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?


  1. Nice nice nice. Well said, janis. Big institutions - as critical as they are - don't address every problem well. We NEED small groups to figure out some of our problems. And in rural areas, let's face it - small groups are often the only thing we have. Keep it up. And good luck.

  2. Amen Janis. Amen and prayers for your family.