July 26, 2009

Making the Case for Small Tables

What does a kitchen table conversation have to do with a policy table conversation? Lots. And what do kitchen tables and policy tables have to do with big thinking on small grants? Lots.

Last week I had the privilege to join a group of incredible people for a conversation about place-based change. This group was convened by The Aspen Institute's Roundtable on Community Change as part of the research that The Aspen Institute team is doing for the third edition of their stellar "Voices from the Field" publication. Somewhere in the conversation, Tom Dewar, Co-Director of the Roundtable, said something about the importance of small tables. This was somewhat of a footnote to the ongoing conversation, but I jotted it down as a "note to self" to bring the idea here for more discussion.

I am frequently asked about the relationship between small grants and community change. The questions are specifically about the path from that first small grant for a modest community project, and something that creates a shift in the neighborhood. How does a small grant to five people on a block connect to changed lives and changed communities?

So many stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things feel alot like the "great man or great woman" stories that are central to the way we are taught history. Something happened because one extraordinary person came. I do believe that there is a synchronicity about change - that change does indeed happen in part when all the moving parts line up just right. But I don't believe that anyone, now matter how talented or brilliant, arrives on the scene ready to go in a "plug and play" way. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points to surprising hidden advantages that position people for success, but also the number of hours of practice that is required to master a skill. Assuming that's the case, what positions community residents for success in the "make a difference on your block" category and how is that people practice the skills that are required to make a difference?

When it comes to practice, maybe it's about small tables. It's about conversations around the kitchen tables in a community that prepare people for tougher conversations at bigger tables. It's about naming and framing with your neighbors, and acknowledging the self-interest that keeps people motivated and at the table. It's also about acknowledging and dealing productively with conflict and tension.

The grant process is one place that requires small tables. Should we apply for this grant? What do we want to do? How will we do it? Who else do we need to involve? What strengths do we bring to this? What help will we need? And working on a project together after the grant is awarded also serves up more small table opportunities. I wonder, however, if funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking are spotting these opportunities as capacity builders, and if so, how they help grantees spot, acknowledge and celebrate progress so that when the opportunity for the big table arises, they know they have been there before and are ready.

What role do you think small tables have in positioning groups to be change-makers? Post a comment and join the discussion.

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