February 24, 2010

Small Grants Sampler

This is the first of some "back to the basics" posts - back to the initiative, ingenuity and energy that small grants release at the community level.

Drawn from the funders in our Grassroots Grantmakers network, here are three amazing small grants to share in this first "small grants sampler":

From The Skillman Foundation's Community Connections grassroots grantmaking program:

Youth Growing Brightmoor: This project began when fifteen young people decided to build and manage a a raised garden bed and sell their produce at a local market over the summer. A $1,000 grant was used to purchase compost, seeds, plants, lumber, hardware and T-shirts.

This project exceeded the initial group's expectations. The number of youth participants were double the number expected. Participants contributed over 1000 hours of labor, produced 400 lbs of high quality organic produce and sold more than 25 varieties of fruits and vegetables at the farmers market. They earned over $1,200 from the sales, which was divided evenly among them. They received instruction from the Garden Resource Program, went on fields trips, sponsored a camp and cook-out at the garden site, went to market over 10 times, and quickly became market favorites with their orange shirts. They hosted over 200 guests as part of the Detroit Garden tour.

The group now considers themselves self sufficient for the present garden. They have repeated the project with more youth participants and earned even greater profits.

From The Cleveland Foundation's Neighborhood Connections grassroots grantmaking program:

Our Stories: Senior citizens have shared their stories with younger generations forever, but now a Cleveland State University faculty member wants to make sure the seniors get something in exchange. Under a program Dwayne Wright created called "Our Stories," high school students paint the storyteller's front porch and plant flowers while other students gather the tales. With a $3,000 grant from Neighborhood Connections, Wright bought a video camera and painting supplies. He recruited teens active in the Friendly Inn Settlement and other community centers around Cedar and Central avenues. Members of the group met weekly to learn interviewing techniques and line up older residents. Listening to older residents talk about how to make the community better has gotten teens asking what they can do. The teens painted as many front porches as they could over the summer, and then published a brochure of the stories and made DVDs to give to seniors and libraries - a definite win/win for the young people and the seniors in this Cleveland neighborhood.

From The Raymond John Wean Foundation's Neighborhood SUCCESS Grants grassroots grantmaking program:

The Burbank Renovation Project: A grant of $5000 was awarded to the Warren Athletic Club to repair fences and bleachers at the baseball/softball fields. The repairs were needed to ensure the safety of the players and their families. With the funds obtained from the Raymond John Wean Foundation, the group was able to leverage an additional $40,000 from groups such as the Warren Area Chamber of Education, Civic and Cultural Foundation and Trumbull 100. The City of Warren also participated by installing hydrants and a new drinking fountain. Finally, the Northwest Homeowners Association selected the park for its Make-A-Difference Day project committing to trim trees and clean up areas of the park that had become overgrown and unusable over the years. The project began as a small idea to repair sections of damaged and potentially dangerous fencing and grew into a significant renovation project. The group stated that “The Neighborhood SUCCESS Grant was the initial push the project needed to get rolling And the momentum it has gained during the year is far greater than we could have ever imagined”.

Do you have stories of amazing small grants for future small grants samplers? I want to hear from you! Contact me directly via email or share your story with a comment.

February 21, 2010

Who Are Your Teachers?

Grassroots Grantmakers is a small-at-the-center organization with a big vision. We want place-based philanthropy to be all that it can be, and to us, that means that the people who live in the place where the philanthropy is happening are squarely in the picture as change-makers and not at the edges as recipients of services, clients, consumers or even beneficiaries. We're about better communities, but our focus is better philanthropy. And one of the ways we work towards better philanthropy is by promoting learning - helping those on the ground and those making decisions about what gets done learn about operationalizing a goal of engaging and supporting residents as change-makers.

As I have connected with grantmakers about their work and worked with our board to set priorities for Grassroots Grantmakers, I have spotted a tension that seems odd to me. It's another version of the "who do you trust" question that has been a frequent theme of the posts on this blog. This time it's about learning - about who you trust as your teacher.
Do you trust the "experts"? Or do you trust other people like you? And if you answer "experts", who indeed are the experts that you trust? If you answer "people like you", who are those people?
Here are the snippets of conversations that have led me to this post, and who the person asking that question may turn to for help:
  • What's the definitive article on that topic? (experts)
  • Can you connect me to the person who is running the XYZ grassroots grantmaking program? (people like you)
  • How are they demonstrating results? What does their evaluator say? (experts)
  • Who else is facing this question? What are they doing? (people like you)
  • Who is the national authority on that question? What are they saying? (experts)
  • Who are the innovators in this field? What has been their learning journey? (people like you)

I trust experts and people like me. I want the definitive article, the evaluation and a relationships with the national authority. But when I think about the transformative learning experiences in my life, people like me have almost always been in the picture.

So what's the connection with thinking big about small grants? I see connections on two levels - at the grassroots grantmaking program level and at the national grassroots grantmaking field-building level.

At the grassroots grantmaking program level, I often see funders invest a lot of time in training for the grassroots groups that receive their grants, with training offered by a range of "how to" experts associated with organizational or personal development - how to run a meeting, how to develop a budget, how to make a presentation, how to tell your story, etc. I also often hear the surprise in people's voices when I mention the power of bringing grantees together for peer to peer learning or the power of asking grantees to organize and lead the "how to" sessions, becoming themselves the "how to" experts. Seeking opportunities to bring grantees together - especially when the grantees are local and bringing together does not require a plane ticket or a hotel room - is perhaps the "biggest bang for your buck" add-on for grassroots grantmaking.

At the national grassroots grantmaking field-building level, I'm now thinking about the work of Grassroots Grantmakers. Yes, we welcome opportunities to serve as "the expert" and to connect with national authorities to produce reports and evaluations. But our main focus has been and probably will be on creating opportunities for funders to connect with their peers in the spirit of learning. We do this with the "on the ground" learning gatherings that we organize in concert with who we perceive as the most innovative funding organizations in our network. We also do this with our "sharing the learning" publications and our webinars.

Hooray for us. But here is the point of tension that is the reason for this post.

I often begin my learning journey with a real fascination for the experts. I read everything and even become somewhat "groupie-like" when it comes to the authorities in whatever it is I'm studying. I'm religious about following the steps, doing all of the "do's" and avoiding all of the "don'ts". And then I hit a wall, in that frustrating but very predictable place of realizing that good work is very seldom about formulas. It's then that I turn to people like me like me and remember that my experience is that when I connect with "people like me", I can make sense of what the experts are saying, use what is relevant and discard what is not. It's then that I remember that I need "people like me" for the deeper learning that I need to move forward.

When I see the stacks of reports on my desk and the money invested in producing and distributing these reports, I wonder if there's an equal amount of money invested in "people like me" learning opportunities. I have struggled with that question in my work with Grassroots Grantmakers - knowing that we need to do the reports to capture attention, but that without the "people like me" experiences, our reports will only contribute to the piles on peoples desk. I'm curious about what I perceive is a "pecking order" associated with learning - that our philanthropic investments suggest that we trust the experts to inform our learning more than we trust "people like me" type learning - that "people like me" learning is fluff while learning from experts is core.

What has been your experience? Who are your teachers? Where do you turn to "experts", where do seek "people like you" to advance your learning? What is your experience with the relationship between learning from experts and learning from people like you? Jump in with a comment.

February 8, 2010

Why Grassroots Grantmakers?

One thing that I don't say very often about small grants is that they are easy to make. Truth is, they are or can be.

Put together a simple application, set a deadline, announce that you have money to give and work with what comes through the transom on deadline day. Read the
proposals, select the best ones, write the award letters, cut the checks, mail the letters, put a tickler on your calendar to look for the final reports, skim and file final reports.

There may be some tweaks that you need to make to your foundation's normal grant process and documents to make everything work better with novice grantseekers, but any Program Officer worth their salt can figure those out.

So why Grassroots Grantmakers? Why do we need a network of funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking? Why not go it alone or use your own philanthropic network to find someone who is doing this work for some spot coaching, and then do your thing in your own community? In this time of scarcity or perceived scarcity, why do we need Grassroots Grantmakers?

I think about this every day. That question is there when I pour my morning coffee and turn on my computer. It's here every time I begin a post on this blog. As the Executive Director of this network, I want to be the first to see and say out loud "no longer needed" or "superfluous". I also want to keep my focus on the horizon and recognize the changing landscape of civic engagement and community change work, helping Grassroots Grantmakers change with the time. I'm a seeker of the honest feedback to helps me see blind spots.

Today's post is an intentional check-in with readers of this blog and members of our grassroots grantmaking community to share how it looks from my angle and to ask you how it looks from yours. Encouragement is welcome but this isn't a veiled request for affirmation. It's a real invitation for real feedback.

Here's a sketch of the landscape from my perspective:

Small grants are easy to make. What's more challenging is effectively using small grants programs and other tools that grantmakers can employ to engage people at the block level, strengthen civic capacity and build a more nurturing and resilient community. The brain-surgery aspect of grassroots grantmaking - the really hard work - is bringing the "we begin with residents" perspective into a place-based foundation's strategic approach to how they do their work.

While help with getting small grants programs up and running is good to do, it doesn't need a network. We do need a network to champion the brain-surgery work of bringing residents more fully into place-based philanthropy and increasing the effectiveness of resident-centered work. We need a network to encourage big thinking about small grants - to grow grassroots grantmaking as a field.

Toward that end, here's what we don't need:

  • Another slick report-generating, mega-conference-hosting, issue-of-the day entity for funders;
  • Another "we know/you don't but we won't tell you unless you pay us" entity;
  • Another "learning via 90-minute workshop sound-bite" entity that presumes that learning is mainly in your head, not in your practice on the street;
  • Another "make something that is simple appear complicated entity";
  • Another "here's the formula/best practice" entity that makes the complicated seem overly simple.

What appears to be needed:

  • A touchstone for funders who share an interest that is not yet within the philanthropic mainstream but is central to the effectiveness of place-based philanthropy;
  • A pro-active connector that seeks and creates opportunities to those at funding entities who are associated with grassroots grantmaking programs (staff, board, grantmaking committee members) to connect with their peers in other localities in a spirit of mutual learning and discovery;
  • A place to easily check out the documents and tools that others have developed, and freely cut and paste to help funders avoid devoting precious time to needless reinventing-the-wheel work;
  • An observer/documenter of grassroots grantmaking work as it is playing out in various communities, with an eye to noting themes - common struggles or tensions, paths of development, promising practices - and sharing those in a way that encourages reflection and learning;
  • A safe place for reflection and the harder conversations about what it takes for a funder to work effectively and deeply with people who feel marginalized or live in communities that are at the margins;
  • And possibly foremost - a collective statement, made by the people who are doing the work and seeing the difference that it making in their communities, that there is a place for grassroots grantmaking in the philanthropic mainstream.

This is what we're trying to accomplish with Grassroots Grantmakers. If we're on target with this, that means that the benefit that comes to an organization or an individual who is associated with us - with the community of practice that we're trying to create - is as much a "building this field together" benefit as it is a personal benefit. And that requires some big thinking about small grants.

It also requires a critical mass. Not one person or one entity supported by one national funder. It requires a network - a community of funders who are committed to effective place-based funding and who believe that the effectiveness that we all are seeking cannot be achieved if community residents are sitting on the sidelines, engaged as passive players rather than active contributors.

With this in mind, here's the question of the hour: Is this work that is really worth doing, and worth a modest investment by many toward a shared goal? Would you be comfortable making the case to the person in the corner office in your foundation that your organization needs to be connected?

I love how Patrick Horvath, manager of The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods program, has approached this question. He says that contributing to building the field of grassroots grantmaking and being connected to others who are in his position in other funding organizations in other communities is at least as important as just one of the small grants that The Denver Foundation makes each year through Strengthening Neighborhoods. But then Patrick is also very open about sharing The Denver Foundation's learning journey and clear that thinking big is not primarily about the mechanics of small grants programs.

What do you think? If we were sitting together over coffee in the morning, what would you say if I asked, "why Grassroots Grantmakers" and really wanted to hear?