September 23, 2010

A Formula for Leading from Behind

This is a post that has roots in my "tween time" - the time between my work inside a foundation and my current work with Grassroots Grantmakers. During that 5 year period, I worked solo and explored many interesting avenues. One was a connection with the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, one of the premiere coach training organizations in North America, where I completed a 9-month coach training program and connected with an amazing network of people who are working as professional coaches. My work in my "tween time" included a wonderful assortment of consulting work with place-based funding organizations, community-based organizations, and personal coaching with people in transition.

I tapped back into my Hudson Institute network one evening this week via a book/author call to hear from Kathleen Stinnett, a HI certified coach, talking about the book that she co-authored with John Zenger, The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow. Loved the conversation, but this is what stood out for me as a connection with the big thinking on small grants world of grassroots grantmaking:
q x c = b

Kathleen shared this formula when she was talking about how difficult it is for leaders to refrain from giving advice when coaching is a better approach. I immediately thought of the "leading from behind" posture that is essential for working from a "we begin with residents" stance and how difficult it is for funders to avoid grabbing on to the steering wheel and inadvertently using their position (and their connection to money) to influence a grantee's behavior.

With this formula, Kathleen is acknowledging that the leader/manager/boss might actually have a higher quality answer than his subordinate, but that the true benefit that the company will derive is not purely a function of a quality answer. The commitment that the employee has to the answer factors into the amount of benefit that is realized.

quality x commitment = benefit

If we use a ten point scale and rate the quality of the idea and the level of commitment among those who carry out the idea, then this equation turns into something that can turn on light bulbs:
If the quality the idea is "10" but level of commitment to that idea is "2", then the benefit that is generated is 20 (10x2).

If the quality of the idea is "5" but the level of commitment to that idea is "8", then the benefit that is generated is 40 (5x8).
Simple, isn't it? But there's so much there in its simplicity.

Here's why I'm sharing this and how I can imagine using this in a big thinking on small grants environment.

  • You're a funder, in conversation in conversation with someone about an idea that could turn into a grant. When you're tempted to lead with your idea, remember that your focus is on the "b"/benefit part of the equation and pause.
  • You're a funder, in conversation with someone about an idea that could lead to a grant. What questions can you ask to learn more about the "c"/commitment part of the equation or what pressure can you take off the "q" part of the equation to create more commitment (and thus more benefit).
  • You're a funder, doing your write-up or talking with a grantmaking committee about a potential grant. What might this formula do to open up new doors for exploring (and talking about) the potential benefit of a project or activity?
  • You're a leader in your neighborhood, talking with someone new to the group or new to the idea of their own personal power, and encouraging them to move their idea into action. What might sharing this formula do to help them be more comfortable with taking that step?
  • You're talking with a veteran leader about sharing power and letting others into the action. How might this formula help them be more willing to try working from a "leading from behind" position?
What other ways could this formula be used to help funders stay in a "we begin with residents" mode of working? What personal experience does Kathleen's formula bring to mind for you?

Or what ideas or tools have you brought to your big thinking on small grants practice from the "tween time" areas of your life? Click "comment" and join in.

September 18, 2010

A Big Thinking Take on Ralph Waldo's Tips for Success

Here's my big thinking on small grants take on Ralph Waldo Emerson's Tips for Success that were featured recently in the Dumb Little Man: Tips for Life blog that I check out from time to time.

Thoughts Become Things
"A man is what he thinks about all day long."

If we say our work is about better futures for the people in our community but spend our time thinking about grants to nonprofits, could it be that we're more about stronger nonprofits than we are about better communities?

The Compensation Principle
"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."

Do we too often assume that the best way to help is to provide services? Perhaps a more powerful way to help is to open up more spaces for those who are most commonly seen as needing help to do the helping. Small grants programs open those spaces.

Action Trumps Theorizing
"An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."

What if we carved out just 10% of the time and money we invest in theorizing and put it into action? What if we thought about action as a powerful research strategy? Isn't that the basis of thinking big about small grants?

Build Something Better
"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."

This one is especially for community foundations. Your better mousetrap might require a relatively small investment and look like a small grants program that engages everyday people and supports them in moving their ideas into action.

Keep Good Friends
"It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them."

I'm assuming that stupid here means sharing what you don't know, what dilemmas you're facing, and what is keeping you up at night rather than pretending you have all the answers. This makes me think of Anne Hallett's piece on working as a funder, written shortly after she became Executive Director for the Wieboldt Foundation years ago ...."never again will I have a true friend or a bad idea". With Grassroots Grantmakers, we aspire to create spaces that allow people with different perspectives on grassroots grantmaking to "be stupid" in the way that I describe - and I'm always amazed at the creative sparks and new energy emerges when people feel that freedom. Maybe it's not just old friends that we need, but new friends that share our commitment to learning.

Raise the Bar
"Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow."

Note the subtleties here - "try to do something" and not "do something". Isn't this about the courage to take risks? And I can't think of a more "unrisky" way to take the risk of doing something beyond what you have already mastered than to invest in the creativity and passion of everyday people.

Start Small
"The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn."


September 15, 2010

Big Thinking in the Big Leagues

My friends know that I love baseball. I've moved from casual fan to serious fan(atic) in recent years, and now follow my team 12 months a year. I've learned that it only appears that there's not much action to watch in the off-season, but that what happens in the off-season has a lot to do with what is going to happen in baseball prime time.

I've also become fascinated with the path that players take from the minors into the big leagues and how artfully good managers maneuver the back-and-forth, in-and-out, predictably ego-bruising path that young players travel through the minor league system and into the big leagues.

With apologies if I'm reaching too far to connect my baseball passion with my passion for big thinking about small grants, I think there are lessons here for place-based funders who are serious about bringing everyday people into their community change strategies.

In baseball, every team has some big name, high price-tag players. All of those players, however, have come up through the minors, all have been rookies, and all have (or will) see a promising rookie nipping at their heals to take their place as a starting player on the team. If you follow a team over time, you spot the dynamism that is there and what happens when managers forget that they are working in a fluid environment. Your star player at first base is one injury away from 6 weeks on the disabled list. Or you might need a pinch hitter for a potential game-changing at-bat who has a particular talent for hitting a particular type of pitch. Or you may be in an extra-innings tie game and need to know who can step in to play at a position that not is not their claim to fame. And you need to have the full picture of each team member's strengths and weaknesses, offensively and defensively.

What I frequently see from my seat as Executive Director with Grassroots Grantmakers (and regard as one of the primary obstacles to thinking big about small grants) would never happen in baseball. Good managers would never let a talented player languish in the minor leagues or on the bench, and not at least see what more he/she could do.

What I've noticed is how often the small grants programs - the linchpins of grassroots grantmaking - are pigeon-holed as minor-league players, boxed in by low-expectations and labeled as nice but not important. I have seen too many good small grants programs, managed by special people who have the skills and personal attributes for working in the gap between funding institutions and community groups, working in a vacuum in their organizations - doing their thing, generating nice stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things with small amounts of money, but never invited into their foundation's big league strategy picture.

I've also seen what happens when these programs break in as big league players in their organization's community change strategy. I've been reminded of this again recently by work in Flint, Cleveland and Battle Creek, thrilled to see how the processes, values, and relationships that have been established over time through quality grassroots grantmaking work are breaking out from their small grants boxes and are being strategically utilized to authentically engage everyday people in big-league community change work.

It sounds so obvious, and it would be in baseball. So what's the problem in philanthropy - what is keeping small grants programs on the bench or in the minors? What aren't foundation leaders spotting and developing potential?

Here's my short list, with an invitation for you to chime in with comments or additions:
  • Money myopia - thinking that if it's not associated with big money, it can't possibly generate big results.
  • Fundamental beliefs about who/what generates change - banking on programs or credentialed experts rather than everyday people as trusted primary producers of change.
  • Siloed approaches - forgetting that all the pieces need to work together as a team and that there is a role for everyday people in every issue that you address as a place-based funder.
  • Arms-length knowledge - understanding small grants programs by reading about them or hearing about them rather than experiencing them by participating in grant review, visiting grantees, attending community events, talking with block-level leaders.
  • Accountability fatigue - so much focus on guaranteeing results and minimizing risks that we're afraid to let the rookies play, even if we're seeing signs that we need to make a change.
What would it take for small grants programs to really break into the big leagues, realizing the potential that they hold for deepening the connections that place-based funders can have with their communities and maximizing the impact of their work? Share your thoughts with a comment.