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.

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousJune 10, 2009


    • We have just added your latest post " Big Thinking on Small Grants: Sparks!" to our Directory of Grant Programs . You can check the inclusion of the post here . We are delighted to invite you to submit all your future posts to the directory for getting a huge base of visitors to your website and gaining a valuable backlink to your site.

    Warm Regards

    Project Grant Team