January 31, 2010

Another Example of Why "Volunteer" Doesn't Work for Me

I know I'm venturing into dangerous territory - talking about the word "volunteer" again. I've been thinking about the front page story in yesterday's Houston Chronicle - especially what it suggests about how we regard and reward volunteerism, and what assumptions we make about the roles we play in making our communities work. I'm diving in with some thoughts and an open invitation to others to help me with a question that I believe warrants more exploration.

Yesterday morning I read Mike Tolson's story about Maggie Allen (pictured here) - a woman who had worked 40 hears as barber, supporting herself and her two sons, but who had spent so much time and money helping others that she had no way of paying for her own burial. Sister Maggie died last week at the age of 79, and her niece is now trying to put together enough money for her funeral.

Maggie Allen did it all. She not only gave what her extra time and money she had to others, she founded, financed and ran the Charity of the Three Fishermen to help others who were "down on their luck". She baked pies every Friday and Saturday and sold her pies in front of the Walmart on Sunday to make money for Three Fishermen. And according to her niece, every Sunday there were people lined up to buy her pies. The owner of the barber shop where she worked for forty years said that he called her "The Good Samaritan" - that he had seen her help people she had no relationship with, that if she knew of a person with a problem, she did what she cold to help them, whoever they were. She ran Three Fishermen for years on a $10,000/year annual budget, supported by making pies and time-to-time small donations from local businesses.

I didn't know this Maggie Allen but I have known lots of Maggie Allens. The Memphis neighborhoods that I got to know when I was managing a grassroots grantmaking program there were full of people like Maggie Allen. And I hear stories of other "Sister Allens" from the funders in our Grassroots Grantmakers network - working in marginalized neighborhoods in their cities.

So was Maggie Allen a volunteer? I don't think so. I don't think there was anything "optional" to her about what she did. If connecting and helping wasn't a passion for her - part of her DNA - she would have turned her pie-making expertise into Maggie's Pies instead of forming the Charity of Three Fisherman. She would have focused on her self, her sons and her business and waited for some open space in her life to give back. Or she would have put money away and given back via a bequest after her death. Instead, connecting, helping, and giving of herself were at the core of her every day life - something she couldn't help but do.

Isn't she who we all aspire to be - the good Samaritan? Or do we regard the choices that she made as foolish - that her priorities were wrong or that she didn't think big enough or work smart enough?

In the grassroots grantmaking world, when we meet a Sister Allen, here's what I think/hope happens. We acknowledge what she has done and is doing. We listen for the big dream and look for ways that we can feed her passion instead of starve her passion with hoops and hurdles. We do what we can do to help her begin moving toward that dream. We encourage her to let go of "Three Fisherman" enough to let other people in so that her dream and passion will grow and continue on when she can no longer bake the pies. I think this is what we need to do - but also acknowledge that I might not have a clue about what we can do that really helps because I am not Sister Allen and have not walked in her shoes.

When I hear about funder's interest in encouraging baby boomers who are moving into retirement (and that would be me) to volunteer - older adults who will have time on their hands and expertise to share - I can't help but think of people like Maggie Allen. Yes, I agree that we need to encourage everyone who isn't engaged to be engaged - volunteering, if you want to call it that. But so much emphasis and energy devoted to luring folks like me into the civic-giving space when we're not even seeing much less acknowledging the people who are already there - and have been there when we were doing what middle class people do in their income producing/family raising years - makes me wonder.

Is it that we're not valuing people like Maggie Allen or that we're trapped in our own worlds and really don't know that there are Maggie Allen's in every marginalized neighborhood? And that because of the work that they are doing, more people in these neighborhoods have a friend - that Maggie and her group might be able to contribute in a way that more established non-profit organizations cannot. And that contributing is what made Maggie's own life have meaning.

Here's where I turn to you for help. What do you think? Was Maggie volunteering? If not, how can we connect the impulse and experience of the Maggie Allens of our world with the conversation within philanthropy about civic engagement and volunteerism? Help me, please.

January 20, 2010

The Suburbanization of Poverty

For anyone who is thinking that investing in suburbia is a dilettante's way to think big about small grants, see this recent report from the Brookings Institute, summarized here.....

January 20, 2010 — An analysis of the location of poverty in America, particularly in the nation’s 95 largest metro areas in 2000, 2007, and 2008 reveals that:

By 2008, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. Between 2000 and 2008, suburbs in the country’s largest metro areas saw their poor population grow by 25 percent—almost five times faster than primary cities and well ahead of the growth seen in smaller metro areas and non-metropolitan communities. As a result, by 2008 large suburbs were home to 1.5 million more poor than their primary cities and housed almost one-third of the nation’s poor overall.

Midwestern cities and suburbs experienced by far the largest poverty rate increases over the decade. Led by increasing poverty in auto manufacturing metro areas—like Grand Rapids and Youngstown—Midwestern city and suburban poverty rates climbed 3.0 and 2.2 percentage points, respectively. At the same time, Northeastern metros—led by New York and Worcester— actually saw poverty rates in their primary cities decline, while collectively their suburbs experienced a slight increase.

In 2008, 91.6 million people—more than 30 percent of the nation’s population—fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. More individuals lived in families with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of poverty line (52.5 million) than below the poverty line (39.1 million) in 2008. Between 2000 and 2008, large suburbs saw the fastest growing low-income populations across community types and the greatest uptick in the share of the population living under 200 percent of poverty.

Western cities and Florida suburbs were among the first to see the effects of the “Great Recession” translate into significant increases in poverty between 2007 and 2008. Sun Belt metro areas hit hardest by the collapse of the housing market saw significant gains in poverty between 2007 and 2008, with suburban increases clustered in Florida metro areas—like Miami, Tampa, and Palm Bay—and city poverty increases most prevalent in Western metro areas— like Los Angeles, Riverside, and Phoenix. Based on increases in unemployment over the past year, Sun Belt metro areas are also likely to experience the largest increases in poverty in 2009.

Over the course of this decade, two economic downturns translated into a significant rise in poverty, nationally and in many of the country’s metropolitan and non-metropolitan communities. Suburbs saw by far the greatest growth in their poor population and by 2008 had become home to the largest share of the nation’s poor. These trends are likely to continue in the wake of the latest downturn, given its toll on traditionally more suburbanized industries and the faster pace of growth in suburban unemployment. This ongoing shift in the geography of American poverty increasingly requires regional scale collaboration by policymakers and social service providers in order to effectively address the needs of a poor population that is increasingly suburban.

No explanation needed. Time to rethink your strategy.

January 19, 2010

The Most Powerful Thing You Can Do Today

Hey, Program Officer. Are you covered up with "to-do's" and wondering if any of the pressing items on your to-do list will actually make a difference?

Here's one simple thing that you can do to powerfully supplement the small grants that you are making - and I bet it's not on your list.

Make triangles. Make a connection between two people in your network. And make one of those people someone who is working on their block, in their neighborhood - one of those resident leaders you know through your grassroots grantmaking work. And the other? Anyone else in that extensive network you have as funder - a board member, another staff member, a donor, another funder, a non-profit exec, or someone with another grassroots group (and this is just a start of an endless list of types of people in your network).

Making triangles was a recent topic that Jean Russell wrote about in her Nurture blog, with a focus on how to make powerful introductions. You introduce people all the time, right? So why not be more intentional about those introductions - how you do them and how you "count" them as part of what you do to create increase the leverage potential of the grants that you give.

Making triangles is also a key concept of network weaving, written about here on the Network Weaving blog.

A triangle exists between three people in a social network. An "open triangle" is where there is an opportunity to introduce two people by the third person who knows them both -- it is a triangle with one missing link. A "closed triangle" is where all three people know each other.
There are lots of reasons why big thinkers on small grants should get into network weaving. But in these times - when there is so much hand-wringing about not enough money and so much clinging to the belief that the solution to the angst we are experiencing in our communities is tied exclusively to the amount of money invested rather than in things we can actually do that don't take much money - wouldn't it be amazing to see what would happen if you put just one "closing the triangle" task on your to-do list each day, and if the possibilities that emerged from the new triangles that you create were counted and valued by those who are doing the counting and valuing?


January 11, 2010

High Cholesterol Grassroots Grantmaking?

I follow Alison Fine's blog, A. Fine Blog, on social media and social change, and was fascinated with one of her recent posts, Associations as Networks Not Organizations. She was talking about the relationship between national organizations and their local chapters - and the demands that national organizations often place on local chapters in order to protect their national brand:
Organizational complexity, particularly the rules that govern what chapters can and can’t do, is to social networks what cholesterol is to arteries and hair is to drains; it’s the gummy stuff that clogs everything. Simplicity enables people to do what they’re best at, connect and learn from one another, be creative and social.
We're using different language and talking about different organizational relationships, but Alison and I are on the save wave length.

I write a lot about funder behavior in this blog - behavior that interferes with the relationship between thinking big about small grants and getting big results from small grants efforts. And one of the big issues that I see over and over again - in small grants programs that are struggling and in discussions with funders who are afraid to go down the small grants road - is a need for control that somehow goes awry.

Just as national organizations do indeed need to think about protecting their brand, funding organizations do indeed need to practice due diligence when it comes to their grantmaking. Protecting brands and performing due diligence all come with some degree of control. So I'm not advocating for no control - just an appropriate amount of control. And what about control that might actually be helpful instead of harmful?

But here's the crux of the point that connects Alison's message to the work of grassroots grantmaking. She is talking about chapters as associations or social networks - a different "thing" than structured organizations. And that applying the type of control mechanisms that might be well-suited for more complex organizations is not only misguided and bothersome but deadly - the cholesterol that clogs up their arteries or the hair that clogs of their drains and gets in the way of doing what they do best.

I've talked about grassroots groups as associations and not baby non-profit service providers. But I like Alison's descriptions of associations as social networks and think that the distinction between funding social networks and non-profit organizations may be more useful for funders - helping funders better understand that social networks have a relationship, not a service provision, bottom line and that strengthening that relationship bottom line is what they're investing in with their grants. Yes, associations do accomplish things ranging from policy change to events to self-help projects, but it's the relationships that they build and utilize that is their lifeblood, their source of power and their ultimate contribution to on-going community vitality. And this relationship bottom-line is what distinguishes them most clearly from the more familiar-to-funders non-profit organizations.

So when I am talking with someone from a funding organization and I hear fear about funding grassroots groups, I wonder if this fear is coming from the misplaced assumption that grassroots groups are poorly functioning non-profits, or an understanding that these are a "different type of animal" but no knowledge of what that animal might do or require. I often hear worry about grassroots groups spending money in inappropriate ways, but in reality, I've almost never seen that happen. And I scratch my head, wondering why this fear is so strong, when I have seen seemingly well-managed, well-respected, tried and true, audit-in-hand nonprofits get in trouble and suddenly tank. This mismatch between worry and actual risk suggests to me that I'm on track with my assumptions.

So the question of the day is what is "appropriate" when it comes to the control that funders really need when they are funding social networks such as the resident groups that we want to encourage in urban neighborhoods and rural communities? What are the measures of control that are cholesterol to these groups - gumming up their works - and what are the measures of control that are actually helpful to everyone involved? How can we get as proficient (and comfortable) in funding social networks as we are in funding non-profit organizations?

Let's expand our body of knowledge on this topic. Post a comment to share your thinking.

January 6, 2010

What's Old is New in the New Year

I love this time of year. I've been on a short blogging hiatus during the holidays to provide some open space to recharge my batteries and revel in all of those indulgences that come with this time of year. For me, one of those indulgences is looking back at the year that is ending and looking forward to the year that is beginning with a new set of possibilities.

In that spirit, for this first post in this new year, I've been thinking about 2009 - a whirlwind of a year - and what might be useful to other big thinkers on small grants as we move into the New Year together.

I've thought about the two dozen or more trips I made to visit with place-based funders and see their work first-hand, the ten topical conference call conversations that we hosted, the increasingly lively listserv exchange that we saw over the year, the new perspectives that Kristin Senty, my new Grassroots Grantmakers colleague, brought to the work, and the amazing "On the Ground" learning gatherings that we organized with our partners in San Diego and Ohio. I also think about the new funders that joined our Grassroots Grantmakers network, the opportunities and challenges that the new economy offered to our field, the light bulbs that went on as we worked on our theory of change, and the new connections that we made with other funder networks. There's also the work that I saw in local communities that took my breath way and other work that was unexpectedly disappointing.

My initial idea for this post was a top 5 list - the top 5 things that distinguish the great work from the the disappointing work. As I began working on my list, I realized that it was mirroring the list that we developed a few years ago when we were working on a retrospective assessment of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation's Community Foundations and Neighborhoods Small Grants Program. We were trying to understand the difference between work at community foundations that had remained vibrant over time and had become part of the funding organizatin's DNA, and work that had either been discontinued or marginalized. We came up 5 common characteristics of programs that had grown in vision and power over time. That's the list I was remembering - the list that was so similar to the one I was developing.

Instead of cooking up a new list, I'm beginning the year by offering a reminder of some of what we learned five years ago about what makes the difference between grassroots grantmaking that is powerful, strategic and sustainable, and work that is destined to disappoint.

The most promising and most powerful grassroots grantmaking programs share these characteristics:
  1. Expectations are realistic and aligned: The best programs have clearly articulated goals that are realistic and in line with the scale of resources that has been committed.

  2. Big Thinking about return on investment: Program staff, executive staff, grantmaking committee members, foundation board members, technical assistance providers, evaluators and grantees understand that return on investment in the grassroots grantmaking setting extends beyond the impact of the individual projects or groups that receive funding. Return on investment is viewed with bifocal lenses - looking simultaneously at individual groups, grants and projects and the collective impact of grassroots grantmaking work on individuals, neighborhoods, communities, the host funding organization and the local funding community.

  3. Patient money: The best programs have a stable source of funding that is positioned for the long-term. Yes, I know - this sounds like the hard one. But what I've seen is that it's really the easy one if you pay attention to the other four!

  4. High-level institutional commitment: These best work is done in places where there is a strong and palpable high-level commitment to the values of diversity and resident engagement within the host funding organization. This means that there are many champions for the work inside a funding organization and not just one champion. This, in my opnion, is perhaps the most important linchpin of successful grassroots grantmaking programs. If the people at the top don't get it - and I mean really get it in their hearts and their heads, not just "go along" get it - then everything else is tenuous.

  5. Trust: The best work is done when funders work from a position of trust and understand what it means to work from a "we begin with residents" perspective and why it is in their best interest to have residents in the foreground rather than the background. It also comes when the funder understands that the goal of grassroots grantmaking is supporting active citizenship and building civic capacity and not providing seed money to help baby non-profits grow into efficient service delivery entities. When there's trust, there's a better opportunity for co-learning and traveling down the road together and a better understanding of the risks that are involved (or are just imagined).

I hope you'll join me in looking forward with the insights that come from looking backward, and think about what you can do this year to strengthen your grassroots grantmaking work, perhaps using these five factors as your starting point. And if you can't focus on all 5, hover there at the end of the list on numbers 4 and 5. These are the big ones.

I look forward to coninuing the journey togther this year and would love to know what you have in mind for the year to come. Post a comment to share your thinking or email me directly.