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."


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