December 13, 2010

Your Question is My Question

I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days in Lawrence, Massachusetts with a group at Lawrence Community Works - exploring the ins and outs of practice around network weaving. I love small group settings with people who are journeying along similar paths, designed to take us away from the day to day obligations in our home space and really connect in a spirit of co-learning. This gathering was one of those.

It was also a place that felt welcoming and comfortable for me, right from the beginning. The "space" itself had something to do with that but it was more than how the rooms were set up or how the time together was organized. It was about mostly about an attitude that was stated this way:
Your question is my question.

With this as a backdrop, I invite you to think with me about the relationships that everyday people in groups have with funding organizations. When money is on the horizon, "your question is my question" is often at play. Whatever question the funder is asking becomes the question that is most intriguing to the grant applicant organization. I've experienced that. I've done that. I've been guilty of becoming a talented contortionist to demonstrate that "your question is my question" in a grant application. Haven't you? Haven't we all?

The big thinking about small grants funders who are part of Grasssroots Grantmakers network are trying to turn the tables on this question. What if the community's question became the funder's question? This is what we mean when we say grassroots grantmakers (the funders who embrace the principles and practices of grassroots grantmaking) work from a "we begin with residents" perspective. It's funders who know how maximize the impact of their money and clout by "leading by stepping back" - finding and investing in the ideas, passion, and energy of community residents.

I love the "we begin with residents" perspective. But here's what I've been thinking about recently and what my time in Lawrence underscored.

What if my question is really your question - whoever you are? What if we can put the craziness that comes when money is in the picture aside and acknowledge that it takes all of us - all of our perspectives and all of our questions - to get to the future that we all want? What if funders could put their question on the table with enough curiosity and humility to let grant applicants know that they are all ears for all answers and not just the answers they are hoping to hear? And what if community members had the open door they need with funders to feel comfortable putting their questions on the table with the confidence to know that "my question is your question"?

What do you think/what has been your experience with creating spaces where "my question is your question" is there for all of us? Help me out here and share your experience.

December 1, 2010

Another Perspective on Resident-Led Grantmaking

Resident-led grantmaking is an emerging trend in the grassroots grantmaking world - a trend that I personally find very powerful and encourage at every opportunity. I have great respect for those funders who are pushing decision-making as deep into the community as possible and even more respect for those funders who have pioneered this approach.

Now that I've confessed this bias, you might imagine that I've been a bit reluctant to bring up anything about this practice that could be interpreted as a down-side or a caution. Here I am, however, sharing some recent thinking, not to discourage resident-led grassroots grantmaking approaches but to encourage "eyes wide open" work is as powerful as possible.

Resident-led grassroots grantmaking puts people from the community that grants are intended to benefit in the decision-making drivers seat instead of staff from the funding organization or volunteers (foundation trustees, grantmaking/distribution committee members or others) who do not have a direct, personal, community-experience related stakeholder interest in the decision. Resident-led grantmaking empowers a committee of everyday people to decide how money is to be allocated to groups in their immediate community. Aside from the potential benefit that these committees bring to the deliberation process, the very act of serving on committees has proven to be a powerful leadership development opportunity for community members.

What I'm now piecing together from looking at the grants that resident-led committees are making and talking with members of resident-led grantmaking committees and staff that work with them is that in some cases, my assumptions about resident-led grantmaking may not be jiving with reality. It's occurring to me that I may have fallen into a common trap - embracing an overly romantic notion of everyday people and an overly critical notion of the ideas, practices and decisions that come from deep inside a powerful institution such as a foundation.

What I'm seeing is that everyday people on resident-led grantmaking committees are (drum roll) just people. And that these people have a lot in common with the people who are more typically selected to serve on foundation boards or distribution committees. Just like non-residents of the beneficiary committees, resident committee members:

  • Take their responsibility seriously, sometimes so seriously that they can make unreasonable demands on the grant seeker;
  • Do their homework, scrutinizing every item on the budget and searching for as many guarantees as possible that the money they are approving will be spent well;
  • Really, really, really want to make a difference and do the right thing.

It also appears that both resident-led grantmaking committee members and more traditional grantmaking committee members share something else.

They bring their own understanding of what is needed, how change happens and what can make a difference to the deliberation table, influencing the decisions that they make. And many times these beliefs are firmly grounded in a charity mindset - the mindset that suggests that more services are the answer and casts the people who live in these communities in the roles of client, customer or consumer rather than contributor or active citizen. From what I see, this is the predominant "theory of change" that drives so much well-intentioned volunteering and giving. Why, then, should this be a surprise when it shows up at the resident-led grantmaking table and in the proposals that everyday people submit?

Here's where I may have been naive. I have assumed that people who serve on resident-led grantmaking committees naturally work from an asset-oriented, community building perspective rather than the needs or charity-oriented orientation that is so prevalent in the "helping world". And that because of this perspective, grants that they approve would only naturally be more about self-help from a "we" perspective than the service-oriented help that often comes from well-intentioned outsiders who are volunteering in the spirit of giving back or working in helping professions out of their own sense of compassion for those who are less fortunate.

But what I've been seeing is making me think about that assumption. It's occurring to me that even resident-led grantmaking committees – just like more typical grantmaking committees - can be very comfortable making small grants that are just that - small grants – absent the asset-based community development and community building orientation that characterize grassroots grantmaking's small grants (I wrote about the difference in a previous post - see "Do All Small Grants = Grassroots Grantmaking?" if you're curious).

I believe that most ideas - even a community food pantry or after school program - can indeed be designed in an "us doing for us" way, building community and opening up opportunities for everyone to contribute as well as to receive. I've seen ideas that begin as "me or we doing for" ideas blossoming into wonderfully creative community building projects.

But I've also seen too many grants (for my comfort zone) made for projects that have more of the "me doing for" social service flavor, centered around the heroic man or woman who has a passion for helping rather than the community connector or weaver who uses the opportunity for helping to build community or set the stage for a conversation about more long-term community change. What troubles me that money that is set aside for grassroots grantmaking purposes may be missing the mark and showing up as more of the same and that the thoughtful people who are making these grants are missing an opportunity to tap into and grow their deeper community knowledge and wisdom.

If this is resonating with you, and you're wondering what to do, I have some advice – drawn from watching the pros in the Grassroots Grantmakers network and from my own personal experience working with grantmaking committees.

First, I want to share a reminder about the power that a funder has – especially if they are intentional – to open up new possibilities by the questions that they ask, the clear messages that they send at all stages of the grantmaking process, and the example that they set by what they fund and what they deny. The funder's decisions are clear signals to those in the community about what is worthy and not worthy of receiving funding, and unless a funder (and those making the funding decisions) are crystal clear about what distinguishes grassroots grantmaking's small grants from other small grants, grantees (and grantmaking committees) will default into the need-based, service providing orientation that is the more common and possibly even the more comfortable grantmaking approach.

Second, I want to encourage funders who are committed to grassroots grantmaking to avoid skimping on opportunities for grantmaking committee members (residents or non-residents) to talk and reflect. This should start right away, with a grantmaking committee orientation and occur so regularly that it becomes part of the committee's practice. What assumptions are they bringing to the table, what are they learning, what messages are they sending, what opportunities might they be missing, what is changing for them as they become more comfortable in their role, what do they see as the line between small grants and grassroots grantmaking's small grants? How can they open up more possibilities for community building and active citizenship?

Finally, I encourage funders – both staff and committee members – to acknowledge how challenging it can be to stay on the "we begin with residents" big thinking about small grants track when faced with the responsibility of saying yes or no to passionate people who may neighbors and friends, bringing forward good ideas that don't fit neatly into any particular box. This is tough but worthwhile work that requires a learning-by-doing orientation and tremendous gratitude for the people who are in these positions.

What am I missing? Am I on track with these observations? What else would you suggest to help grantmaking committees – both those composed of stakeholder residents and others – enhance their learning and build their capacity as grassroots grantmakers? Join me on this topic by posting a comment.

November 13, 2010

Who's Leading?

I'm still thinking about the intersection of aging and grassroots grantmaking and want to continue the conversation that I began with my last post with this question:

If you're engaged in the type of "big thinking on small grants" that we describe as grassroots grantmaking, who's around the table, shouldering the leadership burden, in the communities where you are funding?

Here's who I see from my experience.
  • Even though I would never ask, my hunch is that most everyone I see is over 55.
  • I see people who have worked hard for years and "came home" to their neighborhood of origin, only to find that it has declined in years when they have been away.
  • I see people who transitioned into retirement to find that they were being pulled into unexpected, surprisingly demanding, non-paying jobs as block captain, neighborhood watch coordinator, urban garden manager, neighborhood association president/secretary/treasurer, after-school guardian, community historian, or community welcome-wagon-leader.
  • I see people who are juggling their dreams of their next chapter with unanticipated, real-life demands of raising grandchildren, great grandchildren or other people's children, all this while they're also while caring for their elderly parents, aunts, or uncles and managing their own health-related challenges.
I see Ms. Howard, Mr. McCollins, Ms. Bowe, and the group of gutsy women who mentored me and taught me the ropes of active citizenship in my own neighborhood.

I can remember conversations about the heavy weight of responsibility that these older leaders felt and their frustration that no one would help, when in reality there were others who were eager, not just willing, to contribute - just not in a way that the older leaders could recognize or accept.

When we talk about engaging older adults, I don't want anyone to forget how deeply older adults are already engaged in communities that have been labeled as troubled by outsiders. I don't want older adults to show up on our broader radar screen as people in need of services without a clear recognition of the essential contributions that they can make and are making already.

When we look at needs, I also want us to recognize the challenges and sacrifices that older adults are making when they step forward and contribute as community builders and courageous leaders. I want the leadership training that we offer or prescribe as grantmakers to be respectfully designed with real knowledge about these challenges and sacrifices. I want us to know that when we are pushing "sustainability" and we're talking to older adult leaders, we may be sending unintentional reminders to these important community builders that their clock is ticking and that their days as contributors are coming to an end, with no option other than joining the ranks of the marginalized elderly in the down-the-road picture. I want the work that we do to help expand those options and change that picture.

I want those of us in the grassroots grantmaking world to really look at who's leading, and if you see what I see, I want to hear a stronger acknowledgement that we are indeed already funding aging - productive, healthy, contributing aging - after all.

And when you see what I see, I hope you'll check out the info on Grassroots Grantmakers' new EngAGEment learning circle and imagine the possibilities for approaching this critical issue for community vitality through the grassroots grantmaking lens.

November 3, 2010

A Promising Intersection: Grassroots Grantmaking & Aging

I'm stubbing my toe on something that has caught me by surprise and is making me think about how difficult it is to balance our need to focus our work and our overall goal of making a difference in the communities where we work.

I'm now talking with people in the funding world about a new partnership that Grassroots Grantmakers is launching with a colleague funding affinity group, Grantmakers in Aging. Between now and January, I'm working to recruit six funding organizations who are interested in forming a learning circle to explore how grassroots grantmaking can be used to foster more inclusive communities with a special focus on one group that Harvard's Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh identifies as one of the most marginalized groups in low-income communities - the older people who live in there.

What I'm hearing when I'm talking to people is "that's interesting, but we don't fund aging". My hunch is that all grassroots grantmakers do indeed fund aging. Here's why.

Because grassroots grantmaking is a place-based strategy that focuses on everyday people as both community members and active citizens, older adults and issues associated with aging are a natural part of the grassroots grantmaking landscape. Many of the associational groups that are funded through grassroots grantmaking programs are led by older adults and rely on older adults as their most faithful members. Although there is no program within Grassroots Grantmakers' network that is focused specifically on issues associated with aging, it is not uncommon for projects that are funded through grassroots grantmaking's small grants programs to address the needs of older adults. Examples include programs that engage community members in providing minor home repair or lawn care for older adults in their community or program that combat social isolation by expanding the range of social activities that are available to old adults. Other typical projects such as oral history projects or mentoring projects tap into the special gifts that older adults can contribute to enriching and strengthening their community.

Our partneship with Grantmakers in Aging is an effort to encourage place-based funders who are connecting deeply in their communities via a big thinking on small grants approach to recognize that they are already funding aging- increasing awareness of the important roles that older adults play in marginalized communities and relationship between aging and community vitality and resiliency. But it's bigger than that. We also want to encourage more intentionality about using grassroots grantmaking as a strategy to encourage, support and strengthen older adults as active citizens and community leaders, decrease social isolation and foster conditions that contribute to healthy, happy, aging in place options – thus creating a link between increased awareness and funding strategy and focus.

We also see the opportunity to build (or widen) bridges between aging-related work that emanates from more traditional nonprofit social service organizations and public-sector programs and the associational, resident-led groups that are the focus of grassroots grantmaking. I have seen that like aging programs, grassroots grantmaking approaches are sometimes positioned as stand-alone funding strategies, standing alongside of but not well-connected to issue-specific funding streams, even within the same organization. My hunch is that building bridges between grassroots grantmaking programs and other funding streams will result in win-win-win situations: better outcomes for the people and communities that the funding is intended to benefit, better utilization of scarce philanthropic resources, and new relationships between service providers and older community residents that are not based on a client/service provider relationship.

I rarely use this blog as outreach for Grassroots Grantmakers' work, but am making an exception this time for three reasons. First, I'm really excited about this project and hope to use this blog as a way to capture and share what we're learning once this project is underway - so think of this as the first post in a series that will show up over the next two years.

Second, I've been really surprised by the reaction that I'm hearing when I mention the word "aging" and am now seeking advice from colleagues - and this includes readers of this blog - about how to avoid stubbing my toe in conversations about this promising work without burying "aging" as part of the picture that we're exploring.

And finally, there just may be someone reading this who also sees the promise of the intersection between grassroots grantmaking and aging, and is interested in learning more about the learning circle of place-based funders that we will be forming over the next several months.

Your comments or advice here are welcome, as are emails to me directly.

October 27, 2010

Want Stories?

There are two topics that always come up with funders get together - funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking, investing everyday people as key contributors to healthy and resilient communities.

One is what the groups they are funding need to grow and realize their dreams - how they can provide help that is really helpful.

The other is evaluation or assessing impact - knowing what really happened and what is meaningful to measure.

I've been involved with philanthropy for nearly twenty years, and must admit that I've become really tired of these conversations - tired because of their sameness and of the overly complicated, funder-centric "we know-they don't know" tone that characterizes many of them.

So that's why I found a recent conversation with Anne-Marie Taylor, Executive Director of the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, so refreshing. Anne-Marie was talking about INRC's experience with Indy's IMAGINE grant program and what she and her team have learned over the past several years. She said that they learned to be clearer on the front end about expectations and requirements, and how to build technical assistance and accountability into their program.

One requirement was for grantees to share a story about the project or activity that the IMAGINE grant had supported. The INRC staff learned that just saying "share a story" was not generating stories, and so they dug a little deeper instead of hoping that the story genie would magically appear. They set up their grant process in a way that builds the capacity of grantee organizations to tell their own stories and ups the odds of having the good stories they are seeking turned in as final reports.

Here's what they now do:
  1. They ask each organization that is receiving a grant to designate someone in their group as their storyteller.
  2. They host a "how to tell your story" workshop that is required for all the designated storytellers.
  3. They hold the grant check until the designated storyteller has attended the storytelling workshop.
And guess what. This very practical approach - with its clear statement about what they need, its appropriate use of funder-power, and its clear-thinking about how they can get what they need and at the same time build skills that can be useful to the group in ways beyond satisfying their grant requirements - is generating great stories that are adding an important dimension to understanding the impact of the IMAGINE grant program. And knowing INRC, I can guarantee that these workshops are fun, interactive, and energizing. You can see some of the stories on INRC's home page.

Love it! Practical, powerful, and people-friendly.

If you're stuck in the "can't get good reports" and don't know how to help mode, try this and let me know how it goes! Or if you have another practical, powerful, people-friendly approach to share, jump in and say a few words about what you do here.

October 24, 2010

Listening for "We"

Now and then I hear something that is a simple yet profound tip for "big thinkers" everywhere. It happened recently at Grassroots Grantmakers' On the Ground learning lab in Detroit. Kathy Szenda Wilson, Director of the Battle Creek Community Foundation's Neighborhood Grantmaking Program, was talking about the challenges that go with thoughtfully sifting through the ideas that come to the grantmaking committee as grant requests. She said that she has learned to listen for "we" - that the ideas that are described as "we" rather than "I" have the community building potential that is the best fit for their approach to thinking big about small grants.

Kathy was also quick to say that this isn't as easy as it sounds - and I agree completely. She mentioned that the committee recently deliberated for nearly an hour about an idea that came with "I" language but had important community building potential. I can remember many early discussions with people that began with "I's" but quickly moved to "we's" with encouragement to connect with others in the community around the "I-dea" and see if it could become a "we". So think of this as a tip, guidepost, something to add to "listening for" repertoire, or a discussion starter rather than a rule.

Here's why I love this insight and I'm following my "more like a meadow" post with this one. When we are in a place of discovery and possibilities - in conversation with people and groups and they work through an idea and discover new possibilities as that idea moves into action - there are 2 roads that we can travel that are detours from the "big thinking on small grants" direction. One road is the "all things to all people" road. The other is the "Cinderella's glass slipper road".

The all things to all people road is mostly about the power of small grants and not about small grants to build community and promote active citizenship and living democracy. It's about everything that grows in the meadow and, unless you have unlimited financial and people resources, it assumes that sprinkling money around is all that is needed. My hunch is that over time, this road becomes more about seeding new nonprofit service enterprises than it is about supporting active citizenship or community building.

The "Cinderella's glass slipper road" is about shoe-horning every good idea that comes forward into the same shoe. It might be the small business idea or the nonprofit service idea shoe-horned into the community building or community change shoe. This road leads away from the "we begin with residents" orientation of grassroots grantmaking and to a place that is mostly about what the funder wants.

I think that the most powerful road, the one that supports grassroots grantmaking's big thinking about small grants thinking and "we begin with residents" orientation is the one that clearly keeps changing the role of everyday people in the picture that we're funding from clients, consumers and customers to citizens in its sites, and recognizes the critical role that collective action plays in that desired picture. That's why I love Kathy's advice about "listening for we instead of I".

It's about what we want to do, what we have planned, what we want, what we are wiling to do, what we have done, what we have put together, what we're hoping to do next, with an idea to expanding the circle of "we" over time. It's about deeply believing that "my dream" - especially when it has something to do place - has more of a chance of becoming a reality when it becomes connected in some way to "our dream". The careful listening for "we" in an idea is what makes the difference between "all things to all people" or "Cinderella slipper" grantmaking and good grassroots grantmaking with a powerful "we begin with residents" big thinking orientation.

I welcome your comments and hearing about your experience in listening for "we".

October 20, 2010

More Like a Meadow than a Garden

I was in Detroit earlier this month for 2 jam-packed days with 70 colleagues from 31 different funding organizations at Grassroots Grantmakers' 2010 "On the Ground" learning lab. I am still sifting through what I saw and heard about The Skillman Foundation's courageous and very smart work in 6 Detroit neighborhoods with their Good Neighborhoods Initiative (The Skillman Foundation was our host), and what I heard throughout the 2 days from others as we explored our theme, "the value added of small grants programs for place-based philanthropy". We spent most of our time talking about how small grants programs must be positioned to add value to place-based philanthropy - how the "thinking big" about small grants programs actually translates into "acting big".

The first "aha" from my sorting out of the conversations over those two days comes from a feeling of discomfort that I was feeling as conversations unfolded about small grants. We were all talking about small grants, but painting different pictures.

So here's my aha: The small grants world is more like a meadow than a garden.

I often say that the small grants associated with grassroots grantmaking are not seed grants. I've changed my tune on that. They are indeed ALL seed grants.

The difference between the type of seed grants that funders often make and these seed grants is that no matter what questions we ask and how good we are at reading between the lines, with grassroots grantmaking, we - and those who are on the receiving-end of the grant - often don't know the type of seed we're nurturing until it sprouts.

This is not about adding fertilizer to something that has already sprouted - it's about providing a nourishing environmental for the seeds of active citizenship, being curious about what will sprout, and being open about some unanticipated possibilities. What we're nurturing is more like a meadow than a carefully planned garden. Thinking big about small grants requires us to find beauty in the potpourri arrangement of ideas, opportunities and possibilities that we find instead of feeling frustrating that we don't have neat, distinct rows of different types of vegetables. That's why it is so essential for funders who are engaged in grantmaking to be clear about what they're doing, work simultaneously through short and long-term lenses, and to have people-oriented/relationship-building/possibility-thinking people on the team.

If our thinking big about small grants is grounded in a goal of growing and nurturing active citizens and powerful communities, then whenever the invitation to apply for a small grant is answered by someone who wants to move an idea or dream into action, whatever begins to sprout has intrinsic value. It's about people stepping out of their comfort zone and opening themselves to experiences and relationships that build community AND challenge their own perceptions about what they or their group can do.

When those possibilities begin to sprout, that's where big thinking and a commitment to the "we begin with residents" posture of grassroots grantmaking meets a new set of challenges.

Our funding priorities may tell us that we are sifting for seeds that grow into groups that work on social change - or for seeds that will grow into better communities for children - or for seeds that will make a community more welcoming and inclusive. But the truth is, there will be some ideas that will hatch through the small grants process that look like something else.

If we think about the small grant process as a process of discovery, then it's not surprising that there are many possibilities that emerge, especially in a supportive, relationship-oriented, patient money environment where small grants are coupled with help that broadens horizons and connections and builds the capacity and confidence of the people and groups involved.

What sprouts might begin with a look like:
  • A new for-profit enterprise with new income possibilities for the budding entrepreneur and for the people that this business may employ in the future;
  • A new nonprofit service organization that fills a gap in needed services or provides services in ways that are more accessible or community-friendly than what is currently available;
  • A group that develops the know-how and clout that has is needed to elevate community voice and shift the power dynamic in their community to bring about desired change.
The art of working from a "we begin with residents" lens is about watching as the possibilities begin to sprout, with conversations and learning opportunities that nourish - not steer - those ideas.
  • It's about recognizing a budding entrepreneur without steering that entrepreneur into starting a nonprofit.  Instead, it's about connecting that person or group to people who are knowledgeable about starting small businesses.
  • It's about asking good questions if the idea that is sprouting is really about starting a nonprofit to provide services, and not kicking into auto drive with advice about starting a new nonprofit. You can ask if this a service that's needed but not currently available, or is this something that is offered but not in a way that is accessible, appropriate, affordable or community friendly? And if the service is indeed currently available but falling short in some areas, use your position as a funder to help make the connections that would could create new partnerships or challenge the current service-provider status quo.
  • It's about continuing to expose those who are seeking short-term solutions to problems that have deep-rooted policy origins to information about root causes while not doing your own "bonsai" type shaping to turn the group into something it doesn't really want to be.
I firmly believe that we can indeed use the small grants programs associated with grassroots grantmaking to do very specific work. We can invite ideas that have to do with access to healthy food or less isolation for the elderly or advancing social change. But if we are indeed working from a "we begin with residents" point of view, what will sprout will still look more like a meadow than a garden. We can single out the ideas that match our priorities, but need to think about what we will do with the others. Will we treat them as weeds and forget that they are re-populating the active citizen landscape in our community? Or will we respect the possibilities that they represent and make the connections needed to help them flower, even if what they need next is not us?

To me, this is the art of big thinking about small grants. How does this work for you?

September 23, 2010

A Formula for Leading from Behind

This is a post that has roots in my "tween time" - the time between my work inside a foundation and my current work with Grassroots Grantmakers. During that 5 year period, I worked solo and explored many interesting avenues. One was a connection with the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, one of the premiere coach training organizations in North America, where I completed a 9-month coach training program and connected with an amazing network of people who are working as professional coaches. My work in my "tween time" included a wonderful assortment of consulting work with place-based funding organizations, community-based organizations, and personal coaching with people in transition.

I tapped back into my Hudson Institute network one evening this week via a book/author call to hear from Kathleen Stinnett, a HI certified coach, talking about the book that she co-authored with John Zenger, The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow. Loved the conversation, but this is what stood out for me as a connection with the big thinking on small grants world of grassroots grantmaking:
q x c = b

Kathleen shared this formula when she was talking about how difficult it is for leaders to refrain from giving advice when coaching is a better approach. I immediately thought of the "leading from behind" posture that is essential for working from a "we begin with residents" stance and how difficult it is for funders to avoid grabbing on to the steering wheel and inadvertently using their position (and their connection to money) to influence a grantee's behavior.

With this formula, Kathleen is acknowledging that the leader/manager/boss might actually have a higher quality answer than his subordinate, but that the true benefit that the company will derive is not purely a function of a quality answer. The commitment that the employee has to the answer factors into the amount of benefit that is realized.

quality x commitment = benefit

If we use a ten point scale and rate the quality of the idea and the level of commitment among those who carry out the idea, then this equation turns into something that can turn on light bulbs:
If the quality the idea is "10" but level of commitment to that idea is "2", then the benefit that is generated is 20 (10x2).

If the quality of the idea is "5" but the level of commitment to that idea is "8", then the benefit that is generated is 40 (5x8).
Simple, isn't it? But there's so much there in its simplicity.

Here's why I'm sharing this and how I can imagine using this in a big thinking on small grants environment.

  • You're a funder, in conversation in conversation with someone about an idea that could turn into a grant. When you're tempted to lead with your idea, remember that your focus is on the "b"/benefit part of the equation and pause.
  • You're a funder, in conversation with someone about an idea that could lead to a grant. What questions can you ask to learn more about the "c"/commitment part of the equation or what pressure can you take off the "q" part of the equation to create more commitment (and thus more benefit).
  • You're a funder, doing your write-up or talking with a grantmaking committee about a potential grant. What might this formula do to open up new doors for exploring (and talking about) the potential benefit of a project or activity?
  • You're a leader in your neighborhood, talking with someone new to the group or new to the idea of their own personal power, and encouraging them to move their idea into action. What might sharing this formula do to help them be more comfortable with taking that step?
  • You're talking with a veteran leader about sharing power and letting others into the action. How might this formula help them be more willing to try working from a "leading from behind" position?
What other ways could this formula be used to help funders stay in a "we begin with residents" mode of working? What personal experience does Kathleen's formula bring to mind for you?

Or what ideas or tools have you brought to your big thinking on small grants practice from the "tween time" areas of your life? Click "comment" and join in.

September 18, 2010

A Big Thinking Take on Ralph Waldo's Tips for Success

Here's my big thinking on small grants take on Ralph Waldo Emerson's Tips for Success that were featured recently in the Dumb Little Man: Tips for Life blog that I check out from time to time.

Thoughts Become Things
"A man is what he thinks about all day long."

If we say our work is about better futures for the people in our community but spend our time thinking about grants to nonprofits, could it be that we're more about stronger nonprofits than we are about better communities?

The Compensation Principle
"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."

Do we too often assume that the best way to help is to provide services? Perhaps a more powerful way to help is to open up more spaces for those who are most commonly seen as needing help to do the helping. Small grants programs open those spaces.

Action Trumps Theorizing
"An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."

What if we carved out just 10% of the time and money we invest in theorizing and put it into action? What if we thought about action as a powerful research strategy? Isn't that the basis of thinking big about small grants?

Build Something Better
"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."

This one is especially for community foundations. Your better mousetrap might require a relatively small investment and look like a small grants program that engages everyday people and supports them in moving their ideas into action.

Keep Good Friends
"It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them."

I'm assuming that stupid here means sharing what you don't know, what dilemmas you're facing, and what is keeping you up at night rather than pretending you have all the answers. This makes me think of Anne Hallett's piece on working as a funder, written shortly after she became Executive Director for the Wieboldt Foundation years ago ...."never again will I have a true friend or a bad idea". With Grassroots Grantmakers, we aspire to create spaces that allow people with different perspectives on grassroots grantmaking to "be stupid" in the way that I describe - and I'm always amazed at the creative sparks and new energy emerges when people feel that freedom. Maybe it's not just old friends that we need, but new friends that share our commitment to learning.

Raise the Bar
"Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow."

Note the subtleties here - "try to do something" and not "do something". Isn't this about the courage to take risks? And I can't think of a more "unrisky" way to take the risk of doing something beyond what you have already mastered than to invest in the creativity and passion of everyday people.

Start Small
"The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn."


September 15, 2010

Big Thinking in the Big Leagues

My friends know that I love baseball. I've moved from casual fan to serious fan(atic) in recent years, and now follow my team 12 months a year. I've learned that it only appears that there's not much action to watch in the off-season, but that what happens in the off-season has a lot to do with what is going to happen in baseball prime time.

I've also become fascinated with the path that players take from the minors into the big leagues and how artfully good managers maneuver the back-and-forth, in-and-out, predictably ego-bruising path that young players travel through the minor league system and into the big leagues.

With apologies if I'm reaching too far to connect my baseball passion with my passion for big thinking about small grants, I think there are lessons here for place-based funders who are serious about bringing everyday people into their community change strategies.

In baseball, every team has some big name, high price-tag players. All of those players, however, have come up through the minors, all have been rookies, and all have (or will) see a promising rookie nipping at their heals to take their place as a starting player on the team. If you follow a team over time, you spot the dynamism that is there and what happens when managers forget that they are working in a fluid environment. Your star player at first base is one injury away from 6 weeks on the disabled list. Or you might need a pinch hitter for a potential game-changing at-bat who has a particular talent for hitting a particular type of pitch. Or you may be in an extra-innings tie game and need to know who can step in to play at a position that not is not their claim to fame. And you need to have the full picture of each team member's strengths and weaknesses, offensively and defensively.

What I frequently see from my seat as Executive Director with Grassroots Grantmakers (and regard as one of the primary obstacles to thinking big about small grants) would never happen in baseball. Good managers would never let a talented player languish in the minor leagues or on the bench, and not at least see what more he/she could do.

What I've noticed is how often the small grants programs - the linchpins of grassroots grantmaking - are pigeon-holed as minor-league players, boxed in by low-expectations and labeled as nice but not important. I have seen too many good small grants programs, managed by special people who have the skills and personal attributes for working in the gap between funding institutions and community groups, working in a vacuum in their organizations - doing their thing, generating nice stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things with small amounts of money, but never invited into their foundation's big league strategy picture.

I've also seen what happens when these programs break in as big league players in their organization's community change strategy. I've been reminded of this again recently by work in Flint, Cleveland and Battle Creek, thrilled to see how the processes, values, and relationships that have been established over time through quality grassroots grantmaking work are breaking out from their small grants boxes and are being strategically utilized to authentically engage everyday people in big-league community change work.

It sounds so obvious, and it would be in baseball. So what's the problem in philanthropy - what is keeping small grants programs on the bench or in the minors? What aren't foundation leaders spotting and developing potential?

Here's my short list, with an invitation for you to chime in with comments or additions:
  • Money myopia - thinking that if it's not associated with big money, it can't possibly generate big results.
  • Fundamental beliefs about who/what generates change - banking on programs or credentialed experts rather than everyday people as trusted primary producers of change.
  • Siloed approaches - forgetting that all the pieces need to work together as a team and that there is a role for everyday people in every issue that you address as a place-based funder.
  • Arms-length knowledge - understanding small grants programs by reading about them or hearing about them rather than experiencing them by participating in grant review, visiting grantees, attending community events, talking with block-level leaders.
  • Accountability fatigue - so much focus on guaranteeing results and minimizing risks that we're afraid to let the rookies play, even if we're seeing signs that we need to make a change.
What would it take for small grants programs to really break into the big leagues, realizing the potential that they hold for deepening the connections that place-based funders can have with their communities and maximizing the impact of their work? Share your thoughts with a comment.

August 30, 2010

What's Inspiring Me Now

I've been on a bit of a summer hiatus, skipping some weeks since baseball's mid-summer All-Star break as a minor detour from my weekly blogging calendar. I've been busy with the business of Grassroots Grantmakers, laying ground work for what promises to be a very exciting fall.

I'm ready to jump back into writing for "big thinking" again, with some topics that I'm itching to address and some insights that I can't wait to share. But first, I want to share a snapshot of where I am at this point in the summer.

In these crazy economic times, it feels odd to say that I can't remember I time when I've felt so inspired by the possibilities that I see for big thinking about small grants. Perhaps it's just that I have finally tired of hitting my head on the same brick wall and have moved on to more productive pursuits. Or perhaps it's because we're all working in a slightly different environment that is bringing us back to the basic values that are core to funding from a "we begin with residents" point of view.

Whatever the reason, I'm enjoying this good feeling and feeling inspired by:

  • Evidence that I see almost every day of a growing interest in place-based funding approaches.

  • Hearing place-based work described recently in a conversation with a new professional acquaintance as "hot".

  • The acceptance I'm hearing that grassroots grantmaking and its big thinking on small grants approach is an essential ingredient of effective place-based philanthropy.

  • The new groups that are showing up in surprising ways and in surprising places who are using grassroots grantmaking in creative ways. This clearly isn't just about organized philanthropy any more.

  • The amazing group that has registered for Grassroots Grantmakers' upcoming "On the Ground" in Detroit - sold out 2 months early and now building a waiting list, a sign to me that this is real interest in the "value added of small grants programs for place-based philanthropy", the theme for this gathering, and an appreciation for the smaller/deeper/learning oriented opportunities that we're creating.

  • The energy that I'm feeling from our grassroots grantmaking community for bringing the small grants structures and practices that they have created and fine-tuned to work on new issues and in new areas - hinting that grassroots grantmaking is breaking out of restraining silos.

  • Last but perhaps most important, the amazing people associated with funding organizations and the grassroots groups they fund who are steadily at work, innovating, learning and generously sharing to expand our collective understanding of how to translate our big thinking about small grants into stronger, healthier communities.

I'd love to hear what's inspiring you in the last days of summer. Connect with a comment or an email to me directly.

August 25, 2010

Four Things that Funders Want that Groups Can't Give - and One They Can

Check out Rosabeth Moss Kanter's recent blog article, Four Things that Groups Want that Leaders Can't Give - and One They Can. Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, is offering advice to those that manage new business teams. If you reframe manager/emerging business team to funder/grantee, I think there's a lot of wisdom there and fodder for a rich discussion as your next grantmaking committee meeting.

As Kanter says,
emerging group experiences have predictable dynamics, whether they are new project teams, training and development programs, wilderness experiences, or just people learning new jobs. People form relationships based on first impressions and sometimes-false hopes, find that things haven't gone as imagined, and then struggle through confusion and misunderstanding to create their own positive norms that help them work effectively. The best leaders help people through these stages only to find some common issues popping up — things people seem to want that even the best leaders can't provide. Anticipating these dilemmas makes it easier to resolve them.

I encourage you to read what Kanter has to say with the idea of being the kind of funder/leader who can be really helpful to emerging groups.

But because grassroots grantmaking is "we begin with residents" work, with funders and emerging groups working in a spirit of co-production, I want to also turn Kanter's message around, and look at what she says from another direction:

Four Things that Funders Want that Groups Can't Give - And One They Can

Here are the same four desires that Kanter lists that she says are almost almost impossible to satisfy, this time looking back in the other direction as a reminder of how our desires as funders might be interpreted by the groups that we fund. Let's think of these as stereotypes that we're all working hard to change and this as something you can use as a friendly check-in to see how you're doing on some common funder-grantee pitfalls.
  1. Absolutely clear expectations about everything - As a funder, we want to be sure that you know what to expect but we don't think to ask about what you expect ("do you have any questions" really isn't asking about expectations, is it?). After all, you have the money now, so what else could you expect?
  2. Positive certainty about the future - We want you to do your homework, lay out your plan, present your budget and then do the project. We are buying this result with this grant, and we want you to deliver on your side of the deal. Crystal ball, please - not just a good idea in this economy.
  3. Yes all the time - Yes, we will do what you suggest even if it doesn't make sense to us. Yes, we will come to your meeting. Yes, we will rewrite this proposal or this report. Yes, we will quickly respond whenever you call but not expect you to answer our calls. Yes, we understand that you can ask something of us but once we are a grantee, we can't ask anything of you.
  4. The ending at the beginning - We want you to be able to tell us before you begin exactly what will happen and on what timeline. We want you to be able to cut what you say in your proposal and paste it into your final report.
Kanter concludes her post by talking about the one thing that groups want that leaders actually can always give (hint: it's abbreviated TLC).

What would that one thing be in my looking the other way scenario? What is the one thing that funders want that emerging group grantees CAN always provide? I have my idea but invite you to share yours first. Chime in with a comment.

August 10, 2010

Encouraging the Things that Matter

John McKnight was Grassroots Grantmakers' guest recently for a topical conference call - talking with us about the new book that he wrote with Peter Block - The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. There's so much there for community members and funders to chew on, but I want to lift up just one thing that stood out for me.

You've probably heard the phrase, "you have to be able to think it before you can do it". John and Peter have me thinking about what the "doing" might be if funders really got serious about building capacity in a new way. Over the years, those of us in the funding community have talked ad nauseum about building capacity - organizational capacity, community capacity, leadership capacity, capacity for change. I've heard funders call "time out" on various occasions, sometimes by assigning the word "capacity" to the list of other over-used, over-defined, and over-intellectualized words that become buzz-words in the funding domain, promising never to use it again.

But John and Peter are talking about capacity in a way that may have the potential to challenge the overly scientific, highly intellectualized way that we as funders often think about funding as a prescription that is designed to cure a community malady. For me, the words that they used to describe the capacities of an abundant community connect my heart and my head, sparking thinking about what I have experienced in my life, what struggles I have had and how I can use my own personal experience to be a better grantmaker. It humanizes and personalizes the notion of capacity in ways that I find refreshing and really quite powerful.

As I've thought about the six capacities of an abundant community that John and Peter list and then go on to describe in Chapter 5 of their book, I'm wondering about what we are doing now to either encourage and discourage these capacities and what we might do differently if we were more intentional about nurturing these six capacities that John and Peter describe as the core ingredients of communities, families and neighborhoods that function from the perspective of abundance.

Here are the six capacities of an abundant community that John and Peter describe with a few of their words about each:
  1. Kindness - a relationship to another that has embedded in it love, care, and respect, and a consciousness of the vulnerability and softness of another. The opposite of envy.
  2. Generosity - to make an offer for its own sake, not its exchange value, conveying a sense of the bountiful, lavish, copious, abundant. Not to be mistaken for charity, which John and Peter describe as false generosity because it is oriented around the needs and deficiencies of just one party in the transaction and is demeaning in this way.
  3. Cooperation - "For me to win, you must win. For me to prospect and find satisfaction and have peace of mind, then you must prosper and have peace of mind."
  4. Forgiveness - the willingness to come to terms with having been wounded, and finding a way to come to terms with and accept the dark side of our own past and somehow complete it (instead of pretending that it did not happen).
  5. Fallibility - the tolerance and acceptance of human limitations, the willingness to live with people's imperfections, and to view these imperfections as part of the human condition rather than problems to be fixed.
  6. Mystery - the ability to create space for what is unknowable about life, for letting questions go unanswered, and for using the unknown as a catalyst for creativity.
If we are working toward more communities, neighborhoods and families that function - that are spaces and places that nurture rather than punish, and where the qualities that contribute to functioning are so embedded that they "just are" - part of the community culture that John and Peter describe, AND if John and Peter are lifting up the part of what is required for that to happen that we in the funding community have not been able to see through our analytic, scientific-oriented lenses, then what could we do with funding to encourage these things - these things that really matter in the end?

Can you imagine funding that embraces fallibility or mystery instead of demanding certainty? Can you imagine a "measurement" for kindness, forgiveness, generosity or cooperation? Can you picture desired impact as "things becoming invisible" because they have been adopted into the community culture or have shaped a new story of how we have become who we now are rather than a policy change?

I can. But I also can imagine the skepticism that may be unleashed when a recommendation is made around a funding organization's board table that any one of these six capacities should make its way into funding criteria, even for the smallest grants.

So let me start here with a question to you. What is your reaction to the six capacities for abundant communities that John and Peter describe? What do you see as the link between these capacities and big thinking about small grants? How can we begin to do more than think about the concepts that John and Peter are sharing in this new book? Share your thinking by posting a comment or emailing me directly.

August 6, 2010

Beginning with the End in Mind for Grassroots Grantmaking

With this post, I'm borrowing from a neighbor - a neighboring discipline, that is. Martin Carcasson's excellent paper, Beginning with the End in Mind; A Call for Goal-Driven Deliberative Practice, addresses a familiar challenge:
How can practitioners involved with the deliberative democracy movement increase the tangible impact their events have on the communities in which they work?
Read this sentence again but this time substitute "grassroots grantmaking" for "deliberative democracy movement" and "grantmaking" for "events". This is the challenge that drives much of the peer to peer inquiry and learning in the big thinking on small grants world.

What I love about Martin's paper is the conceptual framework he offers to help practitioners think about the short-term and longer-term strategies associated with their work. I can imagine that in the deliberative practice community, as in the grassroots grantmaking community, it is easy to get snagged by the short-term and set the longer-term aside. Host a quality forum or get through a grant cycle and award the grants - both short-term work that is good by itself but only powerful when it is part of a longer-term strategy.

I recommend the Martin's paper for some insightful reading. What I want to lift up here, however, is the framework that Martin presents work - essentially how the six goals for deliberative practice that he lists fit together - with some thoughts about how we might tailor this framework for funders who work from a "we begin with residents" perspective in the interest of strengthening active citizenship at the block level in communities.

Martin divides six specific goals into three categories:

First order goals:
  • Issue learning
  • Improved democratic attitudes
  • Improved democratic skills
Second order goals:
  • Individual/community action
  • Improved institutional decision-making
Third order goal:
  • Improved community problem solving
Martin identifies the last goal - improved community problem solving - as the ultimate or long-term goal of deliberative practice, noting that an overarching focus on improved community problem solving not only helps position individual projects as a means to an end, but also helps deliberative practitioners define their identity - nonpartisan concerning issues and process, but biased in favor of participatory democracy. Martin stresses that even though improved community problem solving should be considered the ultimate goal, individual projects should also focus on the appropriate lower-order goals in order to maximize impact.

I'm wondering about the implications of this framework for grassroots grantmaking. When we talk about patient money and a funder's long-term commitment to grassroots grantmaking, we're making assumptions about how individual grants, projects, conversations, trainings, convenings, and celebrations "add up". We also know that each one of those grants and projects by itself is important. But can we as clearly identify the ultimate goal? Do we, as grassroots grantmakers, have a strong shared identity?

The layering strategy of grassroots grantmaking - sometimes called "the layer cake" - serves as our version of the lower order goals (increasing active citizenship, strengthening resident-led organizations, connecting residents to policy). But we're not as clear about succinctly saying, in a way that is inspiring and uniting, about how it all rolls up. We have avoided the "what for" question our of respect for one of the main strengths of grassroots grantmaking - its flexibility. But I'm sure that we can, like Martin is doing for our deliberative dialogue "neighbors", clearly identify our ultimate objective without limiting how we employ grassroots grantmaking as a strategy.

So now is when I turn to you. If you are a funder, work with a funder, or are have received grants from a funder....if you think big about small grants and believe in working from a "we begin with residents" perspective, how would YOU end this sentence?
When we work from a "we begin with residents" perspective, we're nonpartisan about the specific projects and activities that resident-led groups take on with the grants that we provide, but we're absolutely biased in favor of ________________?
Share you answer by posting a comment. Let's plant this flag in the ground.

July 27, 2010

Why Not Just Fund Organizing?

The Setting: Methodist retreat center in northern California with 40 people from a variety of funding organizations.

The Occasion: A specially commissioned "for funders only" training on community organizing, generously tailor-made for our group by fabulous organizers associated with PICO, one of the premiere community organizing networks in North America.

The Players: Members of Grassroots Grantmakers and their partner organizations - all big thinkers about small grants who are investing in everyday people as change-makers in their community - all coming with an interest community organizing.

This wasn't a new training for me. Almost ten years ago, I had the privilege of attending one of the week-long community leadership training courses that PICO regularly offers for leaders in their network. While I appreciated the refresher, I had another question on my mind when I arrived in Northern California.

This question stems from conversations that I've had with funders who strongly self-identify as community organizing funders. I'm oversimplifying, but what I often hear in conversations with community organizing funders is a belief that funders who are serious about community change should identify a capable community organizing group, fund them and get out of the way - that what we need is more funding for community organizing groups rather than the more nuanced grassroots grantmaking approach that engages a funder directly with community resident in a highly relationship style of granmaking. Knowing that I would be steeped in community organizing for three days and with funders who understand both organizing and grassroots grantmaking, this gathering seemed to be the perfect place to explore my question. When organizing is in the picture, what's the value added of grassroots grantmaking?

I have personal experience with small grants programs when funding community organizing is not an option, and can tell you what is lacking if there is no funding for organizing in a community change picture. In my work with a community foundation in the Mid-South, there were no community organizing groups to fund. Community organizing was not part of the funding landscape for many reasons - historical and cultural to be sure, but I think mostly situational. We had a faith-based organizing group that was connected to a national organizing network in town, but it was a late arrival and still finding its way. Our foundation's grassroots grantmaking work was strong but many of the small grants that we were making were connected to big issues that needed another approach. The vacant lot problem couldn't be solved by lawn mowers. The community centers that were more about institutional rules than about the community they served didn't change a bit because there was another pottery class or some new jerseys for the basketball team. The after school tutoring that residents in a public housing development organized and managed didn't change what was happening in their kid's school. What we desperately needed was what community organizing has to offer. And I'm not talking here about a professionally run community organizing group. I'm talking about the point of view and set of skills that community organizing adds to the picture.

My question when I arrived in California for this gathering was about the flip side of my experience.
  • What if you are working in a place where there is a strong, capable community organizing presence?
  • What if the premiere organizing group in town is such a class-act organization - with established credibility at both the community and the institutional level -that even the most cautious members of your funding organization's board are comfortable with supporting them with funding.
  • In this situation, what would be lost if instead of investing in grassroots grantmaking AND organizing, we consolidated these funds and made one big grant to the community organizing group?
Because of who was there at this training and the time we had together, I had the perfect opportunity to explore this question from several different angles. The team from one of Grassroots Grantmakers member organizations was there - and so was the Executive Director from the community organizing group that works in their city. I knew about the excellent working relationship that exists between these two groups, but had the opportunity to dig deeper by mirror image questions to members of the funding organizing team and the community organizing group.

Without comparing notes, people on both sides of the question provided the same answer to what would be lost of the foundation simply invested in this excellent community organizing group instead (and others like it) and got out of the grassroots grantmaking business?

A lot.

Both the funder and community organizing director talked about grassroots grantmaking investments as investments in pre-organizing - and that in some cases, the groups that had received small grants from the foundation "graduated" to work with the community organizing group. In this scenario, the grassroots grantmaking work that the foundation was doing extended the reach of community organizing in the community - reaching out, connecting with and nurturing emergent community groups that had questions in mind that benefited from an organizing approach but might not be working on issues or in areas that were the focus of the organizing group's work.

But both also acknowledged that the foundation's grassroots grantmaking work was supporting everyday people in community change work who wouldn't be in the picture if organizing was the primary focus. Consistent with the layering strategy of grassroots grantmaking, the foundation is working with some people who are simply interested in connecting with some neighbors to do something on their block - they are interested in a couple of laps around the track but not a marathon. There is value in the open-door "we begin with residents" perspective of the funding organization's grassroots grantmaking program and power in the consistent invitation that the grassroots grantmaking extends to community members to connect with others and move from talking to action.

Finally, there was agreement that the relationships and perspectives that the funding organization gains from managing the grassroots grantmaking program are important - that the second hand information that comes to a funding organization from grantee reports, site visits and evaluations simply cannot substitute for highly relational, "being in the water" type of grantmaking that works best when a local funder is supporting everyday people and the associational groups that they form to get things done.

This all makes good sense to me, but this is just one perspective on a big question. Share yours by jumping in with a comment.

June 30, 2010

Working in the Wetlands

I spend my days in the wetlands. That's how I think of the work that I do that focuses on thinking big about small grants. And its a metaphor that keeps me grounded as I think about the relationship between grassroots grantmaking and other approaches to place-based change that sit on the high ground surrounding the wetlands. The values and principles associated with grassroots grantmaking live in the wetlands that connects community organizing, community development, community building, civic engagement and inclusion.

In our post-Katrina world, wetlands have gained new status - now recognized as some of the most productive and important ecosystems in the world. We have been reminded of the immense variety of life - microbes, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals - that are part of a wetland ecosystem and that instead of useless, disease-ridden places, wetlands are essential contributors to a healthy, functioning, sustainable environment.

The wetlands I know on a day to day basis are also full of life in surprising and every-changing ways. It's where everyday people wade into the place-based philanthropy world and find their place and their voice as contributors rather than clients, recipients or customers. It's also the feeder system for everyday people into the worlds of community organizing, community development, community building, civic engagement and inclusion.

Why is such a feeder system important - as ecologically important as natural wetlands are to our physical environment? It's because as we get immersed in our professional world, the everyday people part of these place-based approaches to community change seems to dry up.

In some cases - not all, but some:
  • community organizing is more about a professionalized organizing approach and getting "wins" on issues than it is about surfacing and elevating resident voice
  • community development is more about the bricks and mortar work that is guided by professionals in community development corporations than it is about creating the physical, economic and social environment that everyday people need to thrive and be happy
  • community building feels more like social work with professionals at the helm than it is about energizing the network of mutual support and people to people connections in a community;
  • civic engagement is more about advising and supporting institutional agendas via forums, focus groups, and volunteering than it is about moving community members' dreams and passions into action in the civic commons;
  • inclusion feels more like a professionally prescribed prescription to deal with community illness than friendship and fun.
That's why I love hanging out the wetlands of grassroots grantmaking. That's why grassroots grantmaking isn't another free-standing approach that is easily contained and described - alive like the flowing water in a stream rather than the H2O in a beaker. And that's why it's important for the everyday people orientation of grassroots grantmaking to have the the freedom to flow into the more categorical or ideological defined work of a place-based funding organization. And that's why I'm completely okay when people ask "how is grassroots grantmaking different from/distinct from/separate from one approach or another?" It's as hard to draw a line between us and them as it is to define the shore at the edge of the wetlands. And that's the point - the power of grassroots grantmaking and the ability to think big about small grants.

What do you think? Does this resonate with you? Weigh in with a comment or connect with an email.

June 14, 2010

What a Difference a Neighborhood Makes

Here's something I've been wondering about. If you are someone who works in the community change arena professionally - in philanthropy especially - what experience helps you de-intellectualize the concept of community? What personal experience helps you connect the idea of community that resides in your head with the experience of community that lives in your heart? And what questions about how community happens and what community means does that experience bring up for you?

Here's how it is for me.

I've moved around a lot - from childhood until now. I've lived in neighborhoods and communities that were immediately welcoming and others where I never found my way. I'm thinking now of the neighborhoods (brand new subdivisions, inner-city neighborhoods, and others less easily pegged), apartment complexes, college dorms, and rural communities that I've called home through the years. I can rank them from friendliest to least friendly - from places that I hated to leave to places that I left without regret. I can also think about how I felt on my first day there - always hopeful that this would be one of those special places where I could be comfortably myself and feel that I belonged rather than a place I would remain invisible unless I took extraordinary steps to become visible. And my last day there - full of regret to be leaving or relieved that I could stop trying to make it work.

And I'm thinking about this because my own personal experience is woven into the information that I bring to bear when I'm at the business of "big thinking about small grants" - thinking about how everyday people make a difference in their own community.

If I could sort those "welcoming places" into one pile and those "less welcoming places" into another pile and study the two piles, here's what I would see:

Common denominators for the welcoming places pile:
  • There are welcoming mechanisms or traditions - usually involving special invitations or food, but traditions that involved a knock on the door, a friendly wave or another welcoming gesture that seems to happen naturally and right away.
  • There are welcoming places - community spaces that people actually use (parks, lobbies, front porches, sidewalks).
  • There are people who have room in their lives for new friends.
  • There is a "place-name" that people who live there know that signals "home" in addition to pointing to a location on a map.
  • There is a story associated with the place - a dynamic history with some twists and turns that is shared, almost with a sense of invitation for newcomers to add embellishments or new plot twists as they join others in living there.
Common denominators for the not-too-welcoming places:
  • A memory of an apartment number or a street address but not "the place".
  • Move-in day extended to move-in week/month/year - no "welcome" gesture.
  • No obvious "on-ramps" visible that I could use to introduce myself.
  • A feeling that social circles are set - no room at the table.
  • A feeling that that I just don't fit in or belong and that it's not something that time will fix.
If you're familiar with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community research (referenced in my Jane's Walk post earlier this spring), you'll see why this research has resonated with me. The places that I have loved - where I have felt at home and where I have stepped out of my comfort zone to get involved in ways that were new to me - are places that felt welcoming, provided social opportunity on-ramps to newcomers, and had a strong sense of place in both geography and psychology. It has taken major life-changing events to uproot me from these places - and these are the places that come to mind when I'm feeling invisible and longing for a welcome mat that is genuine. It is the experiences in these places that I analyze when I'm thinking about what makes a community work and what everyday people can do to make a difference on their block.

So now I'm curious. Does my experience resonate with yours? Have you too had the experience of communities that embraced and welcomed you and those that felt indifferent? What do you take from that experience that has meaning for the way that you think big about small grants? Post a comment (or connect directly via an email) to share your experience. The welcome mat is out.

June 8, 2010

What's the Engagement We're After?

I don't want to be a nitpicker about language, but I do think it's worth digging into the words that we use to describe the work we do - especially the words that become so much a part of our professional life that we don't even realize that they have crossed over into the land of jargon.

So here I am with some thoughts on a word that is one of those "hot" words now in philanthropy. It's engagement. Civic engagement, stakeholder engagement, community engagement, etc.

I'm delighted that engagement is on the now squarely on the radar screen - a suggestion to me that grassroots grantmaking is now making its way into the philanthropic mainstream. Being on the radar screen is better than off-the-radar screen, with a passive preference to disengagement, right? Being on the radar screen means that there is a growing awareness in the funding community, especially the place-based funding community, that connecting with ordinary people is not only worth the time and effort, but essential to effective place-based work.

I'm wondering, however, if engagement means the same thing to all of us. So let's get very basic here and go back to the dictionary's definition of engagement:
  • The act of engaging or the state of being engaged;
  • Betrothal;
  • Something that serves to engage such as a pledge;
  • Employment, especially for a specified time;
  • A hostile encounter, a battle;
  • The condition of being in gear.
If we're talking about philanthropy and civil society, we can eliminate betrothal, employment, and hostile encounter (although it would indeed be fun to keep these in, wouldn't it?). Thus, we're talking about something you do or that is being done to you (you are either engaging or being engaged) or the condition you're in (being in gear).

This is where I'm going to get picky. A lot of what I've read lately is about civic engagement as the state of engaging or being engaged. GEO Executive Director Kathryn Enright's recent article in the Stanford Innovation Review - The Case for Stakeholder Engagement - and accompanying post on The Center for Effective Philanthropy's blog are important statements about the value of engagement. But for me, Enright is talking mostly about philanthropies engaging nonprofits that they fund and people that are served by those nonprofits for input. Enright does indeed reference the engagement associated with the wonderful grassroots grantmaking work that The Cleveland Foundation's Neighborhood Connections program is doing (but misses the point of Neighborhood Connections by saying that these grants are going to Cleveland area nonprofits - Neighborhood Connections, while occasionally granting to nonprofits, is about actively supporting groups of residents, not non-profits, a distinction that readers of this blog know I regard as fundamentally important). Neighborhood Connections is a great example of a type of engagement that Enright describes as a "going all the way" form of engagement that involves actually sharing some of the power that philanthropies have with grantees and the community. Yes! I was waiting for that interpretation of engagement in the very thoughtful pieces that this highly regarded philanthropic affinity group leader is putting out there.

Recent publications by PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) – An Evolving Relationship: Executive Branch Approaches to Civic Engagement and Philanthropy, for example - follow the same pattern. Wonderful insights, case-making and information about seeking more participation from active citizens, this time as participation that advises and helps shape what happens through the public sector or participation via volunteering to support the work of a nonprofit or local institution (school, church, library, etc).

So this gets me to what I consider to be the engagement that we're after. It's engagement that is about being "in gear". When I picture being in gear, I think of a collection of wheels or cogs that are turning simultaneoulsy on their own and together. In the connections that they have with each other, they are at once impacting the other wheels and being impacted by the other wheels. There's not one wheel that is disconnected or in a "in service" relationship to the other wheels. They are all turning together - maybe not at the same speed or even in the same direction - but they are turning together as a functioning system.

This is how I think of the type of engagement that we're talking about in the grassroots grantmaking arena. It is indeed about sharing power. But it's more than that. It's also about being connected in a way that provides transformative power. The type of engagement that I have in mind involves the funder moving their big philanthropic wheel close enough to the variety of wheels that represent groups of residents acting together to improve their community to actually "engage" - and via the grants that they provide, the doors that they open, and the tables that they set, add energy to these community wheels. At the same time, by the very act of "engaging", the community wheels are adding energy, insights, relationships and information that changes how the big philanthropic wheel is turning. Engagement in this sense is not a one way street. It's about arrows that point both ways. It is active, not passive.

When Grassroots Grantmakers was engaged (yikes - here it is again, another sign that this word is now part of the strange lexicon that we use in the funding world) in a deep strategic planning process several years ago, we touched on these two interpretations of engagement without using the word. We initially said that the business of grassroots grantmaking was to be "in communities, with residents". We realized, however, that many foundations are indeed "in communities, with residents" - but with the foundation's agendas and priorities driving the process rather than connecting deeply enough to do work that is about an agenda that is defined by the people who live in that community. We wanted to be clearer about the engagement posture that grassroots grantmaking takes. We now say that grassroots grantmaking is about funding from a "we begin with residents" posture. It's about acknowledging the wisdom and power of a different type of engagement - an engagement that is more about getting "in gear" with the agenda that active citizens define and support rather than seeking the participation of residents in the agenda that our funding organization formulates and drives.

I'm delighted that there is so much talk about engagement and appreciate of the work that GEO and other affinity groups such as PACE are doing to elevate the discussion on engagement). I'm curious, however, if others see the same distinction that I see. And if you do, what you can share about your experience of getting "in gear" - especially with groups of active citizens rather than more traditional nonprofits? What does it take, and how does it differ (if it does) from other forms of engagement? Post a comment to share your thoughts and experience.