October 28, 2009

The On the Ground Ohio Experience

Here's a short animoto video with photos from our recent "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers" in Ohio's Mahoning Valley.  Check it out and watch for info about dates and places for two more in 2010.

There's music with this, so check your volume if you're at the office!

October 27, 2009

The Two Faces of Money

I just returned from a week on the road with three days in the Youngstown-Warren, Ohio area, "on the ground" with my peers from the grassroots grantmaking community. I'm full of new enthusiasm for the work of I'm privileged to do with Grassroots Grantmakers. I'm also deeply appreciative of the people and organizations that make up our network - the cream of the crop of the place-based funding world.  That's obviously my opinion, but an opinion that I'll comfortably share whenever and wherever I have the opportunity.

I'll have some pictures to share shortly from last week's "on the ground" learning gathering, but for now, I'm starting off with a few tidbits about this "on the ground" experience and more about the "two sides of money" theme that ran through the discussion.

It was the first day and fifty of us (an incredible mix of paid staff from funding organizations, neighborhood residents who are serving on grantmaking committees at those organizations, and community organizers) had spent the morning on a bus, traveling around Warren and Youngstown to get a lay of the land - a visual picture of what it looks like when an area has lost half of its jobs and now has half the people that it had 30 years ago.  We then heard from Gordon Wean and Joel Ratner about the Raymond John Wean Foundation, our local host for this "on the ground" - Gordon talking about the Wean Foundation's transition from a family foundation that gave to the pet causes of family members to a foundation that has committed its resources and energy to the Youngstown-Warren area.  This was a transition that was described later as the foundation dropping its Clark Kent demeanor and becoming Mae West - from being quiet and unassuming to being visibly bold.  Joel, the President of the Foundation, talked about gearing up the foundation for this transition.

When it was time for us to talk about the bus tour and what we had learned about the Wean Foundation, one of the small groups shared two powerful quotes from the morning.
"It only took $1200."
"It's not our money."
"Big John", a neighborhood leader who joined us for part of the bus ride, told story after story about the difference that people are making in their neighborhoods - neighborhoods in the shadow of hulking steel mills and factories that now sit empty.  He talked about his own desire to make amends for the part of his life that had landed him in prison and to give back to the community that he now called "home".  He talked about beginning with 8 people around a table and growing the group to 300.  And at one point he mentioned money - saying that a $1200 "Neighborhood Success Grant" from the Wean Foundation had started the ball rolling on that particular block.  With all the money that had left the area with the steel industry, and all the money that will be needed to do something with those gigantic empty structures, Big John reminded that $1200 made a difference in his neighborhood.

"It's not our money" is a quote from Gordon Wean.  Gordon was talking about the change in perspective that was needed to refocus the Wean Foundation.  It is indeed Wean family money that sits in the Raymond John Wean Foundation bank accounts, yet at some point for Gordon at least, it became "not our money".  With that transition came a different idea of accountability, a different picture of who should be sitting around the board table, and a world of new opportunities for using the money in powerful ways to benefit the Youngstown, Warren and the Mahoning Valley.

So here are two interesting threads that wove through the discussion on the next day when we gathering in "world cafe" style to dig into questions associated with our theme for the gathering - building a strategy for change from the ground up.  One thread is about the power of money - even a little bit of money - when invested with and through residents.  The other thread is about the thinking inside a funding organization that allows this type of investment to happen.  We wove these threads together as we explored three different but related questions:  1) What does money have to do with building community and creating resident-driven change? 2) What other than money is needed? and 3) What is getting in the way of the change that residents want?

It was interesting that everyone began their discussion of money with the assertion that money is necessary but evil.  Statements like "it shouldn't be about the money", "it's a mistake to ever lead with money" were in the mix.  After a while, the conversation turned to acknowledging what money can do. Of course it can pay for things.  According to our 50 "on the ground" funders who gathered in Ohio last week, here's what else it can do:
  • Money can invite people into the action;
  • Money can keep people at the table;
  • Money can acknowledge and reward.  
I think it was the appreciation for the Wean Foundation's "it not our money" posture that led the way from "money is necessary but evil" to the "money can" discussion.  And I think that's an incredibly important journey.  More often than you might guess, I run into people who are in the money business (i.e. they work for funding organizations) but are really nervous about bringing money into the "active citizen" world.  They're not nervous about using money to pay for services.  They're really nervous about money in the democracy mix - helping people in fulfill the rights and responsibilities that come with living in a democracy.  And to these people I ask - if you're working for a funding organization, and if that funding organization is about the quality of life in a place - like the Wean Foundation is about the quality of life in Ohio's Mahoning Valley - how can you leave the residents in that place out of the picture?  And how can you pretend that money isn't also in that picture as one of your primary levers of change?

That's why we were "on the ground" in Ohio for two days last week.  That's why it was important that the two faces of money were in the picture.  This is what it's about, isn't it?

October 17, 2009

The Apples & Apples of Due Diligence

I've been thinking about a number of conversations I've had with funders recently who are intrigued by the idea of grassroots grantmaking but are a bit nervous.  And the source of their jitters?  Due diligence.

I'll take a guess at what you're thinking.  The due diligence associated with making a grant to an unknown, unproven group (such as a group of neighbors who are getting together with a good idea) takes more time than the due diligence that goes with funding a proven, non-profit performer that you've made grants to previously.  So perhaps these funders are nervous because they're wondering about the time that will be required of an already over-busy staff.

No - that's not it exactly.  Instead, over numerous conversations with numerous funders, whenever due diligence comes up as a concern, I can usually spot one of these two assumptions behind the jitters:
  1. It's inappropriate to think about due diligence when it comes to grassroots grantmaking - that grassroots groups play by a completely different set of rules that don't mesh with the idea of due diligence and that it's not fair or right for a funder to approach a relationship with a grassroots group with due diligence in mind.  So grassroots grantmaking will require us to do away with due diligence and fly by the seat of our pants.
  2. Good due diligence will eliminate all grassroots groups from the running; grassroots groups just can't measure up.  We'll put the invitation out there and then be the bad guys when we turn everyone away.
    Here's an example of a recent conversation.  I was talking with a funder recently who is intrigued by the idea of grassroots grantmaking but a little nervous.  Somewhere in the conversation, the funder said something like this:  "But we're known for our due diligence.....that's an important part of the value added that we offer our donors.  If we aren't seen as responsible in this area, we'll lose credibility (and donors)".

    When I first started noticing due diligence as an obstacle to grassroots grantmaking, I was confused at first. And that's because in my mind, of course due diligence is in the grassroots grantmaking picture!  I don't mince any words when I talk about the essential role that staff play in effective grassroots grantmaking programs.  Enough staff time from the right person in the staffing role.  And enough of the right staff has a lot to do with due diligence.

    And I think I'm target. Just to be sure, I checked in on some common definitions of due diligence. This one from Wikipedia, selected on purpose as the most basic definition I could find:
    With origins in the private-sector world of business and finance, the term “due diligence” [in philanthropy] refers to the process through which an investor (or funder) researches an organization’s financial and organizational health [and capacity] to guide an investment (or grantmaking) decision. The decision to fund or not to fund is based upon a balance of objective data analysis, insight into the general state of organizational health and stability, and intuition. A sound and thorough due diligence review is the process through which all the factors that make up that equation are uncovered and understood. It is the process in which a program officer seeks the “truth” about an organization.
    But then it occurred to me that I may be thinking about due diligence in a different way. Maybe we're talking apples and oranges.

    I'm not thinking about due diligence as limited to what you do to qualify an applicant and develop an informed recommendation on a grant decision. It's that plus what you do to increase the chances that the funding investment that you are making is effective. And if capacity building is your goal and grants are just one tool that you have in your capacity building toolbox, due diligence isn't just about the transactional side of grantmaking. It's also not working down an established checklist that applies to all groups and all situations.

    So how do I think about appropriate due diligence for grassroots grantmaking?  What would due diligence include? Here's my opinion:

    It is indeed about what you do before a grant is made. But it's not just about qualifying and researching.  It's about qualifying, researching, and increasing the chances that you receive good applications from the types of applicants that you are seeking. So it's about effective outreach and pre-application assistance so that your reach into the community is deeper than the usual suspects and you demystify the grant process for those who may have never applied for a grant before.

    It's also about giving careful thought to how you might reframe questions that you ask and what support information that you request. For example, instead of asking for a copy of an audit or last year's budget, you might ask for evidence that the group has a bank account established in their name. Instead of asking to see who is on their board of directors, you might ask for copies of minutes from a meeting where neighbors talked about the idea that is being proposed and voiced their support for seeking grant support. Instead of making a judgment about the group's ability to do the project on the basis of the budget they submit, you might use the initial budget as an entree for a discussion and as information about what technical assistance might be appropriate after the grant is awarded.

    I believe good due diligence also requires careful thought about how decisions are made on proposals. The insights and information that you and members of a grantmaking committee need to make an informed decision might not be in the written proposal; my experience has taught me that a site visit or a casual interview are invaluable supplements to the proposal and well worth the extra time and effort.

    Good due diligence also requires training for grantmaking committee members so that everyone is on the same page about your approach to due diligence and what should be considered in making a decision.  I've seen people turn into checklist fanatics during grant review processes - insisting in the name of due diligence that there are checks in all of the boxes, that an organization should have absolutely all their ducks in a perfectly straight row before funding is awarded.  I've also seen people back away from expecting anything from a grassroots group other than passion.

    It's also about establishing the trusting relationships that are needed for a grantee to talk with you about challenges that could derail or may be derailing their efforts rather than pretending that everything is just fine. It's about knowing when to challenge and when to cheerlead. It's art and science. It's checking up and checking in, but more importantly, it's being comfortably in an ongoing conversation that is more about joint learning and pulling together than it is about judging success or failure.

    I've also been wondering if some of the angst about the relationship between due diligence and grassroots grantmaking isn't really about due diligence at all.  Maybe it's more about what gives you confidence and who you trust.

    If we trust tried and true nonprofits and see the indicators of services provided as evidence that your money is well spent, then our due diligence is going to be oriented to assess an applicant's "fit" with our understanding of what makes a nonprofit tried and true. If that's where we spend most of our time and where we are most confident that we are on top of our game, that's where we're naturally most comfortable. And the "we" I'm talking about is staff, donors, and board members of funding organizations.

    If we're open to the possibility that tried and true nonprofits are really good at some things but not all things, we may be more open to developing trust - and the due diligence approaches, tools and measures - that fit with grassroots organizations and the world of active citizens.

    So I don't think it's apples and oranges after all.  I think it's apples and apples.  It's still due diligence.  It's still important for it to be done well.  It's still something to lift up to donors as a value added.  It's still fundamental to effective work.  Done right, it can be incredibly useful to everyone involved - grantmaker and grantee.

    It's just that it's not one size fits all.  It's a different kind of apple.  What do you think?  Post a comment and join the discussion.

    October 5, 2009

    Why Does a Definition of Grassroots Matter?

    I just read over my last post and realized that I left out something important:

    Why am I thinking about a definition of grassroots?

    Why does a definition of grassroots matter?

    It's simple. For once, we're at a loss for words. When we talk about the "who" and "why" of grassroots grantmaking, we don't have a comfortable vocabulary. As Executive Director of Grassroots Grantmakers, I experience this every day. When I talk about who these small grants are for, I know exactly what I mean. It's the words that are lacking.

    I'm confident that the word I want is NOT volunteer. I was not a volunteer when I was tirelessly at work in my own neighborhood in Memphis. That work wasn't optional or selfless or charitable - it was survival. And it was the same with my neighbors. We were doing what we were doing because, like it or not (and many times our like-it tolerance was "not), this is the way our system works. Call it democracy, capitalism, or just "good ole boy", if our neighborhood (and our away investment in our homes) were to escape the path of the bulldozer, we had to be in the game. We didn't have a choice. It was do or die.

    If it's not volunteer, what is it? We've come close to banning use of the word "citizen" - caving to the smallest common denominator, the definition of "citizen" as legal status rather than the combination of rights and responsibilities that individuals share when they are part of a democracy. We instead use watered-down words such as "residents" or even more watered down words such as "people". Or community organizing's favorite word, "leader".

    It was in this word vacuum that we chose Grassroots Grantmakers as the name of our network - the network of funders who are investing in residents/people/leaders who are acting in a role that doesn't fit the pervasive social service definition of "volunteer".

    Wouldn't it be amazing if we had a comfortable vocabulary to describe what we do in our ordinary lives that makes our community work? I'm starting with getting clearer about what we mean by "grassroots", thinking that "grassroots" conveys some gut level image that jives with what I want to express. It's somewhere in the definitions that were shared by the group that gathered in Vermont last week. It's something about people who are directly affected by something, acting together to change the future that they share.

    So that's why I think it's important to talk about what we mean by "grassroots". That's why I want "grassroots" to be right up there with the word "volunteer", and for people (especially people who control the money that is invested in community change, resilience and sustainability) to know the difference.

    October 2, 2009

    What Do We Mean by "Grassroots"?

    I'm still thinking about last week's visit in Vermont with the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund (NEGEF).

    I was in Vermont to say a few words at a funder's briefing that NEGEF hosted. Benno Friedman, NEGEF's board chair, kicked off the morning by asking everyone to define "grassroots". I was paying close attention because I was speaking next, but more importantly, because we (Grassroots Grantmakers) both ask and are asked that question regularly. And what we hear varies tremendously.

    Before I get to definitions shared that morning. here are other definitions we've heard along the way:
    Grassroots = people of color
    Grassroots = low income people
    Grassroots = disenfranchised people/people at the margins
    Grassroots = activists (with the implication that activists = bad)
    Grassroots = angry people who are hard to work with
    Grassroots = opposite of "grasstops" or people who sit in lofty towers of privilege
    I've had my own definition in mind that didn't exactly jive with anything of these. So it was with real excitement that I heard these definitions last week in that rural inn in Vermont where we were meeting (and keep in mind that these were funders speaking, and that the definition was evolving with each person who spoke):
    • 22 parents working on something together
    • people who work on something they care about without pay (volunteers)
    • people coming together to make something happen
    • living room groups - people together around a shared challenge
    • local action that leads to empowerment
    • a way we work together for self-determination
    • a seed that grows
    • you know it when you see it
    • when people whose lives are affected work together to solve the problem
    • people based, the essence of democracy
    • inherently local
    • starting from the community with people who understand local context and dynamics
    • everyday people who are not connected to an organization or cause, but mobilize to act
    I was inspired by what I heard and have been trying to weave the words that I heard into my own definition.

    Here is where I am with my definition of grassroots:
    Grassroots = people who are drawn together by something that they have in common that has both personal and community consequences, and grant themselves the authority to solve the problem they are facing or create the future that they desire.
    Continue the weaving by posting your own definition. How do you define "grassroots"?