July 27, 2009

What Happens When Money Is In the Picture?

Whenever the conversation turns to money, I pay attention. Why? Because I work with funding organizations where using money artfully to make something happen is a core business. What I have noticed is when money is the topic, that the conversation goes one way or another.

Way #1: Money=magic. How to get it may be somewhat mysterious, but when you get it , you’ve got it – success, that is. Everything else falls in place.

Way #2: Money is the root of all evil. When you add money to the picture, everything else goes awry. People get weird, motivations shift, creativity and ingenuity get put on hold, and all eyes become super-glued on the money. Common sense goes out the window. Money is in the room.
I was listening intently earlier this month at The Coady Institute’s Asset-Based Community Development conference when the conversation turned to money.

Never begin with money. This statement was made as if it were one of the ten commandments.

And then later everyone laughed when someone said, “We had no money so we had to use our brains”. Clearly we were in “money as the root of all evil” territory.

So just what IS the proper place for money when we’re talking about community well-being?
  • Is it indeed true that one should never begin with money?
  • Is it true that whenever money is in the picture, our brains go into “sleep” mode?
  • Is there something that we’re doing as funders that contributes to this bi-polar thinking about money?
  • Or is it just human nature – something that we aren’t contributing to but need to deal as funders who want to think big about small grants?

Here's what I think.

Beginning with money can be a good thing if money is offered as an invitation. If that's the case, money may seem like the first step but it really is the second step. The first step is thinking and planning. The thinking and planning may be one person's dream, or a "wouldn't it be great if...." conversation among neighbors. Money as an invitation is what takes a dream of a "what if" conversation from fantasy to reality. It moves people from wishful thinkers to community changer-makers.

Beginning with money can be a curse if money is offered as a companion to a solution. "Here's what we think you need to do - so who wants to take this money and do it?? In this case the "we" is the funder" and the "so who wants to take this money" is the community group. Funders are good at being well-intentioned about imposing their solutions to community problems - and they often use the opportunity to apply for a grant as the vehicle. It's another version of the "we know what you need" proposition. The alter-ego of funding from a "we begin with residents" perspective, the posture we support as Grassroots Grantmakers.

I've had the opportunity to taste both of these "begin with money" scenarios". I've felt the exhilaration of spotting an opportunity that is a perfect match with what I'm been thinking, and the misery of going after money when I knew it was going to sideline what would really make a difference. And I can say from personal experience, there is nothing as exhilarating as a good fit with an idea and a funding opportunity, and nothing as miserable as a "money for money" situation. Truly miserable.

When it comes to money, I agree that everyone gets weird. People who are normally clear-thinking and full of common sense put their street-smarts aside. People who are working from the position of "funder" succumb to the power that money brings to their position. If you're NOT a funder, it's easy to say that we should never begin with money. But if you are a funder who is charged with making change with money, what do you do?

If you are thinking big about small grants, you are thinking about how money as leverage for dreams and passion. That's different than money that is paying for services or supporting people in service positions. Grassroots grantmaking, with its focus on largely unstaffed groups and ideas, is perfectly positioned to navigate around the problems that money cause. Doing so require a funder who approaches his or her charge with reality and humility. Reality - knowing that people get weird when it comes to money and will readily put their brains on hold in pursuit of money, but that money can be a powerful activator. And enough humility to avoid using their position of power to using money as a motivator.

Activator or motivator? Isn't that the central question when it comes to money as an agent of community change? What do you think?

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.

July 13, 2009

Serving up Community Bread & Butter in Nova Scotia

I just spent 3 days in Antigonish, Nova Scotia at the St. Francis Xavier University for "From Clients to Citizens: Deepening the Practice of Asset-Based and Citizen-Led Development", a conference co-hosted by the Coady International Institute and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. Approximately 100 people were there representing 32 countries, all involved in asset based and citizen-led change. An amazing group of people.

I've been a bit stumped about what to write about this experience. The plenaries and small group discussions were rich with ideas, experience, different perspectives and opportunities for new learning-oriented relationships. I had the opportunity to reconnect with my colleagues from the ABCD Institute Faculty and to meet people who are pioneering grassroots grantmaking in South Africa and Australia.

But after some reflection, here is the first thing I want to share. I'm remembering a wonderful woman from Ghana who stood up in one of the plenaries and said "ABCD (asset-based community development) is what we do in Africa and what we have always done. It is how we live." We had been talking about the political context of some of the language that we were using - how dangerous it is in some places to talk about active citizens, local associations and community building. Not just unpopular but dangerous. In this context, I was assuming that this woman was talking not only about how people in her community live, but how they survive.

I remember John McKnight and Jody's Kretzmann's early speeches and writing about asset-based community development. They always began by saying that they were sharing community wisdom - what they have observed from talking to hundreds of community people in hundreds of church basements, community centers and front porches all across the United States. They essentially said the same thing that this woman from Ghana shared. People in neighborhoods that were doing okay in spite of the odds were all doing the same thing in different ways. They were all turning to each other instead of outsiders, and they were being resourceful in thinking about what they could do with everything else within their reach in their neighborhood. Out of these conversations, the principles of asset-based community development emerged. And with the publication of Building Communities from the Inside Out in 1993, ABCD became a hot item.

This gathering of amazing people from 32 countries reminded me of the bread and butter nature of asset based community development. Powerful in a fundamental way, grounded in communities everywhere, it exists in a space that can be witnessed by research entities, funding organizations and others who care about communities but who are not of communities. It was there before ABCD became a hot item and will be there if or when interest moves on to another hot item. It is basic to how communities work when they are working well. It's bread and butter.

That doesn't mean I think we don't need gatherings like this one in Antigonish or that we can count on "bread and butter" always being there. The simple fact that 100 people from 32 countries were willing to travel to Antigonish tells me that people are feeling a deparate hunger for the bread and butter of community and are seeing that citizen-centered change is their best option for increasing community well-being.

I'm confident that the relationships and the learning that began in Antigonish last week will continue. But for me, I'll be thinking about the woman from Ghana - thinking about the hunger for more that brought her all the way from Ghana to Antigonish, juxtaposed with the deep confidence that she expressed when she reminded us that this is how her community works and has always worked. I'll be thinking about the simple power of bread and butter.

July 4, 2009

What's More Important than a Well-Stocked Pantry?

I was in Dayton earlier this week, swimming around in the intellectually stimulating and fascinating swimming pool known as The Kettering Foundation. For those of you who may not know The Kettering Foundation, it's an operating foundation that works on strategies to strengthen democracy. The primary question addressed by its research today is "What does it take to make democracy work as it should?"

David Mathews, Kettering Foundation President, opened the meeting I attended by saying something that really stuck with me:
Community resilience is more important than a well-stocked pantry.
Mathews was talking about what happens in the 72 hours after a hurricane hits a coastal community - that time when it's all about the people who are there, before relief from outside is fully organized and in gear. What is most needed, what is most important in that time when everything, literally everything, is on the line. He was using Hurricane Katrina to make his point, but he could have used the current foreclosure crisis, the highway-through-the neighborhood crisis that I experienced in my Memphis neighborhood, or the slowly creeping, invisible but oh-so-visible crisis of disinvestment in a neighborhood because of white flight, red-lining, or a hundred other reasons.

Community resilience. Merriam-Webster defines resilience as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Frederic Flach, in his book Resilience: The Power to Bounce Back When the Going Gets Tough! says that resilience is the particular strength that we all require to cope with the cycle of disruption and reintegration that is the necessary part of the human being's adaptation to change. The Australian Inclusion Board describes community resilience as the capacity of communities to respond positively to crises - the ability of a community to adapt under pressures and transform itself in a way which makes it more sustainable in the future. Rather than simply "surviving" the stressor of change - including a community's own internal vulnerabilities as well as broader political, economic and physical environment influence - a resilient community might respond in creative ways that fundamentally transform the basis of the community.

It's what make the difference between communities that die or free-fall into decline and those that keep going and thrive. In my mind, it's possibly THE reason for funders to invest in grassroots grantmaking.

I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the language about community change. We talk about community change as if a community changes and then is changed forever. But in Port Arthur, the Gulf coast town where I was born, we knew a basic truth was that we would have hurricanes from time to time, that eventually another storm would come. In Memphis, Tennessee, where I have lived most of my adult years, we didn't have hurricanes but had a series of other natural and unnatural disasters that called for community resilience. The Garbage Strike and the assassination of Dr. King, the construction of the interstate highway system that decimated inner city neighborhoods, the current rash of politcal corruption and poor management. Rural Texas where I live now has experienced major floods every thirty or forty years, and is currently enduring one of the most severe droughts on record. And then there's what is happening in communities everywhere because of the economy. The point is that creating change isn't enough. It's about being able to live our lives, knowing that we can cope with whatever comes our way next.

As I have been thinking about Dave Mathews' statement - community resilience is more important than a well-stocked pantry - I have realized that THIS is why I'm so committed to grassroots grantmaking and why I want more big thinking on small grants. Connecting with residents in a way that builds and strengthens connections among residents, reminds them of the essential nature of their active citizen role, reinforces their sense of place, expands their vision of what is possible, renews their hope in the future - this is the business of grassroots grantmaking. And, to me, it's all about tending to the important business of building community resilience.

So let's not talk so much about change and talk more about resilience. It's more in sync with the way things work, isn't it? And while we're at it, when we're drowning in measuring outcomes, tempted to over-intellectualize our grantmaking, beginning to equate impact with dollars invested, wondering if it's worth investing the time and relatively small amount of money required for grassroots grantmaking, let's remember what Dave Mathews says - that when times get tough, community resilience is more important than a well stocked pantry.