January 6, 2010

What's Old is New in the New Year

I love this time of year. I've been on a short blogging hiatus during the holidays to provide some open space to recharge my batteries and revel in all of those indulgences that come with this time of year. For me, one of those indulgences is looking back at the year that is ending and looking forward to the year that is beginning with a new set of possibilities.

In that spirit, for this first post in this new year, I've been thinking about 2009 - a whirlwind of a year - and what might be useful to other big thinkers on small grants as we move into the New Year together.

I've thought about the two dozen or more trips I made to visit with place-based funders and see their work first-hand, the ten topical conference call conversations that we hosted, the increasingly lively listserv exchange that we saw over the year, the new perspectives that Kristin Senty, my new Grassroots Grantmakers colleague, brought to the work, and the amazing "On the Ground" learning gatherings that we organized with our partners in San Diego and Ohio. I also think about the new funders that joined our Grassroots Grantmakers network, the opportunities and challenges that the new economy offered to our field, the light bulbs that went on as we worked on our theory of change, and the new connections that we made with other funder networks. There's also the work that I saw in local communities that took my breath way and other work that was unexpectedly disappointing.

My initial idea for this post was a top 5 list - the top 5 things that distinguish the great work from the the disappointing work. As I began working on my list, I realized that it was mirroring the list that we developed a few years ago when we were working on a retrospective assessment of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation's Community Foundations and Neighborhoods Small Grants Program. We were trying to understand the difference between work at community foundations that had remained vibrant over time and had become part of the funding organizatin's DNA, and work that had either been discontinued or marginalized. We came up 5 common characteristics of programs that had grown in vision and power over time. That's the list I was remembering - the list that was so similar to the one I was developing.

Instead of cooking up a new list, I'm beginning the year by offering a reminder of some of what we learned five years ago about what makes the difference between grassroots grantmaking that is powerful, strategic and sustainable, and work that is destined to disappoint.

The most promising and most powerful grassroots grantmaking programs share these characteristics:
  1. Expectations are realistic and aligned: The best programs have clearly articulated goals that are realistic and in line with the scale of resources that has been committed.

  2. Big Thinking about return on investment: Program staff, executive staff, grantmaking committee members, foundation board members, technical assistance providers, evaluators and grantees understand that return on investment in the grassroots grantmaking setting extends beyond the impact of the individual projects or groups that receive funding. Return on investment is viewed with bifocal lenses - looking simultaneously at individual groups, grants and projects and the collective impact of grassroots grantmaking work on individuals, neighborhoods, communities, the host funding organization and the local funding community.

  3. Patient money: The best programs have a stable source of funding that is positioned for the long-term. Yes, I know - this sounds like the hard one. But what I've seen is that it's really the easy one if you pay attention to the other four!

  4. High-level institutional commitment: These best work is done in places where there is a strong and palpable high-level commitment to the values of diversity and resident engagement within the host funding organization. This means that there are many champions for the work inside a funding organization and not just one champion. This, in my opnion, is perhaps the most important linchpin of successful grassroots grantmaking programs. If the people at the top don't get it - and I mean really get it in their hearts and their heads, not just "go along" get it - then everything else is tenuous.

  5. Trust: The best work is done when funders work from a position of trust and understand what it means to work from a "we begin with residents" perspective and why it is in their best interest to have residents in the foreground rather than the background. It also comes when the funder understands that the goal of grassroots grantmaking is supporting active citizenship and building civic capacity and not providing seed money to help baby non-profits grow into efficient service delivery entities. When there's trust, there's a better opportunity for co-learning and traveling down the road together and a better understanding of the risks that are involved (or are just imagined).

I hope you'll join me in looking forward with the insights that come from looking backward, and think about what you can do this year to strengthen your grassroots grantmaking work, perhaps using these five factors as your starting point. And if you can't focus on all 5, hover there at the end of the list on numbers 4 and 5. These are the big ones.

I look forward to coninuing the journey togther this year and would love to know what you have in mind for the year to come. Post a comment to share your thinking or email me directly.

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