June 25, 2009

Michelle Obama: Was She Speaking to Us?

Paul Schmitz, CEO of Public Allies and colleague adjunct faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development Institute (and did you know that Michelle Obama is also a member of the adjunct faculty?), shared these recent remarks from the First Lady.

She was speaking at a Greater DC Cares event at Washington, DC's Renaissance Hotel on June 16, 2009 - but she could have been speaking to us. The values, principles and aspirations of grassroots grantmaking - thinking big about small grants - are all here.

Feels like a refreshing breeze blowing my way, all the way from Washington DC. On another sweltering summer day, read what Mrs. Obama had to say and join me in enjoying this exciting moment in time and thinking about the possibilities that are in the wind.

Remarks from Mrs. Obama:
Good afternoon, and I am delighted and honored to be here to celebrate with you. I want to thank Mayde for that kind introduction. We did get to spend a lovely lunch together, and she tasted some of the fruits of the garden. They were good. (Laughter.) I also want to thank, as I kindly referred to them as the two Matts -- Matt Schuyler, who's the current chair, and the incoming chair, Matt Mitchell, for their hard work. I got a chance to meet them backstage.

So I'm just delighted to be able to join you all today, and I'm here simply to say thank you for the work that you've done and to help celebrate all of your accomplishments, the work that you've done to help make D.C. a truly wonderful community. It has been so nice to call this city our second home.

As you know, the President has said that America is facing some of the greatest challenges it's faced in generations, and as a result, Washington can only do so much. I think probably each and every one of you in this room realizes that. There's only so much that government can do.

As has been the case throughout our history, communities are built and rebuilt by regular people: folks working in businesses, philanthropists, foundations, and volunteers, all of them coming together to find solutions to these types of challenges. And during this time we are going to need everyone, and that -- everyone to rededicate themselves to this type of community-building, and we're going to need people to basically take hold of this kind of ethic of service and make a personal commitment to helping get this country back on the right direction.

And I believe that we're in a unique moment in history. Maybe you're seeing the same thing. I'm feeling it as I'm traveling not just around D.C. but around the country. But people really want to get involved. They really want to. They're looking for a way to turn their frustration, excitement, anxiety into action. And the recent passage of the Serve America Act -- the federal government is tripling its contribution to volunteerism, and people are responding to that investment. Applications, as we're seeing for service opportunities, are up by record numbers, and that's a very good thing.

And with the knowledge that, as Barack said throughout his campaign and throughout his presidency, that ordinary people can do some extraordinary things if they're given the proper tools and support, my husband is asking us to come together to help lay a new foundation for growth.

And that's really where all of you come in, where you've been coming in for years and years and years through your work. In order to make service a part of every citizen's life, we need to ensure that we have the capacity to welcome those volunteers in. And that's easier said than done. We want to be able to put folks' goodwill into good use. We need to make sure that every hour of time that they commit is spent doing something that's actually going to make a difference, that every dollar contributed is actually going to go to moving some real solutions forward.

And I realize that that's easier said than done. Having built an organization myself from the ground up -- as you heard from my background, I've kind of floated through my career, building stuff and then moving on and building something else -- I know what non-profits, foundations and social entrepreneurs face. I understand it. I know how hard it is to get the money to pay for fundraising, and accountants, and volunteer coordinators, to get all the technology that you really need to make the work happen; that this just doesn't happen out of goodwill, that it takes real resources to move things forward.

And I know what it's like to worry about making payroll, which I know many of you are going through in these tough times. I know that you're laying off consultants and staff members because you're seeing dollars dwindle. I know what it's like to write need statements and come up with measurable outcomes and -- (laughter) -- yes, we all know that -- segregating funds, completing AmeriCorps progress reports. I've done all that. And it's necessary, but at times it can drive you nuts. (Laughter.) So I know that service doesn't just happen. And I know how hard you work behind the scenes to make it happen, and a lot of times people take it for granted because if the work is getting done, then nobody really cares how. And when it stops happening, they wonder why, but often don't have the resources to step in.

So I want to congratulate you all on doing what it takes to make these programs work, and just knowing what it takes to keep the operations going that you don't even get a chance sometimes to celebrate what you've done to realize to step back and look at the impact that you're having. So I honor all of you for the effort, and hope that you can, if not today but tomorrow and in the coming weeks, pat yourselves on the back for the work that you've been doing, because we're going to need you to do even more.

When I look over this room, I think about my days when I worked at Public Allies. I headed that program in Chicago before I moved into the university, and that organization allowed me to work with more than 30 Chicago organizations every single year, placing AmeriCorps members with them so that they could expand their services. We placed young people with organizations working on education and youth development groups, environmental groups, neighborhood, economic development groups, all types of groups all throughout the city of Chicago. And I saw first-hand through that work the variety of neighborhood and community needs that exist out there, and how hard it is for these groups to meet that need with the resources that they have. So they were excited to get these young people. However naïve and untrained they were, they ate these Allies up.

And we recruited some of the best kids across the city of Chicago. For every young person that we recruited at a great institution like Northwestern, DePaul or the University of Chicago -- we even recruited kids from Harvard Law School -- we also recruited someone from Cabrini Green or from Little Village or North Lawndale. And through my work with Public Allies I realized that the next generation of leaders was just as likely to come from poor and working-class neighborhoods as they were to come from some of the top colleges around the country.

My time at Public Allies also gave me the opportunity to work with John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, who developed the Asset-Based Community Development approach to neighborhood development, and that really influenced how we worked with communities. Some of you may be familiar with this approach, but the approach acknowledges that all of us, every single one of us breathing in this community, in this planet, those of us serving and those of us who are being served, that we're all both half-full and half-empty.

We all have skills and talents that make us good friends, family members, workers, and leaders, and we also have needs and shortcomings that come along with those strengths. We can't do well serving these communities, I learned with Public Allies, if we believe that we, the givers, are the only ones that are half-full, and that everybody we're serving is half-empty. That has been the theme of my work in community for my entire life -- that there are assets and gifts out there in communities, and that our job as good servants and as good leaders is not only just being humble, but it's having the ability to recognize those gifts in others, and help them put those gifts into action. Communities are filled with assets that we need to better recognize and mobilize if we're really going to make a difference, and Public Allies helped me see that.

At Public Allies, we endeavored to do this also by bringing these young people together from diverse backgrounds. We worked with African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, white, gay, straight, you name it, college graduates, ex-felons, we brought them all together every week to work in a group.

And truly, that's where the magic happened, when you saw those kids from all those different backgrounds really tussling it out and trying to figure out their philosophies in the world in relationship to their beliefs and stereotypes.

The law school graduates realized they had a lot to learn about how communities really work and how to engage people. There's nothing funnier than to watch a kid who believes they know it all -- (laughter) -- actually come across some real tough problems in communities that test every fiber of what they believe.

And then you see the young person with a GED realize that they could go to college because they're working with kids who are just as smart or not smart as them who are going, and they gain a sense of the possibilities that they have. They know that their ideas are just as good, sometimes even better. That's when those lights go off. That's what we think about when we think of Asset-Based Community Development -- that a kid from Harvard and a kid with a GED are both full of promise.

Everyone learned to build authentic relationships with one another where they could recognize each other's strengths and provide honest feedback on their challenges. They gained a blend of confidence and humility that prepared them to be able to lead from the streets to the executive suites.

You could take any one of those Allies -- and it's not just Allies, there are kids like this all over the country, and you could plop them down in any community, and they would know how to build relationships. You know, that's not just important in non-profit, that's important in life. These are the kind of gifts that we can give people through service.

And as we move forward to implement the Serve America Act, my hope is that the Office of Social Innovation that's going to do some of this funding will help us identify the wonderful concepts out there like Asset-Based Community Development. There are other wonderful approaches out there that are working in communities all over this country. This office hopefully will identify more of them and help them grow and develop the best solutions, and replicate those ideas throughout the country.

I also hope that these efforts will help us encourage philanthropy that is more responsive to the needs of the organizations. I was fortunate at Public Allies Chicago to have some pretty significant major investors -- multi-year grants, as we called them back then. I guess they still exist. (Laughter). But when you have that kind of long-term investment from foundations and corporations, that allowed me to do things like hire a development staff, or an office manager, to pay for technology that would help support this work. And you know, again, this work doesn't happen by itself. You need staff and resources to do it.

That core of organizational support made it possible for me to meet those measurable outcomes, and I hope that more philanthropists in this time will step up and have a longer-term investment approach to organizations like yours, because effective outcomes come from effective organizations, and if we are able to shed some light on the work that you're doing and the need for financial support, we can get the foundation community thinking even more critically about building the sustainable kind of support over time.

We need foundations and philanthropists to provide the integral support for our community organizations. But we also need those community organizations to provide support for all these volunteers we're recruiting now. We need to harness this amazing amount of goodwill that we're generating through this administration in a way that ensures that we serve all Americans to the best of our ability.

So once again, we're going to need you. As tired as you may be, we're going to need you. So that's why I'm here -- (laughter) -- to say thank you, because we're going to be tapping you more and more. (Applause.) Now is the time that we have to connect with one another and share good ideas and hold each other up and give each other that private counsel when the dollars are running short and hope is a little harder to find.

But that's why times like this, opportunities to gather and celebrate, are important to just get us back on track. Right now we are going to be channeling hopefully thousands of volunteers in your direction. America is looking to engage. But as you know with volunteers, if they're not connected to something meaningful, if their experience isn't organized and makes sense, then we lose them forever.

So we hope to be able to provide some of the resources that you need, but we also need you to prepare for the challenge. And if we do that and continue to harness this energy, we can not only change the way this nation feels about service, but we can change the way the world sees us. So many people will need a place to funnel their talents and their energies. Volunteerism is one of those win-win situations that makes absolute sense in this point in our nation's history.

So celebrate today. Eat up. Drink that tea. (Laughter.) And we look forward to working with you in the years to come. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

June 22, 2009

My Name is Not Those People

Today I'm sharing this wonderful video presentation of Julia K. Dinsmore's moving poem, "My Name is Not Those People" as read by Danny Glover, from "Give Us Your Poor - 17 New Recordings To Help End Homelessness" (Appleseed Recordings).

Grassroots grantmaking isn't about a specific issue such as homelessness. It is, however, about acting/funding from stance of everyone as contributor, everyone has value, everyone is needed. It is also based on the belief that agencies - no matter how well run - and the services that they provide - no matter how needed, professionally delivered and documented - are not the generators of healthy communities. To me, this moving presentation is that message underscored with its focus on homelessness. It reminded me that it's easy to think that the best way to help people who are down-and-out is to connect them to a professional who can provide services - especially when your business is to know so much about the services that are available. Or that it's easy to wonder if people who are so down-and-out and so in need can be (or need to be) contributors? Or, possibly even to assume that they are so down-and-out because they have nothing to contribute.

Thinking big about small grants demands some rigor about keeping some basic assumptions in clear view and airing them out with a reality check now and then. What are you assuming about people who live in challenged neighborhoods? What are you assuming about organizations that don't operate like the non-profits that your organization has traditionally funded? What can you do to connect your experience of "you as neighbor" to "you as funder".

This moving poem, so beautifully presented, served as a gentle reminder to me that it's time for a reality check. See what it does for you.

June 16, 2009

A Powerful Way to Re-Imagine Cleveland

I love this! I wouldn't call it making lemonade when life gives you lemons. I would call it just plain smart.

I'm referring to the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland grant program, a strategic use of scale-appropriate grants to tap into community ingenuity and creativity to move an idea into action. The Re-Imagining grant program is one way that a group of creative thinkers in Cleveland is using to make sure that a strategic plan doesn't sit on a shelf.

An article on the EcoWatch Ohio website does a good job of giving some background.
Cleveland has the same footprint as it did when it supported a population of 950,000 residents in 1950. Cleveland’s population is now half that size, which has resulted in approximately 3,300 acres of vacant land—with an additional 120 acres of vacant land created each year from demolitions of condemned houses.

With intentions of writing a new future for Cleveland, Neighborhood Progress, Kent State University’s Urban Design Center, key city departments, and many other collaborators undertook a year-long planning initiative to find progressive strategies for sustainable reuses of vacant land to benefit residents, neighborhoods and the environment. The study and its recommendations—Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland—were recently adopted by the Cleveland City Planning Commission. A demonstration phase to test the ideas and measure their impacts is being developed with funding provided by the city and local foundations. Pilot projects will include urban agriculture, planting of native species, phyto-remediation for soil restoration and lead containment, rain gardens, off-street parking with permeable paving, bioswales and more. The plan and a pattern book with resource information is available to community groups and individuals interested in developing projects on vacant land.
Bottom line is that City of Cleveland residents, community organizations, non-profits and small businesses are being invited to bring their ideas, passion, resourcefulness, connections, know-how, and "love of place" to the table as to transform what would be seen as a liability (vacant lots, shrinking population) into a community asset. Grants of $10,000 - $20,000 will be available, matched on a 50% basis with in-kind contributions, cash or labor. The Re-Imagining Cleveland pattern book will provide guidance and inspiration to potential applicants.

What a great idea! I hear so often of well-conceived and executed community engagement efforts that make it to the development of a plan and then run out of gas. This could have easily been one of those. Instead, city government and local foundations, using the dual bottom-line - product AND process - that is so central to grassroots grantmaking, are inviting the community into the process as co-creators and implementers. What a powerful statement. Instead of just asking you what you think, we are now investing in you to make this happen!

And it gets better. When I look at the process that is outlined, I see so many of the core ingredients of good grassroots grantmaking processes:
  • A clear, straight-forward, reasonable-to-complete application
  • A clear statement about what is expected, when and how funding will be available, and how decisions will be made.
  • Careful attention to the pre-application period, with 6 pre-application workshops
  • Availability of technical assistance that is designed to help the project team succeed rather than whipping them into shape
  • An open invitation to "other than 501(c)(3)'s" to apply.
I can't wait to see what projects come forth. As my good friend and colleague Mike Green says, "when you ask residents to brainstorm about how to promote reading in their community, they are more likely to come up with something that ISN'T a literacy program." My hunch is that the same thing will happen here. There may be one of every type of project that is included in the pattern book or in the examples of possible projects that the application lists, but I bet there will be at least one "who would have thought of that" type of wonderful project that exceeds every one's expectations.

Great job, Cleveland. You're not only Re-Imagining the vacant spaces in Cleveland, with this process, you're Re-Imagining the role of citizens. Love it!

June 9, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, the "question of the week" in Grassroots Grantmakers' weekly update was about eligibility and selection criteria for grants that support residents in work that moves them and their neighbors from "on the couch" to "in the community" as active citizens.

We had a lot of great responses. When I put all of the responses together, I was struck that something was missing that came up several times when I was in Eureka, California recently with the Humboldt Area Foundation's team. Sparks!

By sparks, I mean that "on fire" feeling that people get when they believe in something and in themselves. It about something that brings people together and motivates them to act. It's when you know - just know - that the people behind an idea are moving forward, no matter what. It's almost a magical ingredient that can make the difference between good and amazing. It's there in all of the stories you tell about small grants and small groups that do big things.

I understand why we as funders need to be able to have clearly stated guidelines and timelines. But sometimes I wonder if we really understand how those clearly stated guidelines and timelines work with "spark". Are they igniters or dousers?

I'm a big believer in the power of a grant opportunity as an invitation. Hearing that you - yes, you - are eligible to apply for a grant for something you want to do in your neighborhood - yes, your neighborhood - can fan a flame and create a spark. Hearing that this requires a 12 page application, a presentation to a grantmaking panel in a corporate setting, and then waiting 2 months to receive a grant check can douse the flame and put out the spark. So can working through a page-long list of well-intended capacity-building requirements or knowing that your reward for one successful project is ineligibility to apply for another grant.

This is where the art of grantmaking meets the science of grantmaking. How do you address the accountability and due diligence demands that come with grantmaking, position your grassroots grantmaking program as "more than the money", and maintain the ability to see, encourage, and respond to "spark"?

What can you do?
  • You can keep your welcome mat out like our friends at the Battle Creek Community Foundation and First 5 Humboldt's Better Together Program, meeting monthly to review proposals and make grant decisions.
  • If you can't meet monthly, you can do like our friends at The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program, with guidelines that are clear and welcoming with an option to apply for a small planning grant (and get a decision in about a week) to get to work on your "spark" right now.
  • You can create opportunities for grantees to network with their peers - and let the "sparks" from one neighborhood ignite another - like our friends at The Cleveland Foundation's Neighborhood Connections grassroots grantmaking program. Topical convenings and a neighborhood group directory at just two ways that Neighborhood Connections is recognizing and nurturing "sparks".
  • You can use community visits to look for the spark behind a grant application, adopting the practice of visiting each group in their own neighborhood as part of your grantmaking process. That's what we did when I managed a grassroots grantmaking program at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. We came to see community visits (they were conversations, really) as the most important thing we could do to distinguish between a good proposal (with no spark) and a great project and a great group (full of spark).
I've heard some grantmakers say that at the bare minimum, grantmaking programs should strive to do no harm. Yes, I agree. But I would also add that grantmaking programs - especially grassroots grantmaking programs - should strive to never put out "spark".

What do you think? How do you recognize "spark" and where does spotting and nurturing "spark" fit in your program design? Join the conversation by posting a comment.

June 4, 2009

Love This New Resource!

My favorite new publication is the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center's Organizer's Workbook. I love this because it is practical, beautiful, and will be immensely useful for the grassroots grantmaking world.

Marc McAleavey, INRC's Evaluation and Documention Manager, told me that the idea for the workbook grew out of the Community Building Institute that INRC hosts and their work with the Great Indy Neighborhoods Initiative. Participants in the Community Building Institute said that a take-home resource would help them put some of the great things that they were learning to work. Work on quality-of-life planning processes with the Great Indy Neighborhoods Initiative Neighborhoods pointed in the same direction. INRC staff began by pulling together information that they used for the Community Building Institute modules - each one taking responsibility for their piece of that pie. Their work on the content plus a gifted graphics person and a local grant for printing made this work possible. Sounds simple but I know it wasn't.

What I especially appreciate about the guide is the way that asset based community development thinking and community organizing principles and tools are blended and presented in a way that is digestible and inviting but not in any way "dumbed-down". I get frustrated at times when community organizing is talked about as something that only special people who are part of national organizing networks can get or do. While I fully appreciate the deep wisdom that has come from years of work by organizers, organizing networks and the community organizations that are associated with national networks, my frustration comes from my own experience of wanting and needing some basic community organizing tools and skills, and not having access to one of the national community organizing networks. I think that some community organizing basics are helpful for everyone who works at the neighborhood level. And finally, here's the resource that fills that void.

This is a workbook that would have been immensely useful to me and my neighborhood group when I was working on vacant land redevelopment issues back in Memphis. It would have also been immensely useful to me when I worked at the Center for Neighborhoods in Memphis - Memphis' version if INRC. Had this resource been available back then, I can guarantee that it would have been the textbook for our own version of a community building institute. And, it would have been immensely useful to me when I staffed a grassroots grantmaking program at a community foundation.

This is a treasure. Check it out.

June 1, 2009

Who Has Baggage to Check?

I had a cup of coffee with Jim Diers when I was in Seattle recently, and have been thinking about our conversation ever since. I first met Jim at a gathering of the Asset Based Community Development "faculty" in Chicago several years ago. Jim has been a leading innovator in the small grants world since his fourteen year tenure as Director of Seattle's Office of Neighborhoods. Jim brought his experience working as a community organizer and his academic background in third world development to his work with city government. We are lucky to have Jim's experience there, building the Office of Neighborhoods and pioneering a matching grants program that has sparked matching grants programs in dozens if not hundreds of organizations across the world in Jim's book, Neighborhood Power: Building Community the Seattle Way.

So here's the big thing that keeps coming back to me from my coffee shop conversation with Jim. Jim remarked that local governments need to shift their thinking to be effective in forming productive partnerships with community groups. Yep. Flash back to another point in my life when I hired a babysitter, put on my one "go to meeting" dress, drove downtown, found a parking place and fed the meter, only to get the run around once I was inside city hall in search of information or trying to find a "public" meeting. Fast forward to recent conversations when city staffers were talking about citizen participation as a necessary evil that should be managed. Or hearing a funder complaining about the frequent calls from a novice grantseeker. Baggage.

Then Jim began talking about another type of necessary shift - a shift in the perception that community residents have about city government, triggering another flash back to a time when my neighbors and I met any contact from city staff or elected officials with suspicion and went armored with skepticism and fear to public meetings. Or in those pre-application meetings of our neighborhood grants programs when I was grilled about hidden agendas or secret trap-doors that will make the promised funding inaccessible. Or hearing doubtful chuckles when I speak with a group of neighborhood leaders about the possibility of developing trusting, give and take relationships with funders. Or just last week in the presentation I made at the Neighborhoods USA conference in Spokane, when half the hands in the room went up when someone asked why there is so much distrust between neighborhood folks and city hall. More baggage.

In the grassroots grantmaking world, we talk a lot about the shifts in perception and practice that enable funders to open up the new set of possibilities that come with grassroots grantmaking. But we don't talk much about baggage that comes with being on the other side. Or that sometimes people we call neighborhood leaders don't always take the high road. That neighborhood groups aren't always oriented to include rather than exclude. That egos and the desire/need to make a buck aren't at play - and get in the way of things we call community building or being neighborly or even working smart.

What if we could put judgement and assumptions about motives aside, and assume that we're all really interested in the same thing? What if we were all willing to take a critical look at the baggage that we've bringing into the room and check the baggage at the door? While we as funders are working on checking our own baggage, what could we do to help groups that we fund know that we don't expect them to be baggage-less either? How can we communicate that we won't be surprised (or shocked) when we see the overstuffed suitcase that they're dragging into the room? But that it's not a good thing if we pretend we don't see it?

If it would be helpful to think about shifts that Jim thinks are needed on both sides of the funding equation, check out Grassroots Grantmakers website, Fundamental Shifts for Effective Grassroots Grantmaking - an adaptation of the shifts that Jim shared with me over coffee.

I'd love to continue the discussion that I began with Jim, and hear what you think about the baggage that we all bring to our work together, and how we, as funders, can work to lighten the load. Post a comment!