April 9, 2009

Taking It Seriously

It happened to me again today. I was working up some notes from a recent Grassroots Grantmakers board meeting and was reminded of the annoying tenacity of one of the members of our board in our network's early years. Ira Resnick was Senior Program Officer at the Community Foundation of New Jersey and Vice-Chair of the Board of the organization that grew to be Grassroots Grantmakers. I didn't know Ira well and didn't have the opportunity to get to know more about him, as Ira had a health problem that resulted in his way-too-early death. But I think about him often.

Why? Ira was the one on the board who was always ready with a challenge, and the challenge was usually about taking the work of grassroots grantmaking seriously - about thinking big enough. He chafed at the logo we were using in those days that featured a picket fence as its centerpiece. Picket fences were not what Ira had in mind when he thought about neighbors getting together. Change was what was on his mind.

Ira had the irascible ability to jump in when I was feeling oh-so-smug and lift up the next challenge. Why not think of our network as a national organization instead of a modest network? Why not play with other national organizations? Why not stand tall, center-stage for what we believe in instead of trying to hold on to the safer spot at the edge? Why not bring words like power and change into our conversations about neighbors and strengthening social fabric?

Before I met Ira, I imagined that I could measure up to any big thinking conversation. But he helped me realize that in trying to carve out a niche for grassroots grantmaking inside the philanthropic organization where I was working, I had too often equated "safe" with "smart", and "safe" led me down a "small-thinking" path rather than a "big-thinking" path. I was working hard to hold onto the small pool of money that had been devoted to small grants for neighborhood groups - thinking that buying some time by not ruffling any feathers would lead to a time when I had enough evidence to present that the skeptics couldn't help but see that the investment in small grants had merit. I missed the boat when I thought that a gigantic stack of small accomplishments could change the minds of people who were looking for something big. I missed the boat by not thinking big enough. I was thinking way too small to do the big thing that I was well-positioned to do.

So here I am again today, thinking of Ira. We are at the cusp of entering a new chapter as Grassroots Grantmakers, and like all beginnings, this beginning will take some courage. And, we are entering this new chapter at a time when funders everywhere are revisiting their priorities and targeting investments to the things that come out on top. In these times, we all need an Ira in our corner, calling to us to think big enough about the small things.

Ira reminded me that unless I can think it, I can't do it. In the times when I forget that I can indeed think it, that's when I remember Ira. With gratitude.


  1. This is beautifully written!

  2. Here's to courage and humility. The courage to step up when challenged and the humility to know when that challenge requires new thinking, new knowledge, or simply more time. Good luck Janis.