work this way, recently hosted a topical conference call to introduce a wonderful new resource - GrantCraft's new guide to Funding Community Organizing. Craig McGarvey was with us for that call.

Craig worked with GrantCraft to design and create this new guide. Craig is also one of the most thoughtful, insightful people I know. When Craig served as Program Director in Civic Culture with the James Irvine Foundation, his work was recognized by the Council on Foundations with the Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking. In the years since his work with the Irvine Foundation, Craig has continued to bring his fresh thinking to philanthropy via consulting relationships with organizations such as GrantCraft.

During our topical call, Craig talked about funding community organizing, an essential part of grassroots grantmaking, and stressed the importance of working with ideas that come from community residents rather than foundation meeting rooms. Since this was Craig talking, and since this perspective is so central to grassroots grantmaking that we adopted "we begin with residents" as the tag-line for our network, we wanted to hear more.
  • What makes working this way so hard for funders?
  • If working this way leads to better results, why isn't more funding done this way?

Click here to see what Craig has to say about funding from a "we begin with residents" perspective and why what sounds so easy is so challenging. And weigh in here with a comment to keep the conversation going.

March 4, 2009

More Important Now Than Ever: Ten Reasons Why Grassroots Grantmaking Should be the LAST Program You Cut

This earthquake that we call the economic down-turn is certainly shaking things up. Even though I still have my home, my job, and a remnant of the savings that I had been thinking of as my future, I find that I'm re-examining how I spend my time, my energy and my money.

And I know that many funders are re-examining commitments and priorities now too. With the economy taking a direct hit on their endowments, the question in the air is "how can we do more - helping challenged communities that are now more challenged than ever - with less?"

Here's how I would answer that question.

Now, more than any time that I can remember, is the time for big thinking on small grants. With our current economy and our current political climate, now is the time to INCREASE investment in grassroots grantmaking.
  • At a time when our new President is calling daily for citizen action, service, and personal responsibility to help us weather this storm and return to our communities and our country to a path that leads to prosperity and vitality, he's talking about all that grassroots grantmaking promotes and supports.
  • At a time when the foreclosure crisis is teaching us that all neighborhoods are vulnerable, it is more important than ever to nurture the neighbor to neighbor, block-level work that brings people together and fosters a sense of community.
  • At a time when we have been reminded that there really is a bottom in the financial well, it's more important than ever to get really serious about making small amounts of money matter.
If these reasons alone aren't enough.....

If you are a funder who is considering cutting your grassroots grantmaking budget or postponing new work in this area until money is flowing again, here is my top 10 list of reasons you should think twice - or even three times - before you go to work with your red pencil.
  1. Grassroots grantmaking is a smart investment - yes, there's some risk involved (as in all investments), but experience shows that you get impressive returns on your relatively small investments when your investments are in people, not programs.
  2. If change is the cake you are making, then grassroots grantmaking is your flour and butter. You can't do a good job of place-based work without grassroots grantmaking (because you can't do good place-based work without the people who live there).
  3. Grassroots grantmaking grows resources. It continuously expands the change-making circle by inviting people on the sidelines (with talent, passion, and commitment - resources you need) to join with a neighbor to move their good ideas into action.
  4. Grassroots grantmaking trickles up. It introduces a funder to people and perspectives that inform and strengthen the funders' work in all areas.
  5. Grassroots grantmaking is an antidote to funder-itis. It keeps you real by keeping you closely connected to real people who haven't learned the funder dance.
  6. Grassroots grantmaking is inherently tangible - it creates change that you can see and feel, in people and in communities. Don't believe it? Just join me on a site visit in a place where grassroots grantmaking is done well. You'll believe it then - I promise.
  7. Grassroots grantmaking is patriotic. It's about strengthening our democracy by encouraging people on the blocks in the neighborhoods in your community to become more active citizens.
  8. Grassroots grantmaking is fun. It's fun to see the great ideas, great people, and great energy that grassroots grantmaking helps you discover. It's also fun to see people discover things about themselves and their community. And of course there's the food and the laughter and the amazing warmth.
  9. Grassroots grantmaking is an opportunity to practice servant leadership. Instead of being the one that has all the smarts, the ideas AND the money, with grassroots grantmaking you get to lead by stepping back. It only works if you begin with residents - what they want, what moves them from the couch to the sidewalk, and what gives them enough hope to keep going.
  10. Grassroots grantmaking is sustainable. It doesn't require grant budgets with lots of commas and zeros, it doesn't create organizations that crash and burn when the funding tide changes, it doesn't create that thing that funders fear most - dependency. It's more about igniting and tending than budgeting and spending.
This is just a start.......what else would you add to make the case for grassroots grantmaking in these challenging economic times?