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.

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