October 27, 2010

Want Stories?

There are two topics that always come up with funders get together - funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking, investing everyday people as key contributors to healthy and resilient communities.

One is what the groups they are funding need to grow and realize their dreams - how they can provide help that is really helpful.

The other is evaluation or assessing impact - knowing what really happened and what is meaningful to measure.

I've been involved with philanthropy for nearly twenty years, and must admit that I've become really tired of these conversations - tired because of their sameness and of the overly complicated, funder-centric "we know-they don't know" tone that characterizes many of them.

So that's why I found a recent conversation with Anne-Marie Taylor, Executive Director of the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, so refreshing. Anne-Marie was talking about INRC's experience with Indy's IMAGINE grant program and what she and her team have learned over the past several years. She said that they learned to be clearer on the front end about expectations and requirements, and how to build technical assistance and accountability into their program.

One requirement was for grantees to share a story about the project or activity that the IMAGINE grant had supported. The INRC staff learned that just saying "share a story" was not generating stories, and so they dug a little deeper instead of hoping that the story genie would magically appear. They set up their grant process in a way that builds the capacity of grantee organizations to tell their own stories and ups the odds of having the good stories they are seeking turned in as final reports.

Here's what they now do:
  1. They ask each organization that is receiving a grant to designate someone in their group as their storyteller.
  2. They host a "how to tell your story" workshop that is required for all the designated storytellers.
  3. They hold the grant check until the designated storyteller has attended the storytelling workshop.
And guess what. This very practical approach - with its clear statement about what they need, its appropriate use of funder-power, and its clear-thinking about how they can get what they need and at the same time build skills that can be useful to the group in ways beyond satisfying their grant requirements - is generating great stories that are adding an important dimension to understanding the impact of the IMAGINE grant program. And knowing INRC, I can guarantee that these workshops are fun, interactive, and energizing. You can see some of the stories on INRC's home page.

Love it! Practical, powerful, and people-friendly.

If you're stuck in the "can't get good reports" and don't know how to help mode, try this and let me know how it goes! Or if you have another practical, powerful, people-friendly approach to share, jump in and say a few words about what you do here.

October 24, 2010

Listening for "We"

Now and then I hear something that is a simple yet profound tip for "big thinkers" everywhere. It happened recently at Grassroots Grantmakers' On the Ground learning lab in Detroit. Kathy Szenda Wilson, Director of the Battle Creek Community Foundation's Neighborhood Grantmaking Program, was talking about the challenges that go with thoughtfully sifting through the ideas that come to the grantmaking committee as grant requests. She said that she has learned to listen for "we" - that the ideas that are described as "we" rather than "I" have the community building potential that is the best fit for their approach to thinking big about small grants.

Kathy was also quick to say that this isn't as easy as it sounds - and I agree completely. She mentioned that the committee recently deliberated for nearly an hour about an idea that came with "I" language but had important community building potential. I can remember many early discussions with people that began with "I's" but quickly moved to "we's" with encouragement to connect with others in the community around the "I-dea" and see if it could become a "we". So think of this as a tip, guidepost, something to add to "listening for" repertoire, or a discussion starter rather than a rule.

Here's why I love this insight and I'm following my "more like a meadow" post with this one. When we are in a place of discovery and possibilities - in conversation with people and groups and they work through an idea and discover new possibilities as that idea moves into action - there are 2 roads that we can travel that are detours from the "big thinking on small grants" direction. One road is the "all things to all people" road. The other is the "Cinderella's glass slipper road".

The all things to all people road is mostly about the power of small grants and not about small grants to build community and promote active citizenship and living democracy. It's about everything that grows in the meadow and, unless you have unlimited financial and people resources, it assumes that sprinkling money around is all that is needed. My hunch is that over time, this road becomes more about seeding new nonprofit service enterprises than it is about supporting active citizenship or community building.

The "Cinderella's glass slipper road" is about shoe-horning every good idea that comes forward into the same shoe. It might be the small business idea or the nonprofit service idea shoe-horned into the community building or community change shoe. This road leads away from the "we begin with residents" orientation of grassroots grantmaking and to a place that is mostly about what the funder wants.

I think that the most powerful road, the one that supports grassroots grantmaking's big thinking about small grants thinking and "we begin with residents" orientation is the one that clearly keeps changing the role of everyday people in the picture that we're funding from clients, consumers and customers to citizens in its sites, and recognizes the critical role that collective action plays in that desired picture. That's why I love Kathy's advice about "listening for we instead of I".

It's about what we want to do, what we have planned, what we want, what we are wiling to do, what we have done, what we have put together, what we're hoping to do next, with an idea to expanding the circle of "we" over time. It's about deeply believing that "my dream" - especially when it has something to do place - has more of a chance of becoming a reality when it becomes connected in some way to "our dream". The careful listening for "we" in an idea is what makes the difference between "all things to all people" or "Cinderella slipper" grantmaking and good grassroots grantmaking with a powerful "we begin with residents" big thinking orientation.

I welcome your comments and hearing about your experience in listening for "we".

October 20, 2010

More Like a Meadow than a Garden

I was in Detroit earlier this month for 2 jam-packed days with 70 colleagues from 31 different funding organizations at Grassroots Grantmakers' 2010 "On the Ground" learning lab. I am still sifting through what I saw and heard about The Skillman Foundation's courageous and very smart work in 6 Detroit neighborhoods with their Good Neighborhoods Initiative (The Skillman Foundation was our host), and what I heard throughout the 2 days from others as we explored our theme, "the value added of small grants programs for place-based philanthropy". We spent most of our time talking about how small grants programs must be positioned to add value to place-based philanthropy - how the "thinking big" about small grants programs actually translates into "acting big".

The first "aha" from my sorting out of the conversations over those two days comes from a feeling of discomfort that I was feeling as conversations unfolded about small grants. We were all talking about small grants, but painting different pictures.

So here's my aha: The small grants world is more like a meadow than a garden.

I often say that the small grants associated with grassroots grantmaking are not seed grants. I've changed my tune on that. They are indeed ALL seed grants.

The difference between the type of seed grants that funders often make and these seed grants is that no matter what questions we ask and how good we are at reading between the lines, with grassroots grantmaking, we - and those who are on the receiving-end of the grant - often don't know the type of seed we're nurturing until it sprouts.

This is not about adding fertilizer to something that has already sprouted - it's about providing a nourishing environmental for the seeds of active citizenship, being curious about what will sprout, and being open about some unanticipated possibilities. What we're nurturing is more like a meadow than a carefully planned garden. Thinking big about small grants requires us to find beauty in the potpourri arrangement of ideas, opportunities and possibilities that we find instead of feeling frustrating that we don't have neat, distinct rows of different types of vegetables. That's why it is so essential for funders who are engaged in grantmaking to be clear about what they're doing, work simultaneously through short and long-term lenses, and to have people-oriented/relationship-building/possibility-thinking people on the team.

If our thinking big about small grants is grounded in a goal of growing and nurturing active citizens and powerful communities, then whenever the invitation to apply for a small grant is answered by someone who wants to move an idea or dream into action, whatever begins to sprout has intrinsic value. It's about people stepping out of their comfort zone and opening themselves to experiences and relationships that build community AND challenge their own perceptions about what they or their group can do.

When those possibilities begin to sprout, that's where big thinking and a commitment to the "we begin with residents" posture of grassroots grantmaking meets a new set of challenges.

Our funding priorities may tell us that we are sifting for seeds that grow into groups that work on social change - or for seeds that will grow into better communities for children - or for seeds that will make a community more welcoming and inclusive. But the truth is, there will be some ideas that will hatch through the small grants process that look like something else.

If we think about the small grant process as a process of discovery, then it's not surprising that there are many possibilities that emerge, especially in a supportive, relationship-oriented, patient money environment where small grants are coupled with help that broadens horizons and connections and builds the capacity and confidence of the people and groups involved.

What sprouts might begin with a look like:
  • A new for-profit enterprise with new income possibilities for the budding entrepreneur and for the people that this business may employ in the future;
  • A new nonprofit service organization that fills a gap in needed services or provides services in ways that are more accessible or community-friendly than what is currently available;
  • A group that develops the know-how and clout that has is needed to elevate community voice and shift the power dynamic in their community to bring about desired change.
The art of working from a "we begin with residents" lens is about watching as the possibilities begin to sprout, with conversations and learning opportunities that nourish - not steer - those ideas.
  • It's about recognizing a budding entrepreneur without steering that entrepreneur into starting a nonprofit.  Instead, it's about connecting that person or group to people who are knowledgeable about starting small businesses.
  • It's about asking good questions if the idea that is sprouting is really about starting a nonprofit to provide services, and not kicking into auto drive with advice about starting a new nonprofit. You can ask if this a service that's needed but not currently available, or is this something that is offered but not in a way that is accessible, appropriate, affordable or community friendly? And if the service is indeed currently available but falling short in some areas, use your position as a funder to help make the connections that would could create new partnerships or challenge the current service-provider status quo.
  • It's about continuing to expose those who are seeking short-term solutions to problems that have deep-rooted policy origins to information about root causes while not doing your own "bonsai" type shaping to turn the group into something it doesn't really want to be.
I firmly believe that we can indeed use the small grants programs associated with grassroots grantmaking to do very specific work. We can invite ideas that have to do with access to healthy food or less isolation for the elderly or advancing social change. But if we are indeed working from a "we begin with residents" point of view, what will sprout will still look more like a meadow than a garden. We can single out the ideas that match our priorities, but need to think about what we will do with the others. Will we treat them as weeds and forget that they are re-populating the active citizen landscape in our community? Or will we respect the possibilities that they represent and make the connections needed to help them flower, even if what they need next is not us?

To me, this is the art of big thinking about small grants. How does this work for you?