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:
- 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.
- 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.
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!