August 31, 2009

The Diarist Approach & Grassroots Grantmakers' Newest Report

We're releasing a new report this week - Building Resident Power & Capacity for Change. As interested as I am in this topic, it's the subtitle of this report that really interests me.
An "on the ground" reflection of what it takes for funders to work effectively with low income communities.
We began working on the idea for this report when we began plans for the first "on the ground" gathering that Grassroots Grantmakers hosted - using a "non-conference" format with an intentionally small group of people, using the work of one of our member organizations as a platform for learning about a specific topic associated with grassroots grantmaking. We were searching for a face-to-face meeting format that set the stage for deeper conversations, deeper learning and more meaningful networking among peers. Our first "on the ground" was held in Chicago last fall and co-designed with our two Chicago partners, the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Steans Family Foundation. Our topic was building power and capacity for change - using The Woods Fund's work in Chicago's Southside and the Steans Family Foundation's work in the North Lawndale community on Chicago's west side to inform the discussion.

When we began talking about how to capture and continue the learning that began in Chicago, we thought of the "diarist" approach that the Annie E. Casey Foundation had used with Making Connections. We liked the reflective tone of the diarist publications and the focus on learning - sharing successes and struggles of real people doing real work from their own perspectives. These pieces were more than descriptions of what happened or what conversation occurred - they were a different type of report that seemed to match the different type of gathering that we had in mind.

We contacted Tim Saasta, the visionary leader of The Diarist Project and began exploring how the diarist approach might be used to promote the learning that happens at a two-day gathering (rather than learning over time in one of the Making Connections sites). Kristin Senty, diarist for the Des Moines Making Connections work (and now my co-worked with Grassroots Grantmakers) joined us in Chicago to document the gathering via notes and photographs. She then continued the conversation via interviews with six of the people (Consuella Brown from the Woods Fund of Chicago, Alison Janus from the Steans Family Foundation, David Portillo from the Denver Foundation, Jennifer Roller from the Raymond John Wean Foundation, Andy Helmboldt from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, Lisa Leverette from The Prevention Network, who were with us in Chicago, focusing on five of the most pronounced threads running through the Chicago conversation:
  • building strong relationships between funders and community residents;
  • building the capacity of low-income communities;
  • building the capacity of your foundation to do this work and of the funding community to support this work;
  • building new approaches for insuring accountability;
  • looking for new ways for this work to add up to broader social change.
Tim Saasta then wove Kristin's documentation, interviews and photographs together into the diarist report that we are now preparing to share.

Segue now to my confession:

I love this report. It is all that I hoped it would be - and more.

This report is deeper and meatier than I thought it would be. And, I must say, I have some mixed feelings about that. Even though everyone who was interviewed has seen the report and okayed quotes that were used, I have been surprised at some of the anxiety I have felt about how it will be received. Will the candor of this report - the digging into questions that many funders don't discuss or only discuss behind closed doors - be a turn off? Will the discussion of challenges scare people away from work that I believe is so vitally important? What will happen when we take the cover off of elephant-in-the-room issues such as how a funder can work effectively with low income communities when there are race-class-culture challenges inside the funding organization itself? Will the commitment and passion that was in the room when we were talking about these questions in Chicago come through when someone who was not there reads this report? Do we really mean it when we say that we want to create a culture of learning, to share the challenges as well as the successes? How does that play in an economic climate when people are in a retreat mode? With a scarcity mentality, do we want to candor about what it takes, or a promise that something will work?

So, in the spirit of reflection that is concert with the diarist approach, I share the report with both my delight in how it was done and how it turned out, and my surprising anxiety about how the reflective spirit of the report will be received. Check it out and let me know what you think.

August 27, 2009

Wanting More from Place-Based Philanthropy

Someone asked me recently to define the term "place-based funder". More and more, I am using that term to describe the group of funders who make up Grassroots Grantmakers, and have begun to describe the range of approaches a funder can use to connect directly with the people who live in a place - grassroots grantmaking - as an essential ingredient of place-based funding. I welcomed this question.

And then after the fact, I checked out what other people had to say. Before I share what I think, here's what I found:
  • The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation uses community foundations as the standard, but considers other funders that are geographically oriented and have a place-based focus similar to a community foundation to be place-based funders.
  • In a paper commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Backer, Miller and Bleeg of the Human Interaction Research Institute describe place-based philanthropy as a philanthropic strategy that focuses on a particular community or neighborhood; their paper includes six principles for place-based philanthropy developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:
(1) focus on a pressing social need,
(2) involve residents in philanthropic strategy,
(3) take a results orientation within a theory of change,
(4) use data to set priorities and evaluate results,
(5) use the Foundation’s convening ability and other strategies to promote community collaboration, and
(6) use the Foundation’s unique standing in the community to leverage political, human, and
financial capital to support good outcomes.
  • James Murdoch, in his paper "The Place-Based Strategic Philanthropy Model", draws a comparison between traditional philanthropy and place-based philanthropy, describing place-based philanthropy as a type of strategic philanthropy. Murdoch lists characteristics of effective place-based philanthropy, including the need for a multi-dimensional (vs. single issue) approach.
I like all of these. But I want more.....and my clumsy definition of place-based funding was an attempt to both describe the basic bottom-line of geographic focus with the loftier goal of using place in all of its dimensions as an organizing framework.

Here's what I said: "A place-based funder has an intimate tie to a particular place that you can find on a map, and is focusing their work in that place with the people who live there and the organizations and institutions that are highly invested in that place. A place-base funder uses a wide-angle, multi-faceted lens in work that is about community resilience and vitality. They may work on one problem or issue at a time, but do so with respect for local history and culture, a commitment to identifying and mobilizing local assets, and an interest in building local capacity to weather the next storm."

I was making this attempt because I want to distinguish between funders who use geography to "limit" or "define" (we only give grants to organizations that serve this area....) and those like the Raymond John Wean Foundation (where we will gather for our upcoming "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers" - yes, that's a plug, but this is exactly why we will be there) who are deeply focused on "place".

While it's true that community foundations, family foundations and other funders (local governments, United Ways?) are associated with geographies, I suspect that many do not identify with their geographies in the same way. Isn't it true that some think of their geographies as service areas for the organizations that are eligible to receive their grants, where others think of their geographies as multi-dimensional systems, within which non-profits are just one moving piece? When it gets down to what people do versus what they say, isn't there a range of functional definitions out there for "place-based funder"?

I know you can say that more and better services result in a better community. And I know that you can say that a permanent institution that serves as a vehicle for local philanthropy results in a better community. Both of these statements are true, but they're not enough for me.

I want to know how a community is functioning, what draws people there and compels them to invest their time and passion to make the community better. I want to know what is holding the community (and the people who live there) back, what is making it vulnerable, what is pushing people to the edge and making them feel like strangers in their own community. I want to know why some communities are places where people are quick to act, and some communities are places where people wait for someone else to fix what is broken. I want to know about the community's infrastructure - the skeleton formed by local policies, local relationships, and local culture that enables a community to deal with the little things and the big things. I want questions like these to be the basis for a place-based funder's work, with "place" in all of its dimensions on the table.

The "more" that I want is a clearer distinction between using place as a delimiter and using place as an organizing principle. But that's not all.

I want more recognition that you can't be a hands-off funder in a place-based world. I want to see that you are seeking relationships with the people in your place as active citizens rather than passive players or problems to be fixed through professionalized services. Somewhere in your bag of tricks, I want to see work that builds meaningful relationships with people who are traditionally not at the strategy table, and I want to see grants that reach beyond the professional grantseekers and go all the way to the block level. Somewhere in your strategy for change, I want to see that you're clear that you can't be place-based without having the people who live in that place squarely in the middle of that picture.

What about you? What is your definition of place-based philanthropy? What more do you want?

August 14, 2009

A Working Definition of "We Don't Begin with Residents"

In the grassroots grantmaking world, we talk about working from a "we begin with residents" point of view. We're talking about institutions - funding institutions, primarily - working intentionally to control their tendencies to think that they know best and to put residents in the driver's seat when it comes to setting priorities and moving agendas that affect their own neighborhoods.

Everyone these days is facing budget cuts, so it was no surprise when I read today that the City of Memphis is slashing budgets to make ends meet. I lived in Memphis for most of my adult life and still think of Memphis as my second hometown. I know the neighborhoods in Memphis, admire the keep-on-keeping-on spirit of the people in Memphis' inner city neighborhoods.

It appears that the city parks budget is taking a hit, and that community centers are adjusting their hours. That's bad but not surprising. What surprised me is how community centers are cutting their hours. Most will now be closed on Saturday, many will close at 5:00 p.m. That's dandy (aka convenient) for the staff who run the community centers, but what about the community? It appears that there has been some seemingly logical "Sophie's choice thinking" going on - make a choice between accommodating the senior citizens groups or the young people. If seniors want to use the centers in the morning, then the kids find doors locked after school. If the centers are open for the young people after school, the seniors need to find another place for their day-time activities. Take your pick. I wonder what other more creative options would have surfaced if the Parks Department had asked for help with this dilemma, beginning with a question of what to do rather than the answer of what will be done.

The Parks Department director commented that while the parks department has determined hours, community groups are free to meet among themselves and make suggestions for different hours. Right.

So here is a working definition of "we don't begin with residents".

August 13, 2009

A Reminder of What This Is About from Playing for Change

What do I mean by funding that is too much intellectual and not enough physical? I wrote about that in my last post and then spotted this wonderful Playing for Change video. This doesn't answer the question, but provides a reminder of what we miss when we're too much in our heads and not enough in our hearts. Watch and enjoy.

August 11, 2009

Are We Starting Over - Again?

I've noticed something about the grassroots grantmaking world, and my hunch is that it is one of the biggest obstacles to thinking big about small grants.

Funding organizations that really get it seem to completely forget it when there is a change at the top. It's almost as if someone hit the organization's ctrl/alt/del keys to reboot the organization. All of the learning, insights and commitment associated with the organization's big thinking about small grants work is cleared out of the memory, and the organization's strategy and culture is reset.

Yes, I know that changes at the top almost always mean a new chapter for the organization, and that new chapters often come with new energy and enthusiasm for a clearer and more compelling vision. I've seen organizations get stale right before my eyes under the overly watchful eye of a leader who really needs to move on. So I'm not at all about resisting change. What I'm resisting is whatever is contributing to positioning grassroots grantmaking in the part of the organization's memory that is cleared away with a new leader "reboot".

So what might these things be? You know, don't you, that I'm itching to be asked what I think about this question. Since you asked....
  • The organization's grassroots grantmaking work has been encapsulated. It has been sitting on the side as a nice program and not really touching the other work that the funding organization is doing. The relationships that the person who staffs the grassroots grantmaking work are that person's relationships rather than that organization's relationships. And, my hunch is that that person is one of the most junior people on staff - not someone who is in on conversations about strategy and priorities or who is going to lunch with the new leader on his/her first day at work.
  • The organization's grassroots grantmaking work is seen as a grant program rather than an organizational strategy. It's about getting small amounts of money out the door to unknown groups. It's about bootstrapping or seed money rather than resident voice, civic capacity, leadership development or community resilience.
  • There is very little physical connection between those in the organization and the on the ground work of grassroots grantmaking, meaning that for those other than the program staff, the work is easy to intellectualize and professionalize. My hunch is that there are few opportunities for staff, board and grantmaking committees to sit around dining room tables or in branch library meeting rooms to talk with the people who are doing the work that these small grants are supporting. I bet that the processes associated with grantmaking - grant applications, grant review, grant reporting - are primarily paper processes rather than people processes.
  • There's just one champion for grassroots grantmaking inside the organization. And that one champion is probably a program officer rather than a vice president or a board member.
What I know is that when grassroots grantmaking is a strategy rather a program, when it's not encapsulated and sitting on the sidelines, when it's physical rather than intellectual, and when there are multiple champions, it becomes more of a way of working than a piece of work to do. And, it's hard-wired into the organization's culture in a way that's still there when a new leader arrives and hits "reboot".

Why am I writing about this now? The easy answer is that I've just seen it happen again. The real answer is that I don't think we talk about this enough. The community side of the work of grassroots grantmaking can be challenging, but it's not brain surgery. Common sense and the collective experience that's at easy reach through Grassroots Grantmaker's community of practice can help a new funder get up to speed quickly.

The hard part of this work is positioning it inside the funding organization. When it is well positioned, it can do what it is designed to do - expand the lens through which place-based funders see their work and bring the people who live in that place into the picture as creators of community vitality rather than recipients of services. When that piece of the work is done well, that's when you see place-based funding that is more passionate, more strategic and more effective. And that's where the work endures.

Do you agree that we don't give enough attention to building capacity INSIDE a funding organization for grassroots grantmaking? And if so, what do you think is getting in our way? Post a comment to join the discussion.

August 4, 2009

Drawing a Box Around Civic Life

I like the way that David Mathews, President of The Kettering Foundation, describes civic life. He talks about civic life as sand - always shifting but always there. His analogy connects with my experience. I've thought of civic life as ebbs and flows, with people coming in and out of the action as their interests and life suggest - with a constant push and pull between civic intent and personal space. So civic life as sand on the beach really works for me.

In the grassroots grantmaking world where there is a lot of big thinking on small grants, there is also a lot of attention given to building relationships, developing capacity, and fostering change. I've noticed that many conversations about building relationships, developing capacity, and fostering change imply that there is an end in sight - that relationships are built with established leaders, capacity is built within stable organizations, and change occurs when the building phase is over. This thinking is something that we can get our hands around and communicate to our boards of directors and donors, isn't it? Plan it, do it, take stock of the success, move on. Very businesslike.

But how does that thinking really work if we acknowledge that grassroots grantmaking is primarily about invigorating civic life, and if the reality is that civic life is like sand on the beach - always changing but always there? What are the implications? Here are some that come to mind to me:
  • Instead of finite pool of leaders, the pool is infinite - just as infinite as grains of sand on the beach. The leaders today may be the followers tomorrow or they may be completely invisible (invisible....not absent). That means that the job of relationship building is never done - that it requires patience and is best done with a spirit of curiosity.

  • Instead of stable organizations, groups of citizens are ebbing and flowing depending on interest and work at hand. Working on something they do every summer might be the glue that keeps neighbors connected with enough of a relationship to enable them to pull together quickly when a storm hits - be it a real storm, a family storm or a community storm such as a rash of foreclosures. Capacity might be the ability to easily ebb and flow rather than the ability to be constantly present and active. This means that capacity building is organized around the notion of getting things done in an ebb and flow environment rather than a structured business environment.

  • Change might come on a wave rather than on a boat that has a rudder and a captain. It might catch everyone by surprise, but leave you disappointed if you assume that because one big wave has arrived, another one is predictably on its way. This means that you need to also look for the smaller waves and pay attention to the currents - all signs of the constant movement that is present and of the smaller things that add up to the bigger things.

I understand why the constantly moving aspects of civic life can be challenging for funding organizations. But attempting draw a box around civic life with inappropriate outcome measures and rigid funding processes may be like re-engineering a beach with walls and grading. You still have the beach, and it's now more predictably present and will be that way so long as you keep grading and reinforcing. But now you are working against rather than with - the sand, after all, is still moving.

Do I need time on the beach or does this analogy work for you? What are you doing to embrace the ebbs and flows of civic life in your grassroots grantmaking work and to do as little "beach re-engineering" as possible? Post a comment to share your thoughts.