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.)

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