November 13, 2010

Who's Leading?

I'm still thinking about the intersection of aging and grassroots grantmaking and want to continue the conversation that I began with my last post with this question:

If you're engaged in the type of "big thinking on small grants" that we describe as grassroots grantmaking, who's around the table, shouldering the leadership burden, in the communities where you are funding?

Here's who I see from my experience.
  • Even though I would never ask, my hunch is that most everyone I see is over 55.
  • I see people who have worked hard for years and "came home" to their neighborhood of origin, only to find that it has declined in years when they have been away.
  • I see people who transitioned into retirement to find that they were being pulled into unexpected, surprisingly demanding, non-paying jobs as block captain, neighborhood watch coordinator, urban garden manager, neighborhood association president/secretary/treasurer, after-school guardian, community historian, or community welcome-wagon-leader.
  • I see people who are juggling their dreams of their next chapter with unanticipated, real-life demands of raising grandchildren, great grandchildren or other people's children, all this while they're also while caring for their elderly parents, aunts, or uncles and managing their own health-related challenges.
I see Ms. Howard, Mr. McCollins, Ms. Bowe, and the group of gutsy women who mentored me and taught me the ropes of active citizenship in my own neighborhood.

I can remember conversations about the heavy weight of responsibility that these older leaders felt and their frustration that no one would help, when in reality there were others who were eager, not just willing, to contribute - just not in a way that the older leaders could recognize or accept.

When we talk about engaging older adults, I don't want anyone to forget how deeply older adults are already engaged in communities that have been labeled as troubled by outsiders. I don't want older adults to show up on our broader radar screen as people in need of services without a clear recognition of the essential contributions that they can make and are making already.

When we look at needs, I also want us to recognize the challenges and sacrifices that older adults are making when they step forward and contribute as community builders and courageous leaders. I want the leadership training that we offer or prescribe as grantmakers to be respectfully designed with real knowledge about these challenges and sacrifices. I want us to know that when we are pushing "sustainability" and we're talking to older adult leaders, we may be sending unintentional reminders to these important community builders that their clock is ticking and that their days as contributors are coming to an end, with no option other than joining the ranks of the marginalized elderly in the down-the-road picture. I want the work that we do to help expand those options and change that picture.

I want those of us in the grassroots grantmaking world to really look at who's leading, and if you see what I see, I want to hear a stronger acknowledgement that we are indeed already funding aging - productive, healthy, contributing aging - after all.

And when you see what I see, I hope you'll check out the info on Grassroots Grantmakers' new EngAGEment learning circle and imagine the possibilities for approaching this critical issue for community vitality through the grassroots grantmaking lens.

November 3, 2010

A Promising Intersection: Grassroots Grantmaking & Aging

I'm stubbing my toe on something that has caught me by surprise and is making me think about how difficult it is to balance our need to focus our work and our overall goal of making a difference in the communities where we work.

I'm now talking with people in the funding world about a new partnership that Grassroots Grantmakers is launching with a colleague funding affinity group, Grantmakers in Aging. Between now and January, I'm working to recruit six funding organizations who are interested in forming a learning circle to explore how grassroots grantmaking can be used to foster more inclusive communities with a special focus on one group that Harvard's Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh identifies as one of the most marginalized groups in low-income communities - the older people who live in there.

What I'm hearing when I'm talking to people is "that's interesting, but we don't fund aging". My hunch is that all grassroots grantmakers do indeed fund aging. Here's why.

Because grassroots grantmaking is a place-based strategy that focuses on everyday people as both community members and active citizens, older adults and issues associated with aging are a natural part of the grassroots grantmaking landscape. Many of the associational groups that are funded through grassroots grantmaking programs are led by older adults and rely on older adults as their most faithful members. Although there is no program within Grassroots Grantmakers' network that is focused specifically on issues associated with aging, it is not uncommon for projects that are funded through grassroots grantmaking's small grants programs to address the needs of older adults. Examples include programs that engage community members in providing minor home repair or lawn care for older adults in their community or program that combat social isolation by expanding the range of social activities that are available to old adults. Other typical projects such as oral history projects or mentoring projects tap into the special gifts that older adults can contribute to enriching and strengthening their community.

Our partneship with Grantmakers in Aging is an effort to encourage place-based funders who are connecting deeply in their communities via a big thinking on small grants approach to recognize that they are already funding aging- increasing awareness of the important roles that older adults play in marginalized communities and relationship between aging and community vitality and resiliency. But it's bigger than that. We also want to encourage more intentionality about using grassroots grantmaking as a strategy to encourage, support and strengthen older adults as active citizens and community leaders, decrease social isolation and foster conditions that contribute to healthy, happy, aging in place options – thus creating a link between increased awareness and funding strategy and focus.

We also see the opportunity to build (or widen) bridges between aging-related work that emanates from more traditional nonprofit social service organizations and public-sector programs and the associational, resident-led groups that are the focus of grassroots grantmaking. I have seen that like aging programs, grassroots grantmaking approaches are sometimes positioned as stand-alone funding strategies, standing alongside of but not well-connected to issue-specific funding streams, even within the same organization. My hunch is that building bridges between grassroots grantmaking programs and other funding streams will result in win-win-win situations: better outcomes for the people and communities that the funding is intended to benefit, better utilization of scarce philanthropic resources, and new relationships between service providers and older community residents that are not based on a client/service provider relationship.

I rarely use this blog as outreach for Grassroots Grantmakers' work, but am making an exception this time for three reasons. First, I'm really excited about this project and hope to use this blog as a way to capture and share what we're learning once this project is underway - so think of this as the first post in a series that will show up over the next two years.

Second, I've been really surprised by the reaction that I'm hearing when I mention the word "aging" and am now seeking advice from colleagues - and this includes readers of this blog - about how to avoid stubbing my toe in conversations about this promising work without burying "aging" as part of the picture that we're exploring.

And finally, there just may be someone reading this who also sees the promise of the intersection between grassroots grantmaking and aging, and is interested in learning more about the learning circle of place-based funders that we will be forming over the next several months.

Your comments or advice here are welcome, as are emails to me directly.