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?

1 comment:

  1. Why Grassroots Grantmakers?

    Because as a person who is personally involved in her own neighborhood group, I see time and again how one introduction opens a world of possibilities. I see how sharing information leads to safer streets and a vigilance in watching out for one another. I see how monitoring vacant lots and foreclosed homes gives neighbors a sense of being a part of the slow moving process to get things done.

    And as a funder I see how we can be an enigma to our residents. I see how difficult it is to get some trustees on board with the idea that a block party is more than just a 'fun time'; that it is the beginning of relationships that can make a difference. I realize that not a whole lot of people think we are there to help them on a microcosm level; we as the foundation are seen as being there for big professional organizations to the apparent exclusion of all others.

    Am I frustrated because this program is most likely not going to be renewed at our foundation? you bet. Will I continue to read these columns for ideas and inspiration to try again at some point? Another you bet.