March 23, 2010

Catalysts or Co-Creators?

One thing that grantmakers assume is that it's good to be a catalyst. I agree. But when we really dig into the definition of a catalyst and think about the kind of grantmaking that results in big thinking on small grants, being a catalyst might not be enough. It might even be a bit boring.

The dictionary defines catalyst as something that brings about or speeds up change without being involved in or changed by the consequences. Did you get that last part? That's what I'm talking about.

It was some remarks by Sebastian Mathews that turned on light bulb on for me about the limitations of grantmakers as catalysts. Sebastian serves on the board of the Greater Rustenburg Community Foundation in South Africa, and was Grassroots Grantmakers guest on a recent webinar. I first met Sebastian at last summer's "From Clients to Citizens Forum", hosted by The Coady International Institute and the ABCD Institute to bring together practitioners from all over the world who are using the citizen-led orientation of asset-based community development in their work. The webinar was geared to sharing the insights from this forum and to hit the highlights on the forum report, and featured Sebastian as one of the presenters.

Sebastian talked about the relationship between a donor and the community and what his experience at the forum had sparked for him. He talked about the journey from a charitable giver, with unilateral requirements and demands, and change facilitator, a donor/funder whose relationship with the community is one of shared and mutual expectations. And this is where the concept of "catalyst" came in.

He talked about work that is coercive, catalytic and co-creative - with co-creative characterizing the work of a funder that is in a change-facilitator relationship with the community. He then talked about the continuous learning by both the funder and the community that is required to achieve this co-creative relationship - that change occurs on both sides of this relationship equation.

Thus the limitations of work that stays in that catalytic place - aspiring to bring about change in the community without an openness to change in the funder.

Grantmakers as catalysts - definitely much better than grantmakers as coercive givers. But the danger with the grantmakers as catalysts "place" is that it can be so comfortable, padded with insulation from hearing what you need to hear to do the best work that you can do. You can look outside and see change, without seeing what you could do inside to help create even more powerful change. It's about removing yourself from the context and taking no share in the responsibility for why things are like they are outside your window. It's safe. And so I say "ho hum".

The most powerful (and effective) work that I've seen across the grassroots grantmaking/big thinking about small grants landscape is being done by funders who committed to learning and are constantly honing their craft. They can talk about the learning journey that they have been on as an institution. They can share their evolving relationship with the community where they do their work. They think of the grants that they make as just part of the picture. The value the people associated with those grants as perspective-givers and community guides. I don't hear much "gotcha" talk. I hear more "we's" than "they's". I hear about a spirit of co-creation.

What about you? How do you think about the implications of "grantmaker as catalyst"? What do the insights that I shared from Sebastian's remarks spark for you?

(If you want to click through the PowerPoint presentation that was used for the Grassroots Grantmakers webinar that I mentioned here, you can find it on this page under the February 23, 2010 heading.)

March 19, 2010

The Power of a List

Tom O'Brien, Manager of Neighborhood Connections, The Cleveland Foundation's wonderful grassroots grantmaking program, recently reminded me of the power of a list. Not just any list, but a list that fills in a missing piece of the community change puzzle in a community.

Tom and his Neighborhood Connections team are putting the finishing touches on a directory of grassroots groups and neighborhood associations who are at work in Cleveland's neighborhoods. With listings for 350 groups, this "telephone book" of Cleveland's grassroots groups is intended to highlight the work of grassroots groups in Cleveland and to serve as a catalyst for more groups to work together to create positive change in Cleveland's neighborhoods. The directory lists organizations and groups by neighborhood and by organizational mission (arts groups, block clubs, environmental groups, etc). It also includes contact information for the Cleveland neighborhood centers and a resource guide for training programs and a list of other grassroots funders. The guide will be available both in hard-copy form and as a search-able on-line document.

I know that putting this together has been a lot of work. My ancient history includes heading up a neighborhood resource center that published a similar directory, so I appreciate the time that this requires. But I also know that this is time well spent.

What makes directories such as these so powerful? If the stated purposes of this directory aren't enough (and they are), here are even more reasons who directories such as this are worth doing:

  • If anyone dares to say that no one cares, that not much is going on at the grassroots in Cleveland - take a look.
  • If anyone thinks that they are alone, slogging away in their neighborhood - take a look.
  • If anyone is wondering what's going on in the next neighborhood or across town - take a look.
  • If anyone is "shopping" for a neighborhood and wants to see where people are invested in the neighborhood's quality of life and future - take a look.
  • If anyone wants to connect with people a neighborhood and doesn't know where to start (because so many groups are invisible to outsiders) - take a look.
  • If anyone wonders if investing in the passion and creativity of grassroots groups is a smart investment - take a look.

While I love what Neighborhood Connections is doing, I'm not sharing this as a new invention. I'm sharing this as a reminder of the power of something as simple as a list - and an invitation for you to share your experience with similar directories in your community. Post a comment to share information about similar projects in your community and what you've seen about the power of the list.

March 17, 2010

The Grassroots Grantmaking Squeeze Play

I've noticed something so common in the grassroots grantmaking world that I've decided to give it a name - the grassroots grantmaking squeeze play.

In baseball, a squeeze play is a maneuver consisting of a sacrifice bunt when the batter is on third base. The batter is out but the runner at third base scores. It's about team work - working together to help the team win.

In a grassroots grantmaking squeeze play, it's the opposite of team work. No one scores. Everyone loses.

The players:
  • A Program Officer
  • The Foundation's Executive Team
  • Community members and the groups that they form to do things in their own neighborhoods
The play as told from the Program Officer's perspective:

Our Grassroots Grantmaking program is about three years old. We're really seeing some results now. We're hearing from the types of groups that we had in mind when we began this program . We're connecting with people and groups that we hadn't been able to reach through our other funding programs - and now have a different perspective on the possibilities of change at the grassroots. As the Program Officer at this foundation who is responsible for this work, I've been amazed by the return on investment of these grants and the energy and passion that the grant recipients bring to the work that we're funding. And the growth that I've seen in the residents who sit on the grantmaking panel for this program has been amazing. Yes, this takes some time, but when I get out of the office and into the community, it's so obvious how important this work is - not just for the projects that we're supporting, but for the change that I can see in the people who are doing the work - the connections that are forming between neighbors who had been strangers, and the change in perception that people seem to have about themselves.

But unfortunately, everyone here at the foundation doesn't see this program the same way. Our President informed me this week that the funding for this program is being eliminated - that in these challenging economic times, we can't afford to put money in programs that don't address core issues in ways that produce measurable results. She says that we can't afford to invest valuable staff time in small grants that don't add up to much. She says that the essential organizations in this community are struggling and that we have an obligation to support those organizations, that our community can't afford to let them fail. She says that when the economy rebounds, we might consider adding programs like the grassroots grantmaking program back into the mix - but that can't happen unless we have enough financial breathing room to invest in the extras.

I was surprised, because these grants have been featured in our newsletters. But then not surprised because no one from our executive team has been out in the community or in grantmaking committee meeting. Their knowledge of the program is from arms-length - with a focus primarily on the small scale of both the grants and the groups that are receiving the grants. Unfortunately for our grassroots grantmaking program, their perception of possibilities seems to be tied up with the amount of money invested and the reputation of the groups that receive the money. Too bad that I can't get the Executive Team here to see what I see, but in my junior position, neither I nor the community leaders I have met through work on this program have much opportunity to influence our foundation's funding strategy or priorities. So now I'm here in the middle, knowing first-hand the power of this work at the community-level and the insignificance of the work for our foundation. And tagged with being the bearer of this bad news to both the grantmaking committee and the groups that we have come to know and respect over the past three years.

See the squeeze play? The Program Officer is caught in the middle between the decision-makers at his foundation and the rich set of new relationships that the foundation now has because of solid grassroots grantmaking work - relationships that have never made it into the higher-level planning tables at the foundation. The Program Officer is also caught in the middle between the President's focus on grants as transactions and grassroots grantmaking's understanding of grants as just one tool that a funder can do to foster active citizenship at the block level. Also caught in the middle between the perception that professional non-profits are the creator of community health and vitality and grassroots grantmaking's belief that place-based philanthropy cannot realize its full potential without community residents in the picture as contributors rather than recipients of services. Squeezed into a no-win situation.

But Executive Team is also caught in the squeeze between two different theories of change - the theory that bets on a strong, stable, non-profit infrastructure as the key to a better community, and the theory that says that non-profits aren't enough, that community resilicience and vitality also depends on what people do and how they see themselves with respect to the community. They are also caught in the squeeze between the implications of seeing grantmaking as transactional and grantmaking as relational - between a focus on money and a focus on relationships - and the very deal decisions that have very real budget implications about are associated with both of those approaches.

And the community? They are the runner left on second base when the inning is over. They've gotten a hit, are ready to run, but never have the chance.

Like baseball's squeeze play, the players in grassroots grantmaking's squeeze play are talented, determined, committed professionals, looking for the win. That's why I'm writing this. Not to knock the president for staying in her comfort zone. Not to knock the Program Officer for staying in his comfort zone. Only trying to say that because we have pros on this team, because we have untapped potential in the community that is waiting only for an invitation to move from the sidelines into the action, because we need everyone on the field to win this high-stakes game - we have to figure this out. We have to figure out how to bridge this gap and turn the grassroots grantmaking squeeze play into a win-win team sport. Some of this is certainly about organizational culture and dynamics. But I think it's probably more about some fundamental assumptions that shape place-based strategy - assumptions that become more visible at critical decision-making points.

Have you ever been part of a grassroots grantmaking squeeze play? Can you see a way to build a winning and get out of this lose-lose-lose situation Click "comment" below and share your experience.

March 11, 2010

Big Thinking is Two Years Old!

Big Thinking is now two years old and 100 posts strong. I began this blog with a commitment to write once a week but with permission to skip a week when the writing felt forced and to write more often when the ideas were flowing. My goal was to share the unique perspective that I have on the growing field of grassroots grantmaking as the Executive Director of the network of innovative place-based funders who are investing directly in people and groups who work so close to the ground that they aren't picked up by the normal grantmaking radar. I was hoping that what I have to share would be at least interesting - hopefully useful.

After two years, here's what has surprised me, encouraged me, and kept me going:

Surprised that.....

  • writing for "Big Thinking" has been about discovery. Almost every time I sit down to write, I discover something about the possibilities and challenges associated with thinking big about small grants - an insight, a theme, a trend, a common stumbling block.
  • the time I spend working on the blog is some of my favorite time - often the only time in my week that I can dedicate to reflecting about the work that I'm doing. For this reason alone, if I was the only "Big Thinking" reader, I would keep blogging.
  • the posts that have challenged conventional thinking on volunteerism have been the posts that have hit some nerves. I did not realize how emotionally invested we are in the concept of "help those less fortunate" type of volunteerism or how difficult it might be to open up that concept to make room for people who engaged in "active citizen" type volunteerism.

  • so many of my posts have been about the funder side of the grantmaking equation - the overly big processes and inflated sense of risk that gets in the way of big thinking about small grants.

  • so few of my posts have been about problems that occur on the grantee side of the grantmaking equation. That's because I so rarely hear about the things that funders are initially worried about (usually something about how emerging groups can manage money). Perhaps that's why I write about the funder side of the equation so much.

Encouraged by.....

  • the people who have found this blog and joined the conversation - and the different ways that "joining the conversation" has showed up. I had hoped that people would post comments or email me directly - and that's happened. I've been delighted to learn that people are using my posts as fodder for discussion at board and grantmaking committee meetings, and including posts as features in their newsletters. Amazing and wonderful.

  • the increase in readers week to week. Still a way to go to get where I want to be (and you can help me get there by sharing this blog with colleagues), but steady progress that is truly encouraging. Thank you!

Keeping me going by.....

  • having a platform to easily spot and share the helpful images that my colleagues use to explain the nuances of grassroots grantmaking and active citizenship. Remember David Derbyshire's "face-based grantmaking", Mike Blockstein's "community is a verb", Tom Dewar's "small tables prepare us for big tables" and concept of "patient money"?
  • moments when I can jump into a deeper conversation with a colleague because we've been on a journey together via this blog.
  • the very tangible reminder that this growing blog community provides that there is a growing community of people out there who think big about small grants and want grassroots grantmaking to be more in the philanthropic mainstream.

This is a wrap for Year 2. Ready to go for Year 3!