January 31, 2011

The Call for Civility: Why Neighborhood Connections Matter

I took a trip back in time recently and spent a couple of nights with a former neighbor, back on the street that still feels like home in the neighborhood that opened my eyes to the power of place. Those of you who know me have heard about this neighborhood - the struggle with the highway, the neighbors/mentors who spotted something in me that I didn't see in myself, and the family we became over time.

What I haven't talked much about is the tension and conflict that were part of that picture. You have probably heard the saying that goes something like "Chance makes our relatives, but choice makes our friends." While we can decide where we want to live, we have about as much power to select our neighbors as we have to select our relatives. We get who we get - and they get us, like it or not. And when we talk about being part of a community, it's only natural that some of the same conflict that we experience as part of a kinship based family comes with our family of neighbors.

We can shutter our windows, build fences, let the shrubbery grow tall and insulate ourselves from our odd-ball, strange or perpetually grumpy neighbor. Or, we can accept the opportunity to strengthen our tolerance muscle and practice civility right there on our block, open to whatever relationships and experiences that really connecting will usher in.

In Evergreen, my Memphis neighborhood, we didn't have the luxury of not connecting. Our neighborhood had been under siege in one way or another for more than twenty years and was down for the count. The situation wasn't hopeless but a steady stream of people had been abandoning the ship and moving out of this neighborhood and into other areas of town for years. Those who were left or who had stumbled into the neighborhood (and I was a stumbler) understood that any hope for the neighborhood rested with us. Neighbor to neighbor differences seemed insignificant in light of the big challenge that we all shared. But that didn't mean there wasn't tension or conflict. It meant that we had to learn to keep our focus on every one's unique gifts and not their limitations, and ignore or work around a lot that could have sapped our energy.

With the recent national conversation on civility, I can't help but draw on my personal in that experience in that neighborhood to think about the role that grassroots grantmaking's big thinking on small grants approach can play in promoting tolerance and civility at the most basic level in urban neighborhoods and rural communities. Imagine the behind the scenes, relationship-building work that must go on when even five or ten people get together as neighbors to make something happen - the learning that happens when people see each other in new roles and under different circumstances, the nuanced negotiation that goes with people learning to work together in a group, deciding on the how's, when's and who's of getting a project done, and the take-away insights that these people will have about each other at the end of the experience.

In my neighborhood, shared adversity and the very real threat of an interstate highway coming through the middle of our neighborhood is what brought an unlikely group of very diverse people together in surprising ways that were both simple and powerful - simple in how we interacted with each other day to day, and powerful in what we could do together to make our way to some very powerful tables and have a voice in shaping our neighborhood's future. Funders who have the vision to think really big about small grants can set the stage for the same thing to happen - this time in response to opportunity instead of adversity. And my hope is that when they are counting up the benefits of the modest grants they are making to groups of everyday people, they include great civility somewhere on their list.

What do you think about the relationship between neighborhood connections and great civility? Am I over-reaching or does my experience in my Memphis neighborhood resonate with you? What do you think funding can do to foster tolerance and civility at the neighborhood level? Post a comment to share your thinking.

January 20, 2011

The Problem with Big

I live in Texas so I know about big. Big is part of this state's culture and identity. We all know that everything is bigger in Texas. And bigger, of course, means better. Right?

And isn't it the biggest package under the Christmas tree that generates the most interest, curiosity and excitement - certain to contain the most extraordinary, outrageous present?
I have been thinking recently about what happens when a funder's small grants work makes it to the big time. Making it to the big time to me means that the funder has worked the kinks out of the small grants process, has built credibility both in the community and inside the funding organization, and is growing roots, establishing the "we begin with residents" way of thinking into the funding organization's DNA. In essence, the funder's small grants work has become a big deal.

This is what we all want. This is what I want in my work with Grassroots Grantmakers. But I'm starting to see something surprising that suggests to me that this "making it to the big time" time can lead a funder down a road that veers away from the values and principles of grassroots grantmaking, leaving behind the very thing that generated the buzz - sort of like what happened to Elvis in the Las Vegas years.

I believe that grassroots grantmaking is a "build on top of" type of strategy and not a build it and move on type of strategy. Because the small grants work that we regard as grassroots grantmaking is intended to invite people to move from dreaming to doing, moving more fully into their active citizen role on their block, in their neighborhood or in their community, it's something that requires solid consistency and – yes, I'll say it – permanence. It something that someone needs to keep doing with an open door and in a mode of possibility thinking.

Because we're talking about everyday people – people who are not professional problem solvers and who are adding "active citizen" to their parent, child, sibling, employee, student, church-member, friend, student to-do list, we can expect that people are in and out of the action as their lives allow. What may be a hot group today with on-fire leaders can be the simmering ember of a group tomorrow because life intervened for the on-fire leaders. Any illusion we may have as funders that we're going to build capacity or leadership today and that this capacity or leadership is going to stay built is just that – an illusion.

If there's not some vehicle for continuing to invite people into the action, continuing to prime the pump of active citizenship, that well that you've drilled with your good small grants work will eventually go dry. That's why I see grassroots grantmaking as a building on strategy – like adding another layer to a layer cake – instead of a moving on strategy.

When small grants work hits the big time, it's time to think about the next layer while continuing to invest in the first layer. What I'm seeing in too many cases, however, is that when small grants programs get hot, the funder remodels the small grants program into a something that is intended to generate bigger results, and moves away from the basics. Without even realizing it, they are undermining the very work that is positioning them for bigger things.

To me, the real potential of small grants program will be realized when they continue on - even if that means that they move to another organization as host - all the while other layers of work are "cooking", using the values of principles of the "we begin with residents" approach to link everyday people with bigger change agendas.

It's occurring to me that the problem with big is that when we are in the presence of big, we often forget about the power of small.

I'm curious if others are seeing this too and what antidote others have found for the seductiveness of big. What language do you use to talk about the power of small when you're in the presence of big? What have you tried to keep priming the pump of active citizenship when your resident-centered work makes it to the big times? Click "comment" below to share your

January 12, 2011

20 Years of Grassroots Grantmaking

Happy New Year to all big thinkers everywhere!

My first post of the New Year feels like the perfect time to acknowledge Grassroots Grantmakers' 20th anniversary, kick off a year of celebration, and take a slight detour from writing about the practice of grassroots grantmaking to the writing about the network, Grassroots Grantmakers .

Like many things, it's hard to pick the exact date that this network of big thinking funders began. Its roots were in a special program of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation that go back to the early 1980's and maybe even further. I doubt that the Mott Foundation was intending to launch a network. My understanding is that their intention was to encourage community foundations to reach more deeply in their communities by offering small grants to emerging resident-led groups - block clubs, neighborhood associations and similar groups.

Over the life-span of their program, twenty-three community foundations dipped their toes into the big thinking on small grants water and the seeds of Grassroots Grantmakers were planted. 1991 was the year that the seeds began to sprout, growing first into the the Neighborhood Small Grants Network and evolving into Grassroots Grantmakers. Thus, it is the year that we are using to mark our beginnings.

If you think about Grassroots Grantmakers as a television series now in its third season, and imagine that you are now catching up, popping discs from the first two seasons into your DVD player, here are some season highlights:

Season 1
  • Pilot (1984-1990) - The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation connects with eight community foundations who are interested in trying out a small grants approach to support low-income neighborhood associations.
  • Disc 1 (1991-1994) - Since the pilot was such a success, the Mott Foundation selects 17 new community foundations for the next chapter of their Community Foundations and Neighborhoods Small Grants Program. Connecting those community foundations in a spirit of peer to peer learning planted the seeds for the network that grew into Grassroots Grantmakers.
  • Disc 2 (1995-1999) - As a sequel to the Community Foundations and Neighborhoods Small Grants Program, the Mott Foundation provided funding to Rainbow Research to support another round of peer to peer learning gatherings for the community foundations that participated in their program. A steering committee was formed, new funders found their way to the network, and "membership contributions" were first collected to support the network's activities in the coming season.
Season 2
  • Disc 1 (2000-2003) - The Neighborhood Small Grants Network sponsors annual 1-day conferences in conjunction with the Council on Foundation's Fall Conference for Community Foundations, hosts regular topical conference calls to support peer to peer information sharing, and launches its first website. The Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth (now CFLeads) serves as the network's fiscal sponsor.
  • Disc 2 (2004-2006) - The Cleveland Foundation's generous offer to provide no-cost fiscal sponsorship enables the network to contract with Janis Foster Richardson as the network's Executive Director and first dedicated staff. The Neighborhoods Small Grants Network is recognized by the Council on Foundations as an affinity group. A grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation supports work on a retrospective assessment of the Community Foundations and Neighborhoods Small Grants Program. Support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation enables the network to engage in strategic planning, resulting in an expanded vision, clearer focus and new identity; the Neighborhood Small Grants Network becomes Grassroots Grantmakers.
  • Disc 3 (2007-2010) - As Grassroots Grantmakers, the network works to establish a national presence. Topical conference calls transition into webinars, the annual 1-day meeting transitions into bi-annual "On the Ground" learning gatherings, and a theory of change for grassroots grantmaking is developed. "Sharing the Learning" publications are piloted. Membership is growing and becoming more diverse. The Steering Committee votes to seek 501(c)(3) status and establish Grassroots Grantmakers as a free-standing non-profit entity.
Season 3: What's in Store?

I find that reflecting on the journey is the perfect way to start anew. And 2011 really does feel like a new season - the next chapter - with a solid history of thoughtful work behind us to propel us forward off the starting block. Here are just three snapshots from our 2011 workplan that particularly excite me:
  • In honor of our community foundation roots, we're celebrating our 20th year with two "On the Grounds" hosted by two of our most outstanding community foundation members. This spring, we'll be "on the ground" in Denver with The Denver Foundation, using their stellar Strengthening Neighborhoods grassroots grantmaking program as a platform to explore evaluating grassroots grantmaking from a "we begin with residents" learning-oriented perspective. In the fall, we'll ramp up our twentieth year celebration in Atlanta, joining with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to celebrate our shared twentieth year. The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta was one of the 17 community foundations that participated in the Mott Foundation program, and their Neighborhood Fund has been a consistent and increasingly important part of the foundation's community work ever since - evolving along the way with growing experience, learning and possibilities.
  • We're also exploring how we can support deeper learning and more specific work on using grassroots grantmaking to bring a strong resident-focus into issue specific work (aging, environment, education, youth, housing, etc). We now have our antennae out for funding organizations that want to do work on aging from a different angle - the angle that I described in a recent blog post on the intersection of grassroots grantmaking and aging. Our plan is to form a learning circle of six organizations who will work together for two years on this question. I'm tremendously excited about this project - eager to learn more about how we can use the learning circle concept to extend our historical commitment to new levels, and to be part of the learning journey on a topic that is gaining more importance each day as baby boomers move into the new territory of age 65 and beyond. You can read more about the EngAGEment Learning Circle that we're now recruiting here.
  • Last but not least, we're thinking hard now about what membership in the Grassroots Grantmakers network means, inspired by the network-centric organizing work of Lawrence Community Works to revisit the traditional concept of a membership organization with clearly identified members with specific membership benefits to wonder how we can build Grassroots Grantmakers as a connected environment with many different doors of entry and more provisional, flexible, action-oriented forms of engagement - all the while balancing the financial and others organizational capacity needs that all organizations face. This should be a fun and fascinating exploration - one that will shape how we look when we celebrate our thirty year anniversary!
Many thanks to all who have helped this network grow over the years - and welcome to all who are just now becoming connected. Here's to the next season.....