January 11, 2010

High Cholesterol Grassroots Grantmaking?

I follow Alison Fine's blog, A. Fine Blog, on social media and social change, and was fascinated with one of her recent posts, Associations as Networks Not Organizations. She was talking about the relationship between national organizations and their local chapters - and the demands that national organizations often place on local chapters in order to protect their national brand:
Organizational complexity, particularly the rules that govern what chapters can and can’t do, is to social networks what cholesterol is to arteries and hair is to drains; it’s the gummy stuff that clogs everything. Simplicity enables people to do what they’re best at, connect and learn from one another, be creative and social.
We're using different language and talking about different organizational relationships, but Alison and I are on the save wave length.

I write a lot about funder behavior in this blog - behavior that interferes with the relationship between thinking big about small grants and getting big results from small grants efforts. And one of the big issues that I see over and over again - in small grants programs that are struggling and in discussions with funders who are afraid to go down the small grants road - is a need for control that somehow goes awry.

Just as national organizations do indeed need to think about protecting their brand, funding organizations do indeed need to practice due diligence when it comes to their grantmaking. Protecting brands and performing due diligence all come with some degree of control. So I'm not advocating for no control - just an appropriate amount of control. And what about control that might actually be helpful instead of harmful?

But here's the crux of the point that connects Alison's message to the work of grassroots grantmaking. She is talking about chapters as associations or social networks - a different "thing" than structured organizations. And that applying the type of control mechanisms that might be well-suited for more complex organizations is not only misguided and bothersome but deadly - the cholesterol that clogs up their arteries or the hair that clogs of their drains and gets in the way of doing what they do best.

I've talked about grassroots groups as associations and not baby non-profit service providers. But I like Alison's descriptions of associations as social networks and think that the distinction between funding social networks and non-profit organizations may be more useful for funders - helping funders better understand that social networks have a relationship, not a service provision, bottom line and that strengthening that relationship bottom line is what they're investing in with their grants. Yes, associations do accomplish things ranging from policy change to events to self-help projects, but it's the relationships that they build and utilize that is their lifeblood, their source of power and their ultimate contribution to on-going community vitality. And this relationship bottom-line is what distinguishes them most clearly from the more familiar-to-funders non-profit organizations.

So when I am talking with someone from a funding organization and I hear fear about funding grassroots groups, I wonder if this fear is coming from the misplaced assumption that grassroots groups are poorly functioning non-profits, or an understanding that these are a "different type of animal" but no knowledge of what that animal might do or require. I often hear worry about grassroots groups spending money in inappropriate ways, but in reality, I've almost never seen that happen. And I scratch my head, wondering why this fear is so strong, when I have seen seemingly well-managed, well-respected, tried and true, audit-in-hand nonprofits get in trouble and suddenly tank. This mismatch between worry and actual risk suggests to me that I'm on track with my assumptions.

So the question of the day is what is "appropriate" when it comes to the control that funders really need when they are funding social networks such as the resident groups that we want to encourage in urban neighborhoods and rural communities? What are the measures of control that are cholesterol to these groups - gumming up their works - and what are the measures of control that are actually helpful to everyone involved? How can we get as proficient (and comfortable) in funding social networks as we are in funding non-profit organizations?

Let's expand our body of knowledge on this topic. Post a comment to share your thinking.

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