April 20, 2010

What It Takes to Support Action Groups

Everyday Democracy posted a story today by Sally Campbell that is right on target for funders who think big about small grants. Take a look at 6 Elements of Successful Action Groups.

This reminded me of a recent conversation with one of the most thoughtful people in the Grassroots Grantmakers network. We were talking about the next phase of work for his foundation - what happens after you have successfully launched a grassroots grantmaking program and now have relationships with dozens of resident-led groups in your community. He said that figuring out how to make the most of his spot in the center - how he could connect the groups that they had funded and set the stage for a new set of possibilities - was his focus. How smart is that?

If you read Sally's article with this in mind - and remembering that we're thinking about block level groups that aren't staffed, groups of active citizens that are part of a fluid network that doesn't have much connective tissue - my hunch is that the important role that a small grassroots grantmaking oriented funder can play in supporting action groups will jump off the page.

Here's what jumped out for me (see my additions in green) from Sally's 6 elements of successful action groups as I was thinking about what a funder can do to help action ideas turn into real change:

It is important that the leader(s) have connections to partnering organizations (funder has these and opens the doors), knowledge of the issue (ditto), and the ability to take into consideration many different perspectives (ditto). Action groups also need a skilled group-process facilitator (supported via technical assistance funds) who can help the group work together productively.

Administrative support: Whether it's one person dedicated to this task or the responsibility is shared among group members, someone (could be the funder or a resident-leader who is coached/supported by the funder or technical assistance provider) needs to take minutes, send meeting reminders, and stay in touch with the organizers. Make sure there are clear expectations and deadlines for these tasks.

Organizational or institutional oversight: Action groups need administrative support and a good leader, as well as a connection to a larger organizing group. This could be an institution that is already working on the issue or an organizing sub-group that coordinates and takes responsibility for the action phase (Guess who. This one is obvious - right?).

Resources: Keep an eye out for new grants (voile!), networking and partnership opportunities (yes, that's what we mean when we say it's about more than grants), and ways to recruit volunteers. Ask steering group members for their suggestions to get you on the right track.

Credibility: Action groups are more successful when their efforts demonstrate progress and are seen as part of an authentic community effort. Make sure your project connects with a larger community issue, and don't forget to spread the word about what you're doing. (Receiving a grants offers instant credibility, so you're already on the road with this one. Now what about those connections to up the credibility....).

Tell the story: Document and share your progress with your community. Take pictures and videos to help bring life to your story. Share your insights and progress through press coverage, a website, a blog, newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, etc. (Think of what more you can here with the reports that you need for your grants process anyway - and what audiences you can provide via your grantmaking committee, board members, donors, partners, your newsletter and website).

What do you think? What's been your experience with supporting action groups? Post a comment to share your experience.

April 18, 2010

Learning from Cleveland on Fighting Foreclosure

Being at the leading edge is the place to be - right? What if you're at the leading edge of the foreclosure crisis? What if the foreclosure tsunami hit your community before anyone realized that there was a tsunami? What if it hit so silently that you didn't even realize what had happened until you drove down the street after street and saw the devastation that it had left behind?

That's what happened in Cleveland. Cleveland was one of the cities on the leading edge of the wave of foreclosures that has swept across the United States. And they are still on the leading edge - this time in responding to the crisis.

Grassroots Grantmakers has just released a new publication - Fighting Foreclosure: What you can do in your neighborhood - that is designed to tap into the block-level response to foreclosures in Cleveland and help both funders and neighborhood residents in other cities get a clearer picture of the critical role that residents can (and must) play in dealing with the destabilization that foreclosures bring to neighborhoods.

Here's a quick sketch of what's included in this 8 page publication:
  • Foreclosure explained - A simple definition, with a listing of the possible outcomes of the foreclosure process.
  • The neighborhood effect of foreclosures - A short description of the destabilizing effect that foreclosures can have at the neighborhood level, illustrated by a map of foreclosures in Cleveland from 2006 to 2009.
  • What an investment in active neighborhood leaders makes sense - a piece from me on why it's important for funders - especially those who are skilled at grassroots grantmaking - to encourage and support foreclosure response at the neighborhood resident level.
  • Focus on Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood - how residents in this Cleveland neighborhood have responded to the devastating effect of foreclosures
  • Practical ideas for neighborhood groups - a list of simple but potentially powerful ways that neighborhood groups can respond to foreclosures
  • Preventing Foreclosures Neighbor to Neighbor - Proactive ways that residents and groups can help their neighbors who are facing foreclosure and get to the bottom of practices that are contributing to the foreclosure epidemic.
  • Resources available to avoid foreclosure - a list of resources available in Cleveland and nationally. The Cleveland area resources may spark some thinking about local resources in other cities.
  • A conversation with Tony Brancatelli, Cleveland City Councilman, about how grassroots groups can make a difference.

This publication is available for download on the Grassroots Grantmakers website; printed copies are available to members of Grassroots Grantmakers.

April 13, 2010

It's About Action

Here's one thing about grassroots grantmaking that sets it apart - it's about action.

So much of what I see in philanthropy is about talk, not action. Especially when "the community" is involved, or when civic engagement is the goal. Don't get me wrong. I believe in the power of "dialogue". But isn't there always more power when action goes along with dialogue?

The ideas that come from community residents are typically about "doing" - connecting with some neighbors to do something. And the money from the grant is typically spent on "things" needed for the "doing" rather than staff or administrative expenses.

The secret ingredient in the grassroots grantmaking equation, however, is often overlooked or under-appreciated. The secret ingredient is the "get going" message that comes with the good news that "your grant has been approved". It's the message that the time for action is here. You've thought about it, you've talked about it, you've dreamed about it - now it's time to do it!

So with this in mind - and a reminder that more "action" is a good thing for both funders and the groups that they fund - here are some simple yet profound "little rules for action" from one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits. And perhaps because I'm feeling a bit mischievous today, I've added some color coding to the rules that I think particularly apply to those in philanthropy:
  1. Don’t overthink. Too much thinking often results in getting stuck, in going in circles. Some thinking is good — it’s good to have a clear picture of where you’re going or why you’re doing this — but don’t get stuck thinking. Just do.
  2. Just start. All the planning in the world will get you nowhere. You need to take that first step, no matter how small or how shaky. My rule for motivating myself to run is: Just lace up your shoes and get out the door. The rest takes care of itself.
  3. Forget perfection. Perfectionism is the enemy of action. Kill it, immediately. You can’t let perfect stop you from doing. You can turn a bad draft into a good one, but you can’t turn no draft into a good draft. So get going.
  4. Don’t mistake motion for action. A common mistake. A fury of activity doesn’t mean you’re doing anything. When you find yourself moving too quickly, doing too many things at once, this is a good reminder to stop. Slow down. Focus.
  5. Focus on the important actions. Clear the distractions. Pick the one most important thing you must do today, and focus on that. Exclusively. When you’re done with that, repeat the process.
  6. Move slowly, consciously. Be deliberate. Action doesn’t need to be done fast. In fact, that often leads to mistakes, and while perfection isn’t at all necessary, neither is making a ridiculous amount of mistakes that could be avoided with a bit of consciousness.
  7. Take small steps. Biting off more than you can chew will kill the action. Maybe because of choking, I dunno. But small steps always works. Little tiny blows that will eventually break down that mountain. And each step is a victory, that will compel you to further victories.
  8. Negative thinking gets you nowhere. Seriously, stop doing that. Self doubt? The urge to quit? Telling yourself that it’s OK to be distracted and that you can always get to it later? Squash those thoughts. Well, OK, you can be distracted for a little bit, but you get the idea. Positive thinking, as corny as it sounds, really works. It’s self-talk, and what we tell ourselves has a funny habit of turning into reality.
  9. Meetings aren’t action. This is a common mistake in management. They hold meetings to get things done. Meetings, unfortunately, almost always get in the way of actual doing. Stop holding those meetings!
  10. Talking (usually) isn’t action. Well, unless the action you need to take is a presentation or speech or something. Or you’re a television broadcaster. But usually, talking is just talking. Communication is necessary, but don’t mistake it for actual action.
  11. Planning isn’t action. Sure, you need to plan. Do it, so you’re clear about what you’re doing. Just do it quickly, and get to the actual action as quickly as you can.
  12. Reading about it isn’t action. You’re reading an article about action. Ironic, I know. But let this be the last one. Now get to work!
  13. Sometimes, inaction is better. This might be the most ironic thing on the list, but really, if you find yourself spinning your wheels, or you find you’re doing more harm than good, rethink whether the action is even necessary. Or better yet, do this from the beginning — is it necessary? Only do the action if it is.
And remember:

"Talk doesn't cook rice" - Chinese proverb

April 11, 2010

How Much is Enough?

If we're talking about thinking big about small grants, just how much are we talking about? If you're just starting down the grassroots grantmaking road, how much do you need to get off to a good start? $10,000? $50,000? $100,000? More than that?

It may be no surprise that I'm going to say "it depends" - or that "it depends" is tied to how the small grants work is positioned.

Some of the "exemplars" in the Grassroots Grantmakers network are large-scale programs, done in a big way. That would be Strengthening Neighborhoods at The Denver Foundation, Neighborhood Connections at the Cleveland Foundation, Neighborhood Success Grants at the Raymond John Wean Foundation, the Neighborhood Unity Foundation that's associated with the Jacobs Family Foundation's work in San Diego, The Skillman Foundation's Community Connections grant program, the Battle Creek Community Foundation's Yes We Can Neighborhood Grants program. All six-figures or more, long-term investments that are strategically positioned and integrated.

I would love for every place-based funder to exhibit the commitment that I see in these funders. There are so many more that have the financial capacity to make similar commitments and do work this smart, but are missing something about the strategic advantages of adding grassroots grantmaking to their mix. We're curious about and working on the barriers for funders in that situation - haven't given up and won't give up.

But another really interesting possibility is for groups who don't have such deep pockets. A small foundation, even one without staff, can do respectable - even wonderful - grassroots grantmaking work for as little $20,000/year for grants. I've even seen community-based organizations raise their own money and move into a grassroots grantmaking role in their own communities for less than $10,000/year. After all, these are small grants we're talking about - grants that range from $100 to $5,000.

On top of the grants budget, there's the cost of doing business - the people power that it takes to do the relationship-oriented work of grassroots grantmaking. I sometimes hear that this is a barrier - that staff are already stretched too thin to take on another grants program, especially one that requires staff to get out into the community and stay connected to grantees outside of the grants cycle. That's certainly an important consideration - this work can't be done well without people - the right person with enough time to do the work justice. But I've seen some creative approaches to solving the staffing challenge that are win-wins. The Vancouver Foundation's partnership with neighborhood houses, the Seattle Foundation's Neighbor to Neighbor "pooled grant fund" approach that utilizes contracted assistance, southern Arizona's ProNeighborhoods, and the Great Indy Neighborhood's alliance with the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center for IMAGINE grants are just a few creative examples of smart approaches that maximize the impact of available dollars.

It seems to me that "how much is enough" seems to boil do to "how big can you think" rather than "how big are your dollars". What do you think?