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?

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