June 30, 2010

Working in the Wetlands

I spend my days in the wetlands. That's how I think of the work that I do that focuses on thinking big about small grants. And its a metaphor that keeps me grounded as I think about the relationship between grassroots grantmaking and other approaches to place-based change that sit on the high ground surrounding the wetlands. The values and principles associated with grassroots grantmaking live in the wetlands that connects community organizing, community development, community building, civic engagement and inclusion.

In our post-Katrina world, wetlands have gained new status - now recognized as some of the most productive and important ecosystems in the world. We have been reminded of the immense variety of life - microbes, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals - that are part of a wetland ecosystem and that instead of useless, disease-ridden places, wetlands are essential contributors to a healthy, functioning, sustainable environment.

The wetlands I know on a day to day basis are also full of life in surprising and every-changing ways. It's where everyday people wade into the place-based philanthropy world and find their place and their voice as contributors rather than clients, recipients or customers. It's also the feeder system for everyday people into the worlds of community organizing, community development, community building, civic engagement and inclusion.

Why is such a feeder system important - as ecologically important as natural wetlands are to our physical environment? It's because as we get immersed in our professional world, the everyday people part of these place-based approaches to community change seems to dry up.

In some cases - not all, but some:
  • community organizing is more about a professionalized organizing approach and getting "wins" on issues than it is about surfacing and elevating resident voice
  • community development is more about the bricks and mortar work that is guided by professionals in community development corporations than it is about creating the physical, economic and social environment that everyday people need to thrive and be happy
  • community building feels more like social work with professionals at the helm than it is about energizing the network of mutual support and people to people connections in a community;
  • civic engagement is more about advising and supporting institutional agendas via forums, focus groups, and volunteering than it is about moving community members' dreams and passions into action in the civic commons;
  • inclusion feels more like a professionally prescribed prescription to deal with community illness than friendship and fun.
That's why I love hanging out the wetlands of grassroots grantmaking. That's why grassroots grantmaking isn't another free-standing approach that is easily contained and described - alive like the flowing water in a stream rather than the H2O in a beaker. And that's why it's important for the everyday people orientation of grassroots grantmaking to have the the freedom to flow into the more categorical or ideological defined work of a place-based funding organization. And that's why I'm completely okay when people ask "how is grassroots grantmaking different from/distinct from/separate from one approach or another?" It's as hard to draw a line between us and them as it is to define the shore at the edge of the wetlands. And that's the point - the power of grassroots grantmaking and the ability to think big about small grants.

What do you think? Does this resonate with you? Weigh in with a comment or connect with an email.

June 14, 2010

What a Difference a Neighborhood Makes

Here's something I've been wondering about. If you are someone who works in the community change arena professionally - in philanthropy especially - what experience helps you de-intellectualize the concept of community? What personal experience helps you connect the idea of community that resides in your head with the experience of community that lives in your heart? And what questions about how community happens and what community means does that experience bring up for you?

Here's how it is for me.

I've moved around a lot - from childhood until now. I've lived in neighborhoods and communities that were immediately welcoming and others where I never found my way. I'm thinking now of the neighborhoods (brand new subdivisions, inner-city neighborhoods, and others less easily pegged), apartment complexes, college dorms, and rural communities that I've called home through the years. I can rank them from friendliest to least friendly - from places that I hated to leave to places that I left without regret. I can also think about how I felt on my first day there - always hopeful that this would be one of those special places where I could be comfortably myself and feel that I belonged rather than a place I would remain invisible unless I took extraordinary steps to become visible. And my last day there - full of regret to be leaving or relieved that I could stop trying to make it work.

And I'm thinking about this because my own personal experience is woven into the information that I bring to bear when I'm at the business of "big thinking about small grants" - thinking about how everyday people make a difference in their own community.

If I could sort those "welcoming places" into one pile and those "less welcoming places" into another pile and study the two piles, here's what I would see:

Common denominators for the welcoming places pile:
  • There are welcoming mechanisms or traditions - usually involving special invitations or food, but traditions that involved a knock on the door, a friendly wave or another welcoming gesture that seems to happen naturally and right away.
  • There are welcoming places - community spaces that people actually use (parks, lobbies, front porches, sidewalks).
  • There are people who have room in their lives for new friends.
  • There is a "place-name" that people who live there know that signals "home" in addition to pointing to a location on a map.
  • There is a story associated with the place - a dynamic history with some twists and turns that is shared, almost with a sense of invitation for newcomers to add embellishments or new plot twists as they join others in living there.
Common denominators for the not-too-welcoming places:
  • A memory of an apartment number or a street address but not "the place".
  • Move-in day extended to move-in week/month/year - no "welcome" gesture.
  • No obvious "on-ramps" visible that I could use to introduce myself.
  • A feeling that social circles are set - no room at the table.
  • A feeling that that I just don't fit in or belong and that it's not something that time will fix.
If you're familiar with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community research (referenced in my Jane's Walk post earlier this spring), you'll see why this research has resonated with me. The places that I have loved - where I have felt at home and where I have stepped out of my comfort zone to get involved in ways that were new to me - are places that felt welcoming, provided social opportunity on-ramps to newcomers, and had a strong sense of place in both geography and psychology. It has taken major life-changing events to uproot me from these places - and these are the places that come to mind when I'm feeling invisible and longing for a welcome mat that is genuine. It is the experiences in these places that I analyze when I'm thinking about what makes a community work and what everyday people can do to make a difference on their block.

So now I'm curious. Does my experience resonate with yours? Have you too had the experience of communities that embraced and welcomed you and those that felt indifferent? What do you take from that experience that has meaning for the way that you think big about small grants? Post a comment (or connect directly via an email) to share your experience. The welcome mat is out.

June 8, 2010

What's the Engagement We're After?

I don't want to be a nitpicker about language, but I do think it's worth digging into the words that we use to describe the work we do - especially the words that become so much a part of our professional life that we don't even realize that they have crossed over into the land of jargon.

So here I am with some thoughts on a word that is one of those "hot" words now in philanthropy. It's engagement. Civic engagement, stakeholder engagement, community engagement, etc.

I'm delighted that engagement is on the now squarely on the radar screen - a suggestion to me that grassroots grantmaking is now making its way into the philanthropic mainstream. Being on the radar screen is better than off-the-radar screen, with a passive preference to disengagement, right? Being on the radar screen means that there is a growing awareness in the funding community, especially the place-based funding community, that connecting with ordinary people is not only worth the time and effort, but essential to effective place-based work.

I'm wondering, however, if engagement means the same thing to all of us. So let's get very basic here and go back to the dictionary's definition of engagement:
  • The act of engaging or the state of being engaged;
  • Betrothal;
  • Something that serves to engage such as a pledge;
  • Employment, especially for a specified time;
  • A hostile encounter, a battle;
  • The condition of being in gear.
If we're talking about philanthropy and civil society, we can eliminate betrothal, employment, and hostile encounter (although it would indeed be fun to keep these in, wouldn't it?). Thus, we're talking about something you do or that is being done to you (you are either engaging or being engaged) or the condition you're in (being in gear).

This is where I'm going to get picky. A lot of what I've read lately is about civic engagement as the state of engaging or being engaged. GEO Executive Director Kathryn Enright's recent article in the Stanford Innovation Review - The Case for Stakeholder Engagement - and accompanying post on The Center for Effective Philanthropy's blog are important statements about the value of engagement. But for me, Enright is talking mostly about philanthropies engaging nonprofits that they fund and people that are served by those nonprofits for input. Enright does indeed reference the engagement associated with the wonderful grassroots grantmaking work that The Cleveland Foundation's Neighborhood Connections program is doing (but misses the point of Neighborhood Connections by saying that these grants are going to Cleveland area nonprofits - Neighborhood Connections, while occasionally granting to nonprofits, is about actively supporting groups of residents, not non-profits, a distinction that readers of this blog know I regard as fundamentally important). Neighborhood Connections is a great example of a type of engagement that Enright describes as a "going all the way" form of engagement that involves actually sharing some of the power that philanthropies have with grantees and the community. Yes! I was waiting for that interpretation of engagement in the very thoughtful pieces that this highly regarded philanthropic affinity group leader is putting out there.

Recent publications by PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) – An Evolving Relationship: Executive Branch Approaches to Civic Engagement and Philanthropy, for example - follow the same pattern. Wonderful insights, case-making and information about seeking more participation from active citizens, this time as participation that advises and helps shape what happens through the public sector or participation via volunteering to support the work of a nonprofit or local institution (school, church, library, etc).

So this gets me to what I consider to be the engagement that we're after. It's engagement that is about being "in gear". When I picture being in gear, I think of a collection of wheels or cogs that are turning simultaneoulsy on their own and together. In the connections that they have with each other, they are at once impacting the other wheels and being impacted by the other wheels. There's not one wheel that is disconnected or in a "in service" relationship to the other wheels. They are all turning together - maybe not at the same speed or even in the same direction - but they are turning together as a functioning system.

This is how I think of the type of engagement that we're talking about in the grassroots grantmaking arena. It is indeed about sharing power. But it's more than that. It's also about being connected in a way that provides transformative power. The type of engagement that I have in mind involves the funder moving their big philanthropic wheel close enough to the variety of wheels that represent groups of residents acting together to improve their community to actually "engage" - and via the grants that they provide, the doors that they open, and the tables that they set, add energy to these community wheels. At the same time, by the very act of "engaging", the community wheels are adding energy, insights, relationships and information that changes how the big philanthropic wheel is turning. Engagement in this sense is not a one way street. It's about arrows that point both ways. It is active, not passive.

When Grassroots Grantmakers was engaged (yikes - here it is again, another sign that this word is now part of the strange lexicon that we use in the funding world) in a deep strategic planning process several years ago, we touched on these two interpretations of engagement without using the word. We initially said that the business of grassroots grantmaking was to be "in communities, with residents". We realized, however, that many foundations are indeed "in communities, with residents" - but with the foundation's agendas and priorities driving the process rather than connecting deeply enough to do work that is about an agenda that is defined by the people who live in that community. We wanted to be clearer about the engagement posture that grassroots grantmaking takes. We now say that grassroots grantmaking is about funding from a "we begin with residents" posture. It's about acknowledging the wisdom and power of a different type of engagement - an engagement that is more about getting "in gear" with the agenda that active citizens define and support rather than seeking the participation of residents in the agenda that our funding organization formulates and drives.

I'm delighted that there is so much talk about engagement and appreciate of the work that GEO and other affinity groups such as PACE are doing to elevate the discussion on engagement). I'm curious, however, if others see the same distinction that I see. And if you do, what you can share about your experience of getting "in gear" - especially with groups of active citizens rather than more traditional nonprofits? What does it take, and how does it differ (if it does) from other forms of engagement? Post a comment to share your thoughts and experience.