May 24, 2010

Walking for Jane: Why This Matters

I love the idea of Jane's Walk. I learned about Jane's Walk from Julie Black, Citizen Engagement Associate at The Calgary Foundation and new member of the Grassroots Grantmakers Board of Directors. Read the article that Julie wrote about the recent Jane's Walk in Calgary. Calgary was one of the 68 cities worldwide (29 in Canada, 32 in the U.S, 7 internationally) including San Juan Puerto Rico, La Paloma Uruguay, Goa & Mumbai India, Dublin Ireland and Madrid Spain that participated in this year's Jane's Walk.

Haven't heard of Jane's Walk? Here's a short blurb from the Jane's Walk website:
Jane’s Walk is a series of free neighbourhood walking tours that helps put people in touch with their environment and with each other, by bridging social and geographic gaps and creating a space for cities to discover themselves. Since its inception in 2007, Jane’s Walk has happened in cities across North America, and is quickly expanding internationally. In 2009 Jane’s Walks were held in 46 cities with a total of 315 walks offered. In 2010 there are 68 cities with over 418 tours on offer. All Jane’s Walk tours are given and taken for free.

The main Jane’s Walk event takes place annually on the first weekend of May, to coincide with Jane Jacobs’ birthday. Jane’s Walks can be organized and offered any other time of the year by enthusiastic local people or organizations, although the first weekend in May is where we focus our organizational energies and resources.

Jane’s Walk honours the legacy and ideas of urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs who championed the interests of local residents and pedestrians over a car-centered approach to planning. Jane’s Walk often takes Jacobs’ ideas to communities unfamiliar with her ideas, in order to advance local engagement with contemporary urban planning practices. The walks helps knit people together into a strong and resourceful community, instilling belonging and encouraging civic leadership.

I'm writing about Jane's Walk today for 2 reasons. First, I love the idea and want to spread the word and encourage people who connect with this blog to bring this idea to their community. I'm going to mark my calendar now for

Second, I'm stewing about something - and Jane's Walk provides an opening for me to ask you to help me think about this.

I've had two conversations in the last two weeks with funders who are clearly big thinkers about small grants - extremely committed to a more progressive type of philanthropy that invests in citizen action and brings resident voice into the forefront. These funders are champions of community organizing and either select community organizing groups to fund or use their funding to nurture the development of neighbor-to-neighbor connections into groups with a community organizing focus. In Grassroots Grantmakers lingo, these are groups that are working in the third layer of the grassroots grantmaking layer cake.

As I was introducing the layer cake to a new acquaintance - one of the funders I'm mentioning here - he gently broke some news to me that wasn't new news at all. He said that progressive funders who support community organizing don't believe that work like Jane's Walk makes a difference - that work that is supporting in the first two layers of the "layer cake" is nice but not important.

I can also see a similar bias among funders who identify as civic engagement funders, community development funders or public policy/systems change funders.

Jane's Walk and other similar events (like Pedal Pittsburgh, with over 2000 people bicycling through Pittsburgh's neighborhoods every year in May) is about the opportunity for people to connect to each other and deepen their connection to the place where they live. No, it's not specifically about change. It's about building "community" into everyday life - one event, hopefully among many, that provides opportunities for people to connect to each other and get beyond sound-bite messages about the place where they live. It's on target with what the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation discovered with their interesting Soul of the Community research - that how attached we feel to our community matters. And that we feel more attached when we have opportunities to connect with others in our communities and feel good about our physical surroundings - how our community looks and feels.

Even if Jane's Walk went to scale (and I'm poking some fun at how we think in the funding world by saying this), it wouldn't change the world. But what one event, idea or approach does? That's why there are three layers in our grassroots grantmaking layer cake - not just one layer labeled community organizing. And that's why we point to the first layer - the layer that is about inviting people out of their living rooms to connect with a neighbor to build connections and embrace their place as active citizens - as fundamental. No only important, but essential if working from a "we begin with residents" perspective is the goal.

I wonder if some funders don't take activities such as Jane's Walk seriously because they assume that those neighborhoods and residents who are at the margins, not in the economic/prosperity/opportunity maintream wouldn't be welcomed or invited. And if that's their assumption, I wonder if that jives with reality. And if it does jive with reality, what role that place-based funders can play in expanding the circle of participation and the possibilities that more cross-town/neighborhood/class/race/legal status activities might surface.

Or could it be because Jane's Walk/Pedal Pittsburgh/National Night Out feels more like community life than a program or a project - and that we're more comfortable with the boundaries and constraints that funding projects or programs provide? Or that it's more about ordinary people than professional problems solvers or money?

Or is it simply about focus? That some funders focus on issues such as health, education, or aging, where other funders focus on a methodology such as community organizing?

What do you think? Where do activities like Jane's Walk fit into the picture for you? A fun thing to do on a nice weekend in May, or an essential ingredient in the recipe for strong, vibrant, resilient communities? Help me out by posting a comment.

May 18, 2010

Navigating the Power Dynamic Between Place-Based Funders and Community Residents

Byron White was Grassroots Grantmakers' guest recently, talking about the paper he wrote for The Kettering Foundation - Navigating the Power Dynamic Between Institutions and Their Communities. The recorded webinar is now available on the Grassroots Grantmakers website - hope you'll check it out.

Byron made some great points about relationships between community institutions and community residents and groups. But there were some points that stood out for me as "profound truths" about the relationship between place-based funders and community residents and groups:
  • It's a relationship of "co-production" that we're seeking - and that requires shifts in both perspective (citizens as actors, not advisers) and power (from professionals to citizens).
  • It's about acknowledging and being smart about two kinds of power - social power (we're friends, I get you to do something because we're friends) and institutional power, and understanding the implications of the power differential on the institutional power side of the equation.
  • It's about understanding the possibilities and challenges associated with interacting at both macro and micro levels - that when interacting at a macro level, community residents and groups often resort to confrontation as a way of compensating for unequal footing that community members have with institutions.
  • It's about understanding the important role that brokering organizations and "agents" from those brokering organizations play on both sides of the equation - the funding side and the grantee side.
  • It's about the right agent - who the agent is, how the agent perceived his/her role, how the organization the agent represents see the agent's role.
I've written about what it takes to be the right person on the funders side of the equation. Byron's paper and presentation reminded me that it's not as simple as finding the right person. It's also about being the right organization.

He talked about three different takes on institutional agent. I've seen all three of these in the grassroots grantmaking world.

There's the freelance agent - that's someone who a funding contracts with to do the "out the community" piece of the work. Possibly someone who also manages the grant process, gets groups together or serves as a coach. This is someone who is a friend of the funding organization rather than someone who is one of the family. Someone who is great at the micro-level work but has limited capacity or power to manage the macro level work.

The second is the "sheltered agent" - someone who works for the funding organization but who focuses on the more formal exchanges associated with the grant process or funding transaction. This can be by design or by circumstance. It might be that the funding organization is putting a toe in the grassroots grantmaking water but isn't comfortable taking the dive into unknown water. Or it could simply be that there's too much on the plate.

The right person/right organization combo requires an organizational culture that supports - not just tolerates - someone who is sufficiently engaged in the community to genuinely acknowledge and response to relational forms of social power, and at the same time carries enough clout and credibility within the institution to directly respond to confrontational displays of power" - "to not only recognize the community's expertise on an issue" but to also "marshal the institutional resources to respond to it."

What might this look like in a funding organization? This is someone who is out of the office enough to build relationships and do the work at the micro level AND is present and heard in the "real-deal" in-house discussions at the foundation or funding organization. It's someone who can get beyond the typical funder conversation with community residents and group leaders and take what they learn back into the funding organization - even if its uncomfortable. It's also someone who is positioned to have sufficient influence to get the funding organization to do something it might not ordinarily have done - ask a question, expand a conversation, bend a rule, speed-up a process, open a door, take a stand. This takes "personal smarts" and courage - but it takes "institution smarts" and courage as well. It takes an institution who really wants to have a different type of relationship with its community.

Have you thought about yourself as an agent - either on the community side or the institution side? What has that experience been like for you, what are you learning about navigating the power dynamics between institutions and community? Jump in by posting a comment.

May 11, 2010

Schambra on "Wilderness Time for Nonprofits"

My friend Ruth McCambridge recently sent a note to subscribers of The Nonprofit Quarterly, recommending a speech - Wilderness Times for Nonprofits - that William Schambra recently delivered at a conference hosted by Memphis' Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence.

I'm mentioning this here for two reasons.

First, I know that I regularly harp on the implications of restricting funding to only non-profits - the message that it sends to ordinary people, and the over-reliance it creates on service delivery as the solution to our community's problems. This article was a good reminder to me that almost all non-profits began with the same citizen impulse that grassroots grantmaking embraces. In speaking about the origins of a charter school, Bill says this:
It was the act of everyday citizens coming together around a shared vision and forging their own community to embody that vision.

From nothing except a shared purpose—and in the face of all sorts of obstacles, ranging from the bureaucratic charter application process to the hostility of the teachers unions to the scorn of the education professionals telling them that parents know nothing about teaching children—they nonetheless created a nonprofit organization to solve their own problems their own way.
This is a what we're after after all, isn't it, when we talk about thinking big about small grants?

Second, it's because Bill speaks very eloquently about what happens along the way - especially when you're being successful and times are good. You grow, evolve, change, add new dimensions and new programs. And sometimes you lose your way, holding on more to what you have created that the original vision that was there when it all began.

There's something in all of us for this. For emerging groups with a big vision and enough passion and determination to strike out into the wilderness. For mature groups that a struggling to hold on to what they have created now that times are harder. And certainly for funders, who say one thing - we don't need more nonprofits - but encourage another by the way that they do their work.

Check it out. And thanks to Ruth and the excellent team at The Nonprofit Quarterly for sharing this.

May 7, 2010

Giving Our Problem-Solving Muscle a Rest

Here's something from a different world - the world of personal coaching/personal development. There was a message in this for me - and possibly a good reminder for others who are thinking big about small grants and working from a "we begin with residents" perspective.

Tara Sophia Mohr's recent "No Problem" post on the Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life blog explored the assumption that working on problems is the most powerful vehicle for change. She pointed out that the most powerful work we can do on ourselves often begins when we are not faced with pressing problems - when there is an open space without an urgent problem or issue sitting in the middle of the conversation. She also talked about problem-solving and problem-identifying as just two modes of working - and that maybe we over focus (or over-value) these two modes at the expense of others. She listed several other modes of working that we often forget when we're in our problem-solving mode:

The Observer
: The one who just notices how things are.
The Curious Child: The one who examines and explores, led by curiosity.
The Celebrator: The one who appreciates, praises and celebrates what is.
The Creator: The one who brings new things into being, not to solve a problem, but to add something to our world.
The Nurturer: The one who connects, and supports - who strengthens others with words and caring.

Those of us who work in philanthropy have highly developed problem-solving and problem-identifying muscles. As responsible stewards of the money we have to grant, we are good a honing in on problems and identifying promising solutions. We look for others who have that talent and invest in them. And in these challenging economic times, when our organizations are focusing on how to do more with less, it seems that we've become even more laser-focused on problems, trimming off anything that's seen as optional, anything that can wait. I've heard too many accounts of grassroots grantmaking programs being put on hold so grantmaking can be focused on basic services. And, interestingly enough, a growing interest in grassroots grantmaking with a social justice/community organizing edge or an issue oriented edge - developments I thoroughly support, yet developments that come with a new set of challenges about what it means to work from through a "we begin with residents" lens - challenges associated with who names the problem and identifies appropriate solutions.

Tara's post encouraged me to wonder about how these challenging economic times have impacted the way I've been thinking about grassroots grantmaking and Grassroots Grantmakers, the network. I'm now thinking about how I can open up some space and give my problem-solver muscle some rest. Her post has helped me remember that when I'm also using my skills as an observer - when I'm in a mode of curiosity instead of fixing - when I'm remembering the value that creativity and nurturing have brought to so many "stuck" situations in my life - I'm in the best possible position to use grassroots grantmaking as an effective problem solving strategy. It's then that I remember that grassroots grantmaking is a powerful strategy because of two quite simple things - its challenge to the way place-based funders name and frame problems, and its focus on regular people as essential contributors to community vitality. It's not about me and my expertise as a problem solver.

This might be a good reminder that we all need to examine our problem-solving muscle from time to time to see if it's gotten so big and strong that it's crowding out other modes of thinking and working - and maybe even limiting what we are able to do.

  • Are we providing space in our own work and for the groups that we are funding to think, dream and plan without all eyes glued on a glaring problem in the middle of the circle?
  • Are we recognizing, honoring and rewarding only the expert problem-solvers but pushing the observers, explorers, inventors and nurturers to the side?
  • In this time of perceived or real scarcity, has our focus on being responsible stewards turned us into closet advocates for the problems that we have determined worthy - and inched us out of the "we begin with residents" orientation that opens the door to new possibilities via grassroots grantmaking?
I'm curious about how you use your highly conditioned, Arnold Schwarzenegger-like problem solving muscle and stay in a "we begin with residents" posture - and what you are learning about developing and using other modes of thinking - observation, curiosity, creativity and nurturing - in yourself and in those that you support through your grants. Chime in here with a comment or contact me directly via email.