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.

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