February 4, 2011

Building a New Path from Dreaming to Doing

I was talking with a funder recently about some very solid work they are doing with neighborhood groups in their community when I suddenly the conversation felt very familiar. The funder was telling me about a series of community conversations that had been held in each neighborhood and the list of priorities that had come out of each meeting. Before the funder got to the items on the list, I started naming the items that would be there to myself. And it's not because I'm clairvoyant or extremely wise that I was right. It's because the list includes what everyone wants for their neighborhood:
  • Less crime/more safety
  • Clean, cared for appearance
  • Good schools
  • Job opportunities
  • Convenient shopping
  • Access to transportation
  • Things for kids to do
  • Parks/green spaces/recreational opportunities
  • Friendly neighbors
  • Stability
  • Good housing
And the list could go on or be expertly reformatted into funder-friendly categories such as safety, economic development, community development, housing, education, environment, youth, etc.

What happened next in our conversation is one of the common "big thinking" roadblocks I see in the grassroots grantmaking world. The funder was wondering about his/her best approach to begin acting on these priorities. Residents had said what they want. Now what is the funder to do if they want to act in a "we begin with residents" manner?

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that big problems like those that contribute to a call for more safety, better education, better and more affordable housing, opportunities for youth require investment and hard work at all levels. I think that funders are often very good at some levels and are especially good at doing things that involve funding non-profit organizations. They are often not very good at the other two ends of the spectrum - working at the high-level policy level and working with everyday people who are most directly impacted by these issues. It's at the everyday people end of this spectrum that I think about every day.

We're all "everyday people", at least for some hours of the day. And we've all probably been called on to join in some brainstorming about what would be different if our realities were closer to our dreams - in our home, our neighborhood, our broader community, our region, or our country. My experience is that I and others go crazy brainstorming and then someone takes the flip charts back to the office and another meeting happens somewhere about moving our dreams to action. And my experience is that what I put on the list for someone else to do is different from what I put on the list for ME to do. There are a lot of things that would be okay with me if someone else would do them, but they at not things that would end up on my list - that I feel passionate enough about for me to act.

It the middle of the conversation with this funder, it occurred to me that it is that "packing up the flip charts and taking them home moment" - the real one that happens at the end of a meeting or the virtual one that happens at the end of a conversation - that changes things from the "we begin with residents" orientation of grassroots grantmaking to the more typical funder- every people relationship, especially when the everyday people involved are from neighborhoods or communities that have been over-studied, over-surveyed, or over-run by from-the-outside, well-intentioned help.

This is the moment when the most powerful thing a funder can do is to step back and use the big thinking on small grants orientation as a question.
  • What would you like to do?
  • What on this list would move you to action?
  • Who else do you know that cares about this as much as you do?
  • What could you do tomorrow to get started?
I love the way that I've seen some funders start with the space for people to talk and dream, and then share the invitation to apply for a small grant for those people who are catching on fire with an idea. I also love the way that I've seen other funders stay engaged with grantees, providing the space needed for people to imagine "what's next" after they launch out with their first idea and catch on fire again with another idea. Both ways of acting at this everyday people end of the spectrum feel like natural paths from dreaming to doing that change the dynamics in important ways between funders and the everyday people who live in the communities where they are investing.

So my answer to "what should I do with this list of priorities" question is simple. Invite the everyday people who created that list onto the dreaming to doing path with some big thinking on small grants.

What has been your experience with turning the conversation from dreaming to doing? Share your experience here by posting a comment.

1 comment:

  1. Thought you might be interested in a series on international small grantmaking on my blog, how-matters.org:

    Your readers might also be interested in this post on spotting community ownership:

    Great to learn about your group!