May 23, 2011

Thinking More About "We Begin with Residents"

One of the fascinating conversations at Grassroots Grantmakers' recent "On the Ground" learning gathering in Denver was about success.  What does success (or victory) look like for funders who work from a "we begin with residents" perspective and for the groups that they fund?  As we dug into this question, we spent as much time talking about what "we begin with residents" means.  What is the evidence that a funder is really taking "we begin with residents" to heart?  And what expectations are set in motion for grantees if they hear that a funder works from a "we begin with residents" perspective?

"We begin with residents" is Grassroots Grantmakers' tag-line, carefully chosen after initially landing on "in neighborhoods, with residents".  We discarded the "in neighborhoods" tag-line because we know that many funders can say that they are "in neighborhoods, with residents", but they are there with their own agenda, without the relationships with residents that we believe are the hallmarks of grassroots grantmaking.  The "we begin with residents" tag-line is an aspirational statement around which we have seen member organizations such as The Denver Foundation continually raise the bar. I think it's a sign of this "bar-raising" and the deep relationship building that is happening across our network that residents and funders are talking together about what it means for a funder to "begin with residents".

As I've been reflecting on these conversations, I've been thinking about what all-out, full-blown "we begin with residents" funding looks like from both the funder's side and the community's side of the table and what sign-posts could be spotted along the way that a "we begin with residents" relationship is growing and maturing.  On the funder's side of the equation, does "we begin with residents" mean that we begin - and end - with residents and that all of our work is now focused on/initiated by/driven by community residents?  And from the community's side, does it mean that when residents speak, rules are relaxed and the funder's checkbook is within easy (or at least easier) reach?

We were able to get a good look at capacity building over time at Grassroots Grantmakers' recent "on the ground" learning gathering in Denver.  We saw how The Denver Foundation and the Strengthening Neighborhoods staff had evolved their work over time with both tweaks and more significant programmatic changes - all of which were influenced by what they were hearing from residents and learning from keeping their ears to the ground. We saw evidence of capacity building at many levels on the foundation side of the grassroots grantmaking equation - changes in the grantmaking process, in how staff carried out their work, in who was hired,  in the growing influence over time that Strengthening Neighborhoods has had on The Denver Foundation itself, and how it has both influenced and been influenced by partner organizations such as the Urban Land Conservancy and MOP (Metro Organizations for People), Denver's PICO affiliate.  This is work that is constantly evolving, with its evolution informed by learning about what it means to be a "we begin with residents" funder.

We also saw some evidence of  the evolving understanding of "we begin with residents" on the grantee and community partner side in Denver. We heard from one of The Denver Foundation's community partners about their evolving relationship with The Denver Foundation over time - evolving from "foundation = money" to "foundation = money + networks + influence + co-thinker/strategizer".  Over time, this became a relationship and more about "we" - what goals that we have in common - and not so much about "us and them".  While we didn't hear the inside-stories about grant negotiations, my hunch is that those negotiations were really negotiations - respectful, give-and-take exchanges - and not the usual funder-grantee, "guess the magic word" conversations.

In the spirit of supporting "bar-raising" and inviting conversation about what it means for a funder to work in a "we begin with residents" manner, here is what I look for when a fully actualized "we begin with residents" funder is in the mix:

Its values.  It is clear that the people around the table and calling the shots value:
  • the resourcefulness and ingenuity of everyday people, and are clear about what it means for people to show up as active citizens instead of volunteers, customers, clients or consumers;
  • a patient money approach, with funding policies that are consistent with their understanding that building the capacity for strong, sustainable communities doesn’t happen in one funding cycle;
  • ground truth - as an important companion to other forms of data;
  • inclusivity, working to create a community culture  where everyone is welcome, nobody is excluded from community work, and each person has gifts they bring to the community table;
  • learning, with funders knowing that as they support communities through a process of change, they will also experience a transformation of their own funding models and a new confluence of power that reduces the hierarchies in funder-community relationships and supports shared decision-making processes. And grantees learning how to extend the influence on their block as well as inside key institutions that can be critical allies in their work.
You can see the difference in their relationships. Funders and grantees alike strive for relationships that are about co-creation, the process of creating great work by standing together with those for whom the results are intended.  Both parties find value and are transformed by the experience of working together. 

There's more than money in the funder's bag of tricks. Grants are coupled with coaching, training, connecting, celebrating, and connecting, calling for the on the ground people who staff these programs to look past the grantmaking transaction to what else is needed to help the group move their idea into action and be ready for the next one.

There's a systems orientation lens on the every one's camera. For funders and grantees alike, it's not just about the work of this one funder, this one grant, this one activity, this one group. It's also about how strengthening resident voice and opening up new tables for active citizens can change the bigger picture dynamics of how things get done in that community.

It's not just one champion, it's the organization. With the most authentic "we begin with residents" funders, there's a depth to their organizational commitment to the values and principles I've already listed.  It may be that one person is the primary flag bearer or the initial internal change-agent, but eventually "we begin with residents" has influence inside the funding organization and doesn't just sit as an attachment to one funding program. While grassroots grantmaking might typically start as a specific grants program or capacity-building activity, it can build toward adopting core values at the grants committee level and then at the staff and board levels, engaging grassroots grantmaking principles and citizen leadership in foundation initiatives around issues such as arts, education, or social services, bringing citizen leaders to the table when the foundation assists the community in applying for national grants, involving the citizen leaders as staff or board members of the foundation.

What else would look for in a "we begin with residents" funding scenario?  And where along the continuum from initial aspiration to fully actualized do think the "we begin with residents" idea can most likely get stuck?  I'm all ears.

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