April 20, 2009

Grassroots Grantmaking Writ Large

I'm packing today to head to San Diego for a gathering of funders that Grassroots Grantmakers is sponsoring at the end of the week in San Diego. This is our second "on the ground", following our Chicago gathering early last fall. With these gatherings - not the perfect word, but I haven't found it yet - we're building on our strong belief in two things: 1) the power of time for peers to be together, away from their day to day over packed schedules, and 2) the power of learning in context, looking at and talking about real work, people, dilemmas and time lines.

I loved what happened in Chicago last fall. I can't wait to get to San Diego. I can't wait to dig in to "grassroots grantmaking writ large" with the fabulous group of people who will be assembling there on Thursday. We're expecting 40 people from 16 cities and 22 different organizations - all engaged in grassroots grantmaking or moving in that direction.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days with the team at the Jacobs Family Foundation and the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (our hosts for this this week's "on the ground") last summer. This was my second visit in 4 years. I was really impressed by what I saw the first time. Completely blown away by what I saw and heard the second time. I left San Diego thinking about grassroots grantmaking "writ large". Here was a picture of "we begin with residents" on the wide screen with surround sound.

There are three things that stand out for me about last summer's visit. One was how Jennifer Vannica (Jacobs Center's President and CEO) described the Jacobs Family Foundation's evolution as a place-based funder. Jennifer talked about beginning where funders normally begin - funding nonprofit organizations. She talked about realizing over time that focusing on funding nonprofits and building nonprofit capacity was not the answer - that even the nonprofits who were already working in the neighborhood were not well-positioned to do was needed to create the change that people in the community wanted. She talked about the subtle but powerful shift in focus from organizations to place - with everything and everybody in that place as needed in the creating change picture.

I also remember seeing the deep commitment to creating on-ramps and pathways for residents to imagine, create, test-drive and operate vehicles of community change. This was the best example that I had seen of taking "resident-driven" seriously. Top to bottom, residents were not only engaged, but at the center.

The other stand-out for me was how different the conversation felt when the foundation's money came up. The Jacobs Family Foundation is planning to sunset in 30 years. Thirty years is a lot of time but not much time when you think about creating large scale change in a neighborhood, and embedding that change (and the vehicles that create change) in the community so that it endures and is community owned. I felt an urgency to the work, a consciousness that the clock is ticking and that it is important to pay attention to the possibilities and roadblocks that show up every day. And if money was what was needed, it was there - not in a throwing money at a problem way but in responsible investing way.

I'm excited that later this week, I'll have the opportunity to be there again, "on the ground" with people who want to take the next step down the "we begin with residents" pathway and are excited about the journey. I'll share the experience here on this blog.....stay tuned.

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