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.

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