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.


  1. We (Neighborhood Connections) are in!

    I think this is a great learning opportunity for us for all of the reasons Janis states and fits in with what we are doing in Cleveland.

    I would also add that a learning circle like this one has huge side benefits for the participants. To have time with other grassroots grantmakers is special - and I always learn so much through these interactions. Participating in this learning circle provides a great opportunity to build relationships, to learn from one another, to learn from those outside the circle, to really dig deeper on this issue, and to have some fun through conversation and shared experiences. Isn't this what we encourage our grant recipients to do?

    Neighborhood Connections has organized two learning circles - one for small neighborhood arts organizations and another on social inclusion. Both have been great opportunities for participants to learn together, have some time to think and reflect, and have fun together. The rich conversations in the LC have led to great ideas that have led to real action - & that have resulted in substantive changes in their groups/organizations and in the community.

    As Juanita Brown, the originator of the World Cafe states, “Living networks of conversation lie at the heart of our capacity as a human community to create the futures we want rather than being forced to live with the futures we get.”

    I encourage you to join the conversation!

    Tom O'Brien
    Neighborhood Connections
    Cleveland, OH

  2. Janis and Tom,
    We have been engaged with this issue - aging - for several years. Sarasota County is the demographically oldest large county in the nation. The data about global aging makes this one of the most important topics we face - both problems and opportunities - for the enxt century.

    Count me in to talk abaout this. I would gladly share what's going on here and what is planned.

    Tim Dutton
    Sarasota, Florida