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.


  1. Janice, Amen and Amen, sister!

    Had to fire off this quick response because you you're right on target. Incorporating grassroots-driven community change into a foundation's overall values is a tough gig even when the idea is visibly welcomed by leadership.

    Internal staff champions have to "lead up" to the senior staff and the board and/or founding donors. Most foundation board members are pretty removed from the day-to-day practice of community building. Not a value judgement, just a fact of life. Staff have to ensure the board (and donors) have first-hand experiences with the issues grassroots leaders face.

    Another challenge may the CEO hiring process itself. At least for the community foundation field, it would be a rare job posting or search process that includes the values and relationships important to grassroots grantmaking. Fundraising and treetops-level civic leadership take precedence. Back to influencing this one I suppose. And/or field-wide reminders that money doesn't fix things, people do.

    Lastly, foundation leaders (staff and board) are influenced by a variety of experiences around what "leadership" means. Corporate leadership is different than entrepreneurial leadership, leadership in nonprofit and government sectors is different than the business sector (see Good to Great for the Social Sectors), having authority is different than leading (see Heifetz and Kramer work on adaptive leadership) etc... All sectors struggle with the demands between wanting to be customer-centered and customer-driven and wanting compelling, visionary CEOs/E.D.s/Presidents/Mayors.

    All of those issues, and more, influence how a foundation ultimately enacts its leadership roles and grantmaking agendas. With no direct experience (or worse, negative experience) with citizen-led and citizen-empowered change, it doesn't naturally come to mind as a great strategy for impact.

    There's a whole lot more here to discuss - looking forward to others' comments,

  2. Janis this is so timely! We are gearing up to do some major restructuring here in Humboldt County, but in our case it is not because of a new ED or CEO rebooting the system. We are rather fortunate because in our case it is a new chapter elevating the grassroots grantmaking to a new level County wide. The Better Together in Eureka initiative is finally gearing up to come out of its pilot project phase!

    That said, there are however, many things you point out that really resonate with the challenges we face. EVERY funding agency needs inside capacity building! We all need strategies for more horizontal communication between the program officers and the CEO’s, ED’s, boards and steering committees. Like you said we also need to increase the opportunities for staff, board etc to engaging with community, to engage with the voices from the margins. I think this is the physical aspect often missing!

    One reason I think these efforts tend to get replaced is the continued obsession with measureables and quantifiable outcomes! There are some things of great value that just cannot be measured. But how do you prove that in a world that increasingly needs proof and relies heavily on the scientific method?

    Another reason I think that grassroots grantmaking initiatives fall by the wayside is because, resident driven, resident led, community building, grassroots grantmaking are ALL empty buzzwords used by foundations and agencies because they are "hot" at this moment in time. Well what happens when the next buzz-word comes in? You guessed it, grassroots grantmaking programs fall by the wayside so that the new theory laden buzzwords can step in. If the foundation or agency cannot link the grassroots grantmaking effort to an overall social justice framework, then you know it is not going to last!

    I do not think this is ALWAYS the case. There are some foundations and agencies out there that really do see the value of these efforts. Like you said these latter foundations and agencies situate their grassroots grantmaking effort as part of their overall strategy for change, not just relegating them to the programatic level.

    I feel so fortunate to now be a part of two, an agency and a foundation, that is of the latter sort.

    Helen L'Annunziata
    Community Coordinator
    Better Together707.499.4659

  3. We have pretty strong buy-in at the top of The Denver Foundation for our Strengthening Neighborhoods Program. How did that come about?

    I think it was because the program was started 11 years ago by a task force of our board of directors. From its very inception, our neighborhood program was owned by our board, and ongoing board leadership on the committee that directly supervises our work has ensured that high level of support continues.

    But if a program is not newly forming and needs to get this high level support after the fact, I think the very best lesson for us has been to provide as many opportunities as possible for grantees from partner neighborhoods to meet and interact with trustees, CEO, Vice Presidents, etc. Because documenting impact looks different in a grassroots grantmaking program, and because relationship-building is our calling card, people at the top of a grantmaking foundation who do not understand or seem to value our work have been turned around, in our experience, by meeting and hearing the stories of those with whom we partner. So whether it is by having resident partners make presentations at board meetings, organizing your foundation’s annual meeting to showcase the community building work that your grassroots partners have undertaken, hosting an annual celebration of your grassroots’ partnerships to which trustees and higher level staff are invited (and to which they are strongly encouraged to attend by peers who are supporters of the program), doing a bus tour with “get off and talk” stops along the way in your partner communities, anything that can really ramp up the opportunity for conversation, story-telling, and relationship building is almost certain to engender broader support for your program.

    In other words, find opportunities to get out of the way and to let your resident partners tell their own stories to the people who need convincing. They cannot help but be swayed!

    Patrick Horvath
    Manager, Strengthening Neighborhoods
    The Denver Foundation