November 30, 2009

The Language Problem

The language of grassroots grantmaking is challenging. We use words and talk about concepts that don't seem to be in the philanthropic mainstream. And we run into words that are commonly used that are loaded with multiple meanings and thus can be obstacles to clear learning and communication about grassroots grantmaking. A colleague mentioned this recently and commented that I write about language a lot on this blog. I hadn't thought about it that way but yes, he's right.
  • What's a "small grant"?
  • What word do we use to describe the people in a community? "People"? "Resident"? "Citizen"?
  • What do we mean by "grassroots"?
  • What is "community resilience", "community capacity", "civic capacity", "civic engagement"?
  • What is "technical assistance"? Is that just another way of saying "help"?
  • What is "community"? What is "neighborhood"? What is "place-based"?
  • What do we mean by "active citizenship"? What's the difference between "volunteer" and "active citizen"?
Language came up again when I was talking with a program officer at one of our member foundations. This time the problem word was "suburbs".

The person I was talking with works at a foundation in a metro area on the east coast - most specifically, in a community on the edge of a really big city, a community that is thought of as a suburb of that city. She was telling me about a bias that she has detected - a bias against investing in suburbs. She went on to say that yes, the area where she is working was at one time a place where people of means went to escape from the city. But now it is an area that is incredibly diverse in all ways that a community can be diverse - with the problems that come with a complex community that includes both the "haves" and the "have nots".

After our telephone conversation, it occurred to me that this was once again a language problem. Just as some communities are labeled as places that are dangerous, distressed, and needy, others are labeled as places that are too good for philanthropic investment. And that label, like all labels, is loaded with assumptions that are too seldom questioned. Assumptions possibly like wealth equals health, or that communities who were founded for one reason (escape from the big-city problems, for example) deserve what they get when the big-city problems show up there. I also thought about another conversation with another member organization that is working on-purpose with suburban neighborhoods that fall outside of standard definition of "needy" because they were "needy" when it comes to a sense of community and for that reason, were seen by the foundation as vulnerable.

I'm not calling for more funding for suburban communities. What I am suggesting instead is that we keep our radar out for words that generate an automatic reaction - especially when the automatic reaction is to exclude. I'm also encouraging us all to remember just how powerful the language problem is in the community change business.

What are other words that you have spotted that come loaded with assumptions that get in the way of the discussions that we really need to have about how best to support residents as active citizens and generators of community vitality? Post a comment and join my discussion about language.

November 18, 2009

A Reminder about the Power of Relationships

I'm sharing a wonderful 2-minute video, Be That Woman, that the Washington Area Women's Foundation recently shared in an email.  While the Washington Area Women's Foundation developed this video to help demonstrate the importance of investing in women and girls, I see a message here as well for place-based funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking - with its simple yet moving message about the power of relationships. 

Grassroots grantmaking is inherently a relationship business, isn't it?  At its core, it's about investing in the power of relationships to make our communities work and to address the things that are causing them to not work.  It's also about putting a human face on grantmaking - about building the people to people relationships between funders and community residents that enable the grant process and the grant award to move dreams into action rather than to just move dollars from one account to another.  It's about the change that comes from the cumulative effect of a lot of small things - person to person, one thing after the after.

This video says that to me.  Check it out and see what you think.  And thanks to the Washington Area Women's Foundation for sharing!

November 9, 2009

Real Time Relationship Building

I just completed the rigorous process of officially changing my name to my married name - officially and legally now Janis Foster Richardson.  No, I'm not recently married - I've been married for 16 years.  There were a lot of good reasons I didn't change my name at the time of my marriage and a lot of additional good reasons I decided to change my name now.

One reason is that two names was just too complicated - professional colleagues know me as Foster, recent friends know me as Richardson, and, believe it or not, I would often stumble around when people asked me my name.  Who should I be to you, or what name have I used before?  So this was as much about making things simpler as it was about a statement of confidence in my marriage - it was about being the same person to everyone I meet, wherever I am.  And I've been surprised about just how much better this feels - getting rid of this seemingly small thing that had complicated my life.

Here's why I'm sharing this.  I've been thinking about the genuine relationships that I experienced at Grassroots Grantmaker's recent "on the ground" in eastern Ohio, and noticing how much angst there seems to be in the funding community about building good relationships with grantees and people at the community level.  Our recent report, Building Resident Power and Capacity for Change, includes a whole chapter focused on building strong relationships with communities - derived from conversations about relationship building at another "on the ground".  And, I've seen numerous other reports and guides abouts about building relationships with grantees, stakeholders and community members.  The people side of the grantmaking business is obviously on our minds.  And I think it has something to do with being who we are wherever we are - about being authentic when it comes to building relationships.

I was struck when I was talking with a seasoned philanthropic colleague about the Ohio "on the ground" experience, and he marveled at how comfortable the conversations were - marveling because half of the people there were not paid grantmaking professionals. Teams from Detroit, Battle Creek, and Cleveland were with us - with these teams composed of neighborhood residents who serve on grantmaking committees, people who staff the grantmaking programs, community organizers and technical assistance providers, and more senior staff with the sponsoring funding organizations.  My colleague said that in his experience, neighborhood residents and others who don't call themselves Program Officers, Vice-Presidents, or Directors often defer or hold-back - at least initially - when they are in conversation with foundation staff.  This didn't happen in Youngstown.  We talked as the equals that we are - equals in working together on a shared goal.

What I said to my colleague is that the conversations that we had in Youngstown reflect the relationship building work that had gone on/is going on in Detroit, Battle Creek and Cleveland.  The neighborhood residents were comfortable because this wasn't the first time they had been at these tables, in these conversations.  They were comfortable because of the real-time relationship building that had occurred over weeks and months of being in conversation with funders and about funding.

And because I know the people that staff the grassroots grantmaking programs for The Skillman Foundation, the Battle Creek Community Foundation, and The Cleveland Foundation, I'll go further to suggest that the real time relationship building that is going on in Detroit, Battle Creek and Cleveland is also about these people.

I look back on my own work with neighborhood grantees and my behavior as a Program Officer or Program VP and see that I had a lot to learn about relationship building.  I know that I would have viewed learning opportunities such as the Ohio "on the ground" as for mostly for me, not really for them.  I would have also expected to see some special "funders-only" break-outs where we got to the real questions.  I would have taken care of the grantees that came along like a mother-hen, but then sought out my funder colleagues in my down-time.  I would have done what I suspect many of us do when we forget who we really are and what we know about building relationships when we're not at work.  Without even realizing what I was doing, I would have been saying "I belong here, you don't" in a hundred subtle ways.

If I had another opportunity, I would do whatever I could to make it simpler - to bring my most authentic self to real time relationship building with grantees and neighborhood residents rather than to try so hard to be a good Program Officer.  I think this would require me to not overly-intellectualize the relationships I was forming and to let my heart come into the picture, with fewer self-imposed rules. This is what I've learned from watching the good work in Detroit, Battle Creek and Cleveland and what can happen if you take relationship-building seriously.

So how about you?  What are you learning about real-time relationship building between funding organization staff and people who live in the communities that are served by the funding organization?  What are you doing to make it simpler, to be more authentic, and to get where you can really talk about what matters?

November 6, 2009

A Refreshing Insight about Grant Size

Yes, I know that I'm writing a lot about money.  But isn't it our thinking about money that mucks up the works when we're doing something noble and important such as investing in the future of our communities?  Not money itself, but our thinking about money.  And by "our" I mean both grantmakers and grant seekers.

I heard from neighborhood grantmaking team this week at the Battle Creek Community Foundation with a refreshing insight that I want to share.  What they shared made me flash back to a set of comments that I heard almost every meeting from one of the members of the grantmaking committee that I once staffed:

"What? Most of these proposals are for $5,000.  This happens every grant round.  It can't be that everyone needs $5,000. These budgets must be padded. I move that we reject every proposal that comes in for $5,000 - that's an obvious sign that whoever wrote the proposal didn't do their homework on the budget and we shouldn't fund someone who doesn't do their homework.  Who's going to second my motion?"

Guess what our grant maximum was for that fund?  Yep, you guessed it - $5,000.  Did we ever think that the problem was with us and not the grantseekers?  Nope.  Instead we complained and then in our grantmaking wisdom, pared down budgets to what we thought they should be, as a lesson to the grantseeker about budget padding.

Apparently the same thing was happening in Battle Creek with the community foundation's neighborhood grantmaking - except instead of jumping to conclusions, members of the neighborhood grantmaking there looked at the situation with fresh, curious eyes and a willingness to consider that it might be something that they were doing or not doing that was triggering this reaction.  Refreshing, right?

So they wondered if stating the maximum amount that could be requested - stipulating a grant ceiling - might be a subtle suggestion about how much a group should request.  It's human nature, isn't it - to want the biggest cookie on the plate, to go for the mirror ball prize, to want to come out on top?  So if we say that you can apply for up to $5,000, don't we assume that this should be our goal? 

So they started with themselves.  They decided to see what happened if they removed the grant ceiling, stepped up conversations with potential applicants about fleshing out their idea and developing a grant proposal.  They began asking groups to attend a pre-application workshop and offered more coaching to groups.  And what they found is that the average request actually declined - with budgets more in line with the scope and scale of the project that they are intended to support.  Kathy Szenda Wilson, Director of Neighborhood Grantmaking at the Battle Creek Community Foundation, says that this experiment has taught them that removing artificial boundaries allows for much deeper, more meaningful dialogue around what is really necessary, and helps resident-led groups have a better relationship with the investment itself, understanding very well the importance of scope and scale.

Here's what I find refreshing about this story:
  • It recognizes that there are two sides to the funding equation - funder and grantseeker.  
  • It begins with the funder looking in the mirror rather than passing judgment on the grantseeker.
  • It acknowledges the power of money to make things happen and to muck things up - and demonstrates how a funder can put more emphasis on "make things happen" and recognize their power to minimize "muck things up".
  • Instead of simply changing the policy - simply taking the lid off of funding requests - there was careful thought given to what else they, they funder, could do to build the capacity of grantseekers to develop smart budgets.  With the grantseeker orientations and the coaching that they initiated, they demonstrated skill in knowing when help, not money, is the right thing to offer, and what to require and what to make optional.
  • And, simply sharing the story tells me that the neighborhood grantmaking team at the Battle Creek Community Foundation has learned something from this experiment - that they are about learning how their philanthropic capital can truly be helpful to the residents of Battle Creek neighborhoods.  
Way to go!  This is type of story about money I love to write!

November 2, 2009

Grassroots Grantmaking & Community Organizing: Are You Seeing What I'm Seeing?

I noticed something last week in northeast Ohio that I've been seeing across the grassroots grantmaking network - something that I'm hoping is really a trend and not something that I've conjured up from years of wishing it was so.

What I'm spotting is more synergy between the resident-centered work that some place-based funders are doing and practice of community organizing.  And I'm being deliberate when I say the practice of community orgnaizing.  What is exciting is that I'm seeing more direct, practical connections between funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking and community organizers.  This has a different flavor from what I've seen in the past - funders holding their nose while making a community organizing grant and then praying that the "action" won't bite them in the behind, or community organizers trying to convince funders that all they need to do is to give them money and get out of the way.  What I'm seeing is about working together - it's about synergy.

What this looks like is more comfort on the funder's side with having community organizing in the picture, and more openness on the community organizing side to having funders at the table. It's about dialogue, learning exchange, working in partnership, each side recognizing that they need each other. Perhaps place-based funders are realizing that resident-centered work doesn't add up to social change magically or naturally - that there are skills, attitudes and practices that residents need to move from short-term fixes to long-term change, and that these skills, attitudes and practices are squarely embedded in the work of community organizing.  Organizers may be spotting the shared values and goals associated with the resident-centered work that some place-based funders are doing as natural points of connection with the funding world - and that these connections can indeed advance their own work as well in ways that go beyond more money to do the work.

We heard the story at Grassroots Grantmaker's recent "on the ground" gathering in Ohio's Mahoning Valley of the synergy between the Raymond John Wean Foundation's Neighborhood Success grants program and the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  The Organizing Collaborative serves as fiscal sponsor for some of the groups that receive Neighborhood Success grants - meaning that the new groups are introduced to community organizers and community organizing right away.  We heard Big Jim talk about beginning with 8 people in his neighborhood and growing his group to 300 members.  When asked how this happened, he talked about a Neighborhood Success grant and his relationship with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  I'm not sure which came first - the grant or the relationship with the Organizing Collaborative.  But "first" doesn't really matter, does it?  It's the synergy that made the difference.

I've heard similar stories when I have been in Denver visiting the team associated with The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program - and it's no coincidence that the team now includes two people who have been trained as community organizers and were hired specifically because of that experience.   I've heard about the close relationship between Strengthening Neighborhoods and MOP (Metro Organization of People, the PICO affiliate in Denver.  And I've heard about board-level conversations at The Denver Foundation on the value that comes from funding "spicy groups".  Sounds like synergy to me.

Cleveland, Battle Creek, San Diego, Seattle......just a few of the other places where there are growing relationships between grassroots grantmaking and community organizing.

I mentioned earlier that I've been wishing for the change that I think that I'm now seeing.  In the years I was working in Memphis, I knew that we were missing something that community organizing could offer, but couldn't find a way to make the connection.  One of the national faith-based organizing networks had an affiliate in Memphis, but their work was clearly not neighborhood based and being part of a congregation was the only entree to the organizing training that they offered.  What they did and how they worked was a bit mystical and mysterious to those on the outside - creating the sense that they were a force to be respected, but also keeping the practices, skills and attitudes associated with organizing out of reach for the resident-led groups that we were funding.  I was hearing the same thing from my colleagues in other cities - that there was a disconnect between the faith-based or issued-base organizing that was going on in their communities and an unmet need for organizing training for residents who were accessing small grants for work on their own blocks.

The gap in Memphis was unfortunate - leading, I believe, to the ultimate demise of the grassroots grantmaking program there.  We didn't have what we needed to help the leaders chart a path between mowing the grass on the overgrown vacant lot on the corner and addressing the question behind the issue - why are there some many neglected vacant lots in their neighborhood and in similar neighborhoods all over Memphis?  So it became a game of blaming the victims (why don't these leaders figure it out - stop mowing the grass, ask deeper question and get the root cause) and associating success with the size of the grant (these grants are too small to make a difference).   End of story is that the program - the only program that made funds available to block clubs and neighborhood groups in Memphis - was cut. Unfortuante.  But what is really unfortunate is that this story is not unique to Memphis.

If indeed there is a new day with new synergy between grassroots grantmaking and community organizing, we may finally be breaking through a barrier that has limited possibilities for grassroots grantmaking and community organizing alike.  The new working relationships that I'm seeing introduces and integrates organizing into the grassroots grantmaking picture as technical assistance, training and coaching - technical assistance, training and coaching that develops leadership potential, builds groups, and helps people move from addressing symptoms to working on what is causing those symptoms. And, the long-term patient money approach of grassroots grantmaking is the perfect companion for organizing - an invitation that the organizers can use to encourage groups to take the next step when the time is right.

I can also imagine that this new synergy, if it indeed exists, opening some new funding avenues for community organizing, supplementing more traditional sources of funding - those social justice oriented funders who have long seen the wisdom in funding community organizing. This new synergy can help a new set of funders see community organizing as an important vehicle for reinvigorating active citizenship and local democracy.  There are the place-based funders who are directly engaged in grassroots grantmaking in their own communities for sure - but then there are also the funders who support civic engagement and capacity building but may have shied away from direct action organizing.  A win-win, in my mind.

So this is what I think I'm seeing.  I'm interested in learning how it looks it you - and if you're sensing a change, what we might do together to support, encourage and celebrate this change.  Post a comment or send me an email to share your thinking.