August 30, 2010

What's Inspiring Me Now

I've been on a bit of a summer hiatus, skipping some weeks since baseball's mid-summer All-Star break as a minor detour from my weekly blogging calendar. I've been busy with the business of Grassroots Grantmakers, laying ground work for what promises to be a very exciting fall.

I'm ready to jump back into writing for "big thinking" again, with some topics that I'm itching to address and some insights that I can't wait to share. But first, I want to share a snapshot of where I am at this point in the summer.

In these crazy economic times, it feels odd to say that I can't remember I time when I've felt so inspired by the possibilities that I see for big thinking about small grants. Perhaps it's just that I have finally tired of hitting my head on the same brick wall and have moved on to more productive pursuits. Or perhaps it's because we're all working in a slightly different environment that is bringing us back to the basic values that are core to funding from a "we begin with residents" point of view.

Whatever the reason, I'm enjoying this good feeling and feeling inspired by:

  • Evidence that I see almost every day of a growing interest in place-based funding approaches.

  • Hearing place-based work described recently in a conversation with a new professional acquaintance as "hot".

  • The acceptance I'm hearing that grassroots grantmaking and its big thinking on small grants approach is an essential ingredient of effective place-based philanthropy.

  • The new groups that are showing up in surprising ways and in surprising places who are using grassroots grantmaking in creative ways. This clearly isn't just about organized philanthropy any more.

  • The amazing group that has registered for Grassroots Grantmakers' upcoming "On the Ground" in Detroit - sold out 2 months early and now building a waiting list, a sign to me that this is real interest in the "value added of small grants programs for place-based philanthropy", the theme for this gathering, and an appreciation for the smaller/deeper/learning oriented opportunities that we're creating.

  • The energy that I'm feeling from our grassroots grantmaking community for bringing the small grants structures and practices that they have created and fine-tuned to work on new issues and in new areas - hinting that grassroots grantmaking is breaking out of restraining silos.

  • Last but perhaps most important, the amazing people associated with funding organizations and the grassroots groups they fund who are steadily at work, innovating, learning and generously sharing to expand our collective understanding of how to translate our big thinking about small grants into stronger, healthier communities.

I'd love to hear what's inspiring you in the last days of summer. Connect with a comment or an email to me directly.

August 25, 2010

Four Things that Funders Want that Groups Can't Give - and One They Can

Check out Rosabeth Moss Kanter's recent blog article, Four Things that Groups Want that Leaders Can't Give - and One They Can. Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, is offering advice to those that manage new business teams. If you reframe manager/emerging business team to funder/grantee, I think there's a lot of wisdom there and fodder for a rich discussion as your next grantmaking committee meeting.

As Kanter says,
emerging group experiences have predictable dynamics, whether they are new project teams, training and development programs, wilderness experiences, or just people learning new jobs. People form relationships based on first impressions and sometimes-false hopes, find that things haven't gone as imagined, and then struggle through confusion and misunderstanding to create their own positive norms that help them work effectively. The best leaders help people through these stages only to find some common issues popping up — things people seem to want that even the best leaders can't provide. Anticipating these dilemmas makes it easier to resolve them.

I encourage you to read what Kanter has to say with the idea of being the kind of funder/leader who can be really helpful to emerging groups.

But because grassroots grantmaking is "we begin with residents" work, with funders and emerging groups working in a spirit of co-production, I want to also turn Kanter's message around, and look at what she says from another direction:

Four Things that Funders Want that Groups Can't Give - And One They Can

Here are the same four desires that Kanter lists that she says are almost almost impossible to satisfy, this time looking back in the other direction as a reminder of how our desires as funders might be interpreted by the groups that we fund. Let's think of these as stereotypes that we're all working hard to change and this as something you can use as a friendly check-in to see how you're doing on some common funder-grantee pitfalls.
  1. Absolutely clear expectations about everything - As a funder, we want to be sure that you know what to expect but we don't think to ask about what you expect ("do you have any questions" really isn't asking about expectations, is it?). After all, you have the money now, so what else could you expect?
  2. Positive certainty about the future - We want you to do your homework, lay out your plan, present your budget and then do the project. We are buying this result with this grant, and we want you to deliver on your side of the deal. Crystal ball, please - not just a good idea in this economy.
  3. Yes all the time - Yes, we will do what you suggest even if it doesn't make sense to us. Yes, we will come to your meeting. Yes, we will rewrite this proposal or this report. Yes, we will quickly respond whenever you call but not expect you to answer our calls. Yes, we understand that you can ask something of us but once we are a grantee, we can't ask anything of you.
  4. The ending at the beginning - We want you to be able to tell us before you begin exactly what will happen and on what timeline. We want you to be able to cut what you say in your proposal and paste it into your final report.
Kanter concludes her post by talking about the one thing that groups want that leaders actually can always give (hint: it's abbreviated TLC).

What would that one thing be in my looking the other way scenario? What is the one thing that funders want that emerging group grantees CAN always provide? I have my idea but invite you to share yours first. Chime in with a comment.

August 10, 2010

Encouraging the Things that Matter

John McKnight was Grassroots Grantmakers' guest recently for a topical conference call - talking with us about the new book that he wrote with Peter Block - The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. There's so much there for community members and funders to chew on, but I want to lift up just one thing that stood out for me.

You've probably heard the phrase, "you have to be able to think it before you can do it". John and Peter have me thinking about what the "doing" might be if funders really got serious about building capacity in a new way. Over the years, those of us in the funding community have talked ad nauseum about building capacity - organizational capacity, community capacity, leadership capacity, capacity for change. I've heard funders call "time out" on various occasions, sometimes by assigning the word "capacity" to the list of other over-used, over-defined, and over-intellectualized words that become buzz-words in the funding domain, promising never to use it again.

But John and Peter are talking about capacity in a way that may have the potential to challenge the overly scientific, highly intellectualized way that we as funders often think about funding as a prescription that is designed to cure a community malady. For me, the words that they used to describe the capacities of an abundant community connect my heart and my head, sparking thinking about what I have experienced in my life, what struggles I have had and how I can use my own personal experience to be a better grantmaker. It humanizes and personalizes the notion of capacity in ways that I find refreshing and really quite powerful.

As I've thought about the six capacities of an abundant community that John and Peter list and then go on to describe in Chapter 5 of their book, I'm wondering about what we are doing now to either encourage and discourage these capacities and what we might do differently if we were more intentional about nurturing these six capacities that John and Peter describe as the core ingredients of communities, families and neighborhoods that function from the perspective of abundance.

Here are the six capacities of an abundant community that John and Peter describe with a few of their words about each:
  1. Kindness - a relationship to another that has embedded in it love, care, and respect, and a consciousness of the vulnerability and softness of another. The opposite of envy.
  2. Generosity - to make an offer for its own sake, not its exchange value, conveying a sense of the bountiful, lavish, copious, abundant. Not to be mistaken for charity, which John and Peter describe as false generosity because it is oriented around the needs and deficiencies of just one party in the transaction and is demeaning in this way.
  3. Cooperation - "For me to win, you must win. For me to prospect and find satisfaction and have peace of mind, then you must prosper and have peace of mind."
  4. Forgiveness - the willingness to come to terms with having been wounded, and finding a way to come to terms with and accept the dark side of our own past and somehow complete it (instead of pretending that it did not happen).
  5. Fallibility - the tolerance and acceptance of human limitations, the willingness to live with people's imperfections, and to view these imperfections as part of the human condition rather than problems to be fixed.
  6. Mystery - the ability to create space for what is unknowable about life, for letting questions go unanswered, and for using the unknown as a catalyst for creativity.
If we are working toward more communities, neighborhoods and families that function - that are spaces and places that nurture rather than punish, and where the qualities that contribute to functioning are so embedded that they "just are" - part of the community culture that John and Peter describe, AND if John and Peter are lifting up the part of what is required for that to happen that we in the funding community have not been able to see through our analytic, scientific-oriented lenses, then what could we do with funding to encourage these things - these things that really matter in the end?

Can you imagine funding that embraces fallibility or mystery instead of demanding certainty? Can you imagine a "measurement" for kindness, forgiveness, generosity or cooperation? Can you picture desired impact as "things becoming invisible" because they have been adopted into the community culture or have shaped a new story of how we have become who we now are rather than a policy change?

I can. But I also can imagine the skepticism that may be unleashed when a recommendation is made around a funding organization's board table that any one of these six capacities should make its way into funding criteria, even for the smallest grants.

So let me start here with a question to you. What is your reaction to the six capacities for abundant communities that John and Peter describe? What do you see as the link between these capacities and big thinking about small grants? How can we begin to do more than think about the concepts that John and Peter are sharing in this new book? Share your thinking by posting a comment or emailing me directly.

August 6, 2010

Beginning with the End in Mind for Grassroots Grantmaking

With this post, I'm borrowing from a neighbor - a neighboring discipline, that is. Martin Carcasson's excellent paper, Beginning with the End in Mind; A Call for Goal-Driven Deliberative Practice, addresses a familiar challenge:
How can practitioners involved with the deliberative democracy movement increase the tangible impact their events have on the communities in which they work?
Read this sentence again but this time substitute "grassroots grantmaking" for "deliberative democracy movement" and "grantmaking" for "events". This is the challenge that drives much of the peer to peer inquiry and learning in the big thinking on small grants world.

What I love about Martin's paper is the conceptual framework he offers to help practitioners think about the short-term and longer-term strategies associated with their work. I can imagine that in the deliberative practice community, as in the grassroots grantmaking community, it is easy to get snagged by the short-term and set the longer-term aside. Host a quality forum or get through a grant cycle and award the grants - both short-term work that is good by itself but only powerful when it is part of a longer-term strategy.

I recommend the Martin's paper for some insightful reading. What I want to lift up here, however, is the framework that Martin presents work - essentially how the six goals for deliberative practice that he lists fit together - with some thoughts about how we might tailor this framework for funders who work from a "we begin with residents" perspective in the interest of strengthening active citizenship at the block level in communities.

Martin divides six specific goals into three categories:

First order goals:
  • Issue learning
  • Improved democratic attitudes
  • Improved democratic skills
Second order goals:
  • Individual/community action
  • Improved institutional decision-making
Third order goal:
  • Improved community problem solving
Martin identifies the last goal - improved community problem solving - as the ultimate or long-term goal of deliberative practice, noting that an overarching focus on improved community problem solving not only helps position individual projects as a means to an end, but also helps deliberative practitioners define their identity - nonpartisan concerning issues and process, but biased in favor of participatory democracy. Martin stresses that even though improved community problem solving should be considered the ultimate goal, individual projects should also focus on the appropriate lower-order goals in order to maximize impact.

I'm wondering about the implications of this framework for grassroots grantmaking. When we talk about patient money and a funder's long-term commitment to grassroots grantmaking, we're making assumptions about how individual grants, projects, conversations, trainings, convenings, and celebrations "add up". We also know that each one of those grants and projects by itself is important. But can we as clearly identify the ultimate goal? Do we, as grassroots grantmakers, have a strong shared identity?

The layering strategy of grassroots grantmaking - sometimes called "the layer cake" - serves as our version of the lower order goals (increasing active citizenship, strengthening resident-led organizations, connecting residents to policy). But we're not as clear about succinctly saying, in a way that is inspiring and uniting, about how it all rolls up. We have avoided the "what for" question our of respect for one of the main strengths of grassroots grantmaking - its flexibility. But I'm sure that we can, like Martin is doing for our deliberative dialogue "neighbors", clearly identify our ultimate objective without limiting how we employ grassroots grantmaking as a strategy.

So now is when I turn to you. If you are a funder, work with a funder, or are have received grants from a funder....if you think big about small grants and believe in working from a "we begin with residents" perspective, how would YOU end this sentence?
When we work from a "we begin with residents" perspective, we're nonpartisan about the specific projects and activities that resident-led groups take on with the grants that we provide, but we're absolutely biased in favor of ________________?
Share you answer by posting a comment. Let's plant this flag in the ground.