July 27, 2010

Why Not Just Fund Organizing?

The Setting: Methodist retreat center in northern California with 40 people from a variety of funding organizations.

The Occasion: A specially commissioned "for funders only" training on community organizing, generously tailor-made for our group by fabulous organizers associated with PICO, one of the premiere community organizing networks in North America.

The Players: Members of Grassroots Grantmakers and their partner organizations - all big thinkers about small grants who are investing in everyday people as change-makers in their community - all coming with an interest community organizing.

This wasn't a new training for me. Almost ten years ago, I had the privilege of attending one of the week-long community leadership training courses that PICO regularly offers for leaders in their network. While I appreciated the refresher, I had another question on my mind when I arrived in Northern California.

This question stems from conversations that I've had with funders who strongly self-identify as community organizing funders. I'm oversimplifying, but what I often hear in conversations with community organizing funders is a belief that funders who are serious about community change should identify a capable community organizing group, fund them and get out of the way - that what we need is more funding for community organizing groups rather than the more nuanced grassroots grantmaking approach that engages a funder directly with community resident in a highly relationship style of granmaking. Knowing that I would be steeped in community organizing for three days and with funders who understand both organizing and grassroots grantmaking, this gathering seemed to be the perfect place to explore my question. When organizing is in the picture, what's the value added of grassroots grantmaking?

I have personal experience with small grants programs when funding community organizing is not an option, and can tell you what is lacking if there is no funding for organizing in a community change picture. In my work with a community foundation in the Mid-South, there were no community organizing groups to fund. Community organizing was not part of the funding landscape for many reasons - historical and cultural to be sure, but I think mostly situational. We had a faith-based organizing group that was connected to a national organizing network in town, but it was a late arrival and still finding its way. Our foundation's grassroots grantmaking work was strong but many of the small grants that we were making were connected to big issues that needed another approach. The vacant lot problem couldn't be solved by lawn mowers. The community centers that were more about institutional rules than about the community they served didn't change a bit because there was another pottery class or some new jerseys for the basketball team. The after school tutoring that residents in a public housing development organized and managed didn't change what was happening in their kid's school. What we desperately needed was what community organizing has to offer. And I'm not talking here about a professionally run community organizing group. I'm talking about the point of view and set of skills that community organizing adds to the picture.

My question when I arrived in California for this gathering was about the flip side of my experience.
  • What if you are working in a place where there is a strong, capable community organizing presence?
  • What if the premiere organizing group in town is such a class-act organization - with established credibility at both the community and the institutional level -that even the most cautious members of your funding organization's board are comfortable with supporting them with funding.
  • In this situation, what would be lost if instead of investing in grassroots grantmaking AND organizing, we consolidated these funds and made one big grant to the community organizing group?
Because of who was there at this training and the time we had together, I had the perfect opportunity to explore this question from several different angles. The team from one of Grassroots Grantmakers member organizations was there - and so was the Executive Director from the community organizing group that works in their city. I knew about the excellent working relationship that exists between these two groups, but had the opportunity to dig deeper by mirror image questions to members of the funding organizing team and the community organizing group.

Without comparing notes, people on both sides of the question provided the same answer to what would be lost of the foundation simply invested in this excellent community organizing group instead (and others like it) and got out of the grassroots grantmaking business?

A lot.

Both the funder and community organizing director talked about grassroots grantmaking investments as investments in pre-organizing - and that in some cases, the groups that had received small grants from the foundation "graduated" to work with the community organizing group. In this scenario, the grassroots grantmaking work that the foundation was doing extended the reach of community organizing in the community - reaching out, connecting with and nurturing emergent community groups that had questions in mind that benefited from an organizing approach but might not be working on issues or in areas that were the focus of the organizing group's work.

But both also acknowledged that the foundation's grassroots grantmaking work was supporting everyday people in community change work who wouldn't be in the picture if organizing was the primary focus. Consistent with the layering strategy of grassroots grantmaking, the foundation is working with some people who are simply interested in connecting with some neighbors to do something on their block - they are interested in a couple of laps around the track but not a marathon. There is value in the open-door "we begin with residents" perspective of the funding organization's grassroots grantmaking program and power in the consistent invitation that the grassroots grantmaking extends to community members to connect with others and move from talking to action.

Finally, there was agreement that the relationships and perspectives that the funding organization gains from managing the grassroots grantmaking program are important - that the second hand information that comes to a funding organization from grantee reports, site visits and evaluations simply cannot substitute for highly relational, "being in the water" type of grantmaking that works best when a local funder is supporting everyday people and the associational groups that they form to get things done.

This all makes good sense to me, but this is just one perspective on a big question. Share yours by jumping in with a comment.