March 30, 2011

Real Life & Active Citizenship

My life became much more complicated recently.  As I've been paring down the extras in my life to make room for a challenge that my family is now facing, I've been reminded of the realities that we funders so easily forget when we get into the zone. You know the zone - the place where theory, data and logic rule and we forget that we're talking about real people and real life.

My paring down has included stepping away from a women's group, saying no to every "ask" that comes my way, no matter how interesting it seems, and focusing on the basics - my family, my job, and my own ability to persevere through this.  When it comes to what I have to offer - my heart, talents, and time - I'm invisible on the local community front right now and will be until this storm passes.

But this is reality, isn't it?  This is what happens when life intervenes and alters the course of the best laid plans.

This is a reality, however, that doesn't match up with assumptions that funders often make about the leadership development, capacity building, sustainability picture that we're trying so hard to create.

So let's think about this using my current experience.  I'm heading up a non-profit.  And my current pared down world includes giving as much as I can give to this non-profit.  My goal is to ensure that things on that front continue going strong, insulated from the big waves that are hitting me as an individual.  And if I can't do that, or can't see that I'm not doing that, there's a group of extremely competent and committed people behind me (aka a board of directors) who are ready to move into action and take whatever action is needed to make sure that our organization fulfills its obligations and moves steadily into the future. It's my active citizen role that is relegated to the sidelines - told to wait there patiently until I can move back into the action.

Wearing my funders hat, I love the idea that my money's going to a group is there for the long-haul, can be counted on to deliver on time every time, with a whole group of people on board ensuring that any one's personal blips won't cause a blip on the organizational radar screen.  That feels really comfortable, especially when I think about all that's on my plate and what little time I have for hand-holding, coaching and fretting about whether a newbie organization can deliver. 

I can list 50 reasons not to fund the type of organization that I was associated with in my neighborhood days - the type of organization that is so dependent on who is present and accounted for on any single day, the type of organization that is more associational than organizational, the type of organization that can be the flavor of the month this month but off the menu next month simply because attention and energy have shifted elsewhere.

But I can list 100 reasons to fund these more emergent groups.  It is these more fluid associational groups that are the vehicles that allow everyday people to bring their passion, power and energy into community life, that serve as the vehicle for everyday people to contribute to community life.  These are the groups that can make room for the odd-ball ideas and people - the people who so often are the innovators, the square pegs in the round holes, that figure something out that has challenged more conventional approaches.  These are the groups that find, grow and nurture new leaders and are the fertile ground of growing active citizens.

Grassroots grantmaking buys into the premise that these associational groups are important contributors to community change, vitality and resilience.  So that's why it's important for grassroots grantmaking funders - the big thinkers about small grants of funding world - acknowledge the realities of my current situation, the realities of real life for everyday people.  These groups are places where people come and go, depending on what else is going on in their lives.  The paring down that I'm now doing because my attention is needed is another area of my life is a reality for groups like these.  The spark plug in a group today may be the side-line sitter tomorrow.  The hot group today may be the treading water group tomorrow.  That's how it is.

And that's why the work of big thinking on small grants is never done - why it's important for funders to keep inviting people into the action and priming the pump of active citizenship with patient money.  That's why it's important for doors to remain open, judgement kept in check and on-ramps (or re-entry ramps) kept cleared of obstacles, and a warm welcome waiting for people like me who are ready and able to step back in.

Comments, anyone?

March 14, 2011

How It Adds Up

This post is really part two to my previous post about the metrics movement.

As I was preparing for my remarks last week at Grantmakers in Health's annual meeting, I checked in with several Grassroots Grantmakers member organizations to get some fresh stories that illustrate the path between "first grant" and "powerful result".  I was reminded once again about the power of grassroots grantmaking's patient money type of grantmaking, with stories about how impact stacked up over time - and how impact often surpassed anything that could have been predicted in the early days of the grantmaker-grantee relationship.

I heard about The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program's patient series of investments in the work a PICO local organizing committee's active query into the lack of productive after school activities for young people in Aurora, the third largest city in Colorado.  Light bulb after light bulb lit up as the group discovered the relationship between local government expenditures and indoor recreational opportunities, did their research, made a plan, and found allies.  Their work has resulted in a ballot initiative that would fund several new community recreational facilities. 

And then there was The Woods Fund of Chicago's support for STOP (Southside Together Organizing for Power), a community organization that works to build the power of residents on Chicago's Southside that may look unconventional from the outside, but has been able to achieve win after win on important community issues.  Their work has included tenant organizing to access to mental health facilities and trauma centers.  The Woods Fund says that the type of support they provide - capacity building support at first, and then operating support instead of project support - has enabled the group to work on issues as they emerge, and that the group's success has been tied to their ability to quickly respond.

And finally, I learned about the Incarnate Word Foundation's $5,000 grant to a group of 11 women - The Women's Helping Hands Bank - for a micro-lending project.  The women, with a new sense of their own power and possibilities, went on to create The Urban Greens Market, a membership farmers market that connects residents in an urban food desert with produce from local farmers, and design their own IDA-like savings program.  Incarnate Word Foundation's President, Bridget Flood, said that she purposefully did not join the planning conversations of the Women's Helping Hands Bank or any of the other groups that received small grants for micro-lending programs initially, wanting to avoid shifting the conversation from what the groups thought would work to what the funder thought would work. The wisdom of this decision showed up down the road, with the tremendous changes could be traced back to an initial $5,000 investment

These three stories underscore to me the importance of getting the relationship right.  With Denver, it was the patient money relationship that kept the door open over time for a group to tap into small amounts of resources when resources were what was needed to move their work ahead.  With the Woods Fund, it was a relationship that allowed the grantee to be agile and grab onto community issues when the time was right to move change ahead - without having to come back to the funder for a Mother-May-I conversation.  For the Incarnate Word Foundation, it was staying in a posture of curiosity and possibility when venturing out with a new idea, and trusting the ability of everyday people (vs. credentialed experts) to design something that works.  It was the right relationship that had a lot to do with how success added up at the community level.

These stories make me wonder about how we can do a better job of finding the right balance between anticipating things to measure in the grant proposal stage of the relationship and doing what it takes to build the right relationships that seem to be at the heart of these "adding up" stories.  When we're caught up in metrics mania, I wonder if we think about measuring ourselves as funders as well as the groups that we fund.  And if we do, how are we measuring our success at building relationships with our grantees that actually contribute to their success? How are we building our own capacity as funders to build constructive relationships with everyday people and the associations that they form as well as the more established non-profits in our world?  And how are we measuring our own progress towards that goal? 

How is this playing out for you?  And what are you (and I'm talking here to people on both the grantmaker and grantee side of funding relationships) learning about relationships that really contribute to "adding up" - impact, change, and a sense of our own individual and collective power and responsibility in our communities?  Weigh in with a comment or contact me directly for a conversation.  I'm all ears.

March 4, 2011

The Metrics Movement and the Realities of How Success Happens

I'm thinking about metrics. Why? I'm in Los Angeles at Grantmakers in Health's Annual Meeting on Health Philanthropy, connecting remarks made by Drew Atlman, President/CEO of The Kaiser Family Foundation and this year's winner of GIH's prestigous Terrance Keenan Award for Health Philanthropy, with another conversation about grantmaking success that I had several weeks ago with another colleague.

Altman - in his call for activist foundations and his reminder that the limitations that we face as funders are often self-imposed - pointed to two trends in philanthropy that he finds most worrisome.  One is philanthropy's fascination with corporate style governance and management practices.  The other is the power of the "metrics movement".  Bingo for me on both, but double bingo on the metrics movement.

Altman said that the metrics movement is discouraging foundations from pursuing important goals, just because progress toward those goals are not easily measured.  He talked about all those things that the Kaiser Family Foundation does that are never measured but that greatly contribute to the foundation's impact - the conversations they have, the connections they make, the knowledge that they freely share.  All those things that funders do in that don't get measured.

So now I'm flashing back to a conversation about success.  This was a conversation among seasoned funders about successful projects that they have funded.  I could hear a longing for a formula in this conversation.  A + B = Success.

One courageous person in this conversation said something about success that completely jived with my personal experience and felt like a breath of reality-insufed fresh air.  She said that the most successfl projects that she has seen have left the person or organization with a clearer understanding of what works and what doesn't work, and positions them for the next piece of work.

Yes, I know that metrics lovers can find some metric opportunities in that definition, and that's really okay with me - so long as the essence of this definition does not get drowned in the metrics.  The essence to me is about learning.  We are doing AND learning.  Our initial idea of what will work may not be the best idea (is it ever?), but we start with our best thinking,, tinker or revise when realities don't match up with expectations,  and keep going. 

This learning orientation is particularly important in the big thinking on small grants world.  As everyday people move their dream into action, my experience tells me that the most powerful thing a funder can provide - even more important than money - is a learnng environment.  Beginning with the questions that are asked in a grant proposal to the conversations that happen along the way and continuing all the way through to the final report, learning should be the goal.  What do you want to do, what is your plan, how is that working, how will you know that you're heading in the right direction, what will you do if you see that you're heading in the wrong direction, what do you know now that you didn't know when you began, what would you tell someone else who is starting out, what did this position you to do next? You may have better versions of these questions (please share!), but these are the type of questions that come from a place of curiosity and support rather than a place of pass-fail judgement.  These are the type of questions that set the stage for honest conversations and learning.

When I think about Altman's comment about the danger of the metrics movement for philanthropy, and my colleague's definition of success. I'm more excited than ever about the funders I see in the big thinking on small grants world of grassroots grantmaking who are really good at setting the stage for learning and are pushing back on the metrics mania that stymies other types of grantmaking.  I'm delighted that we're focusing on working through this tension with Grassroots Grantmakers' next "on the ground" learning gathering in Denver this spring, coming together around the theme of blazing a new trail with learning-oriented evalaution. 

Please weigh in with your thoughts on the metrics movement and the realities of how success happens.  I'm going to be working on this topic in the coming months and am eager to keep learning.