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?

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