June 27, 2011

There's Big Goings-On in Cleveland for Grassroots Grantmaking

I was in Cleveland recently, part of  the Residents at the Center: The Power of Grassroots Grantmaking Forum that The Foundation Center hosted there.  We had a full house of more than 70 people attending in person, and others in an untold number of places watching via simulcast. The recordings of my presentation, the follow-up panel discussion, and the podcast that The Foundation Center used to help promote the forum are now available if you want to check them out out.

Ira Resnick, wherever you are, are we thinking big enough for you now? I hope you're smiling.

And keep on smiling.  While I was there, I had the privilege of sitting in on a meeting of Neighborhood Connections' grantmaking committee - the meeting where they approved $300,000 in grants, ranging from $500 to $5,000,  to Cleveland area community groups.  Did you get that?  Yes, I said $300,000 in grants of $5,000 or less.  And this was just one of the two rounds of grants that Neighborhood Connections awards each year.  Yes, indeed, there's big goings-on in Cleveland for grassroots grantmaking.

I regularly point people who want to try out resident-led grantmaking to Neighborhood Connections, but I hadn't seen the grantmaking committee at work before this visit.  I have been impressed by The Cleveland Foundation's willingness to turn the decision-making about who gets grants from this program over to neighborhood residents, and the process that is used to select people to sit on this committee that goes beyond usual suspects to reach the often untapped layer of community leadership. But seeing this group at work - witnessing how they thought about these grants and the deep understanding and respect they showed for the power and possibilities of everyday people in their active citizen roles - was really wonderful.

If you're thinking that it's easy to be wonderful when you have plenty of money, let me say this - "oh, really?"  Yes, the grantmaking budget is big here, but the work is anything but easy.  Imagine the outreach it takes to reach deeply into neighborhoods all across the city of Cleveland and the staff and committee work it takes to review proposals of $5,000 or less representing $1 million in requests.  And since the best grassroots grantmaking work is about relationships and not just the grantmaking transaction, there's all the work that goes on after the grant is made - connecting grantee groups together so that they can teach and inspire each other, coaching groups and leaders, keeping an ear to the ground for ways to invite resident leaders to new tables and new conversations, and setting up ways for groups to celebrate their accomplishments in ways that promote learning and open up new possibilities. 

If that's not enough, I was also able to sit in on some brainstorming with a group that Neighborhood Connections had brought together to participate in small group training that Grassroots Grantmakers facilitated earlier in the year - visiting with the amazing team at Lawrence Community Works to learn about LCW's NeighborCircles process.  I loved the big thinking around that table - and that at least one person around the table had already taken steps from thinking to acting to try out this process. Before I headed home, I had the opportunity to also get in some conversations with a number of people from a surprising variety of different types of organizations - people who are either supporting or actively engaged in grassroots grantmaking already or intrigued about the possibilities.

Big thinking has broken out all over in Cleveland, and it was wonderful to have had the opportunity to swim around in that water for a few days.  I suspect, however, that similar waters are waiting in surprising places.  Is that your city?  Are you involved with or spotting interesting work that may not now embrace the label "grassroots grantmaking" that feels like the work that I describe on this blog?  Do you sense that there's big goings-on in your place (organization/town/city/region)?  If "yes" is your answer, please connect!  I would love to share your story!

June 20, 2011

Inviting Applications

Whenever I hear that a funder can't find anyone to apply for a grant - and of course I'm talking here about funders who are thinking big about the type of small grants that are a core tool of grassroots grantmaking - I begin to ask questions.  My detective work usually turns up a problem in the application process that the funder has designed.  It might be something about how the funder is getting the word out about the grant opportunity.  Quite often, it's something about the application itself.

I don’t think there is any such thing as the perfect application.  If I did, I’d share it here.  Applications, just like every other design element of grassroots grantmaking programs, need to be tailored to work in your community.  I can share some basic do’s and don’ts – starting points for designing or redesigning good small grants applications.

Perhaps I should start with saying that I do believe in applications.  I know that Bill Somerville and others are fans of the “less is more” approach – substituting a conversation or a simple letter for an application.  If I had to choose between the overly complicated, book-like application and the “less is more” approach, I’d definitely go with “less is more”.  But my first choice is “just a little more”.

I think there’s something important about sitting down with a few questions that are designed to help spark some thinking and put some more flesh and bones on an idea.  I also believe in processes that support and encourage the thinking on the idea to continue.  It’s no surprise then that I believe that the most powerful application formats are ones that include a few good questions, and don’t lock people into hanging onto wherever they were in thinking about an idea at the time they completed the application.

Other than the basic “who are you” questions, I like questions that ask people to:
  • Talk about their group and to share a story about how the people in the group came together.
  • Tell about the activity, event or project that they have in mind – what it is, where the idea had its beginnings.
  • List the steps that the group will take to get this done – the who, when, and what of project planning.
  • Talk about their idea of “success” and describe what will be different if the project is a smashing success.
  • Say what they might do next.
  • List, in a very simple way, how they would spend the money that is necessary for their idea to be successful.
If you need to ask how the idea is connected to some goal that you have for your small grants program – then ask that as well.  But of course, in people friendly terms rather than funder jargon.

Pretty simple, right?  But more than this, I love applications that use questions like these to set up conversations that don’t really get formalized until after the grant is awarded.  I love applications that are beginning points for the discussions that the staff or grantmaking committees have with the applicant organizations and provide room for the group to continue to “grow” their idea throughout the application process.  The way I handled that when I was a grantmaker was to tell the grantmaking committee members that the application was simply the beginning point for a conversation, make sure that face to face “level playing field” conversations happened between the applicant and those who would be making the grant recommendation, and to avoid those crazy score cards that try to take the subjectivity out of the grant review process.   I also kept the “deal” regarding how money would be spent open as long as possible by holding tight to power to hold new grantees to the budget that they submitted AFTER they knew that they were receiving a grant and for how much.  I loved the opportunity to make hay with the power of endorsement that comes with receiving a grant from a prestigious funding organization, and tell a group to stretch the money we had awarded as far as possible by telling other potential partners that we believed in them and so should they.

What I don’t like is 15 pages of chutes and ladders- type questions.   That’s funders doing what they think they need to do in the name of some crazy idea of due diligence that is not appropriate for the big thinking world of grassroots grantmaking.

If you spotted an application with questions like these, would it be inviting?  Would it encourage you to continue or discourage you from taking the next step?  And, if you’re a funder, would it be enough for you to make a decision and be confident about what you’re buying?  Just enough, that’s what I have in mind.  What do you think?

June 12, 2011

Getting Basic on Small Grants

I want to talk about some basics on small grantmaking.  I frequently say (and really believe) that the mechanics of small grantmaking in a big thinking on small grants world are not rocket science.  The same common sense approaches that improve any grant program apply to the type of small grantmaking that we think of as "grassroots grantmaking".  My hunch is that hundreds (if not more) funders have designed good small grants programs from scratch.  I want more of that - more funders just jumping in to the small grants world and doing it their way without over-complicating things.  But I also want all of the precious small grants money that is being invested out there to be as powerful as possible, and the funders who are using these approaches loving what they are seeing.

That's why I want to share some of my own pointers for on small grants program mechanics, focusing on the 6 basic questions you should start with to design a powerful small grants program.

Who:  Know who - the types of groups - you're looking for.  For grassroots grantmaking's small grants, you are looking for the type of groups that everyday people form out of mutual interest or a common purpose,  where "members" share decision-making responsibilities and duties, and where people can come and go at will.  John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann of ABCD fame call these groups associations and are careful about calling out the differences between associations and other types of more permanent organizations.

I often see funders begin with the intention of funding associational-like groups, but then either unintentionally open the gate for other types of groups - especially those that provide services, or design their program in a way that all but eliminates the more informal associational resident-led groups from the picture, right from the start.  As far as the gate-opening, my best advice there is "don't do it"; once the gate is open, it's almost impossible to close it again, and now your grassroots grantmaking program is just another small grants program, providing seed money to baby non-profits instead of supporting residents as active citizens.

The best statement of "who" I've seen is "three unrelated people on a block".  Notice what is missing here?  Nothing about having a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation, nothing about being organized for two years, nothing about financial statements, nothing about by-laws.  If you go fishing with the "three unrelated people on a block" statement in your grantmaking criteria, you're almost sure to find WHO you want for powerful grassroots grantmaking-style small grants.

Where: This "where" refers to focus.  Are you going to focus in one neighborhood, several neighborhoods, city-wide, metro area, or regionally?   The correct answer to this question is any of the above.  But when you're thinking about "where", it's important to think about the funding organization's capacity, remembering that good small grants work is a relationship and connection building proposition.  If your staff capacity is such that you can't have some regular face-time with the groups that you are funding, and don't know the groups well enough to spot and act on natural connections, then you need to narrow your focus.Otherwise, you're just sprinkling money around, with the assumption that you're doing something, and not thinking big about small grants.

How: There are a couple of "how" considerations.  How are you going to find the associational groups that you want to find and how do you  make decisions about who gets the grants.  You find the groups you want in two basic ways: 1) by getting out of the office and 2) being smart about using your relationships and networks. By getting out of the office, I mean you're seeking opportunities to talk about the grant program in community settings and showing up with information at community events.  You're also asking people you know to help you spread the word.

You can approach the decision-making in several ways - each with pros and cons.  Check out Grassroots Grantmakers' website for information on the decision-making models that we have identified across our network.  The important thing here is to select the one that works best for your situation, and begin right away to plan to minimize the "cons".  For example, if you go with a resident-led decision-making process, do some careful planning about how you are going to connect the board of your organization to the program in a way that involves something other than reading a report.

When: This could be another "how" (how often), but the how often also comes with an important consideration of "when".  My two favorite "how often" options are "constantly" and "regularly".  The constantly option means that you have rolling deadlines and are always in the process of receiving and awarding grants.  The "regularly" option means that you most likely are awarding grants quarterly, semi-annually or even annually.  The trick to to making both options powerful is positioning the announcement of the grant opportunity as an invitation that is welcoming, intriguing, interesting, do-able.  The key to deciding which option works best for you is tied to how you make decisions and how much capacity you have to manage the process.

Another "when" consideration, especially if you offer grants once or twice a year, is timing.  I like backing into the grant cycle dates from the check-award date, timing the completion of the process and awarding of checks before resident-led groups hit their busy-season - often spring and summer. 

What:  By "what", I'm talking about what are you looking for - often evidenced by what you talk about when you're deliberating over who receives grants.  With grassroots grantmaking, the "what" you're looking for is an idea that originated with a group of people (i.e. three unrelated people on a block) and is being moved into action as a project, event or activity that, at the most basic level, has the potential to build and strengthen the spider-web of relationships inside the neighborhood and turn on some light bulbs that illuminate possibilities for what people can do when they come together.  The focus is on where the idea originated, who is doing the doing, and what the activity does to strengthen active citizen power and voice.  The conversation at the funding table should focus on these questions.  I view conversations that get overly focused on “things” as conversations that have taken a detour from the most powerful “what” focus – turning into conversations that are more about money and what money will buy instead of what the proposed activity can do to strengthen active citizenship.

Why: I've been a lot of good small grants programs.  The powerful ones, however, are grounded in a strong sense of "why", and the "why" is to invest in everyday people as active citizens, actively using their creativity, passion, ingenuity and connectedness to make life better, right where they live.  The most powerful small grants programs are clearly not about programs that provide things to and for people as clients or consumers, but instead are about supporting groups of people who want to move one of their own ideas into action.

You'll find many more tips and tools for grassroots grantmaking on Grassroots Grantmakers' website in the Resources area, and I can think of other great resources of small grants programs, but these are the basics.

Comments or additions?

June 1, 2011

Giftmaking vs. Grantmaking in a We Begin with Residents World

I've been in the middle of several conversations about money in the past week - funders talking about where money fits into the community improvement, strengthening local democracy picture.  I heard several funders say that they have learned to never lead with money - meaning that beginning a conversation or relationship with "Who needs money?" or "We have some money to give" is a bad idea.  I heard others say that they have learned that money is one of the least powerful tools that funders have in their community improvement toolbox.  This was a familiar conversation.

This time, however, it was sitting on top of another recent exchange about what it means for a funder to say (and mean) that they begin with residents.  It was community residents this time saying that if you begin with us, just give us the money.

Wow.  Maybe the "never lead with money" funders are right about the corrupting quality of money.  Or maybe the community residents are right when they are telling funders that it is a game for a funder to say that it's not about money when it's so apparent that money is in the room - wearing a disguise or blatantly out in the open - and is shaping the power dynamics in the funder-community resident relationship. Or just maybe these are two extremes of a continuum that has creative grantmaking on one end, and generous giftmaking on the other end.

I think of gifts and grants as two very different things.  A gift is an act of generosity that isn't supposed to come with strings.  It's me sending money to my daughter for her birthday with a note saying "here's something for you to use however you want".  I might say something like "here's something to help you buy that new coat you need for next winter", but there's nothing explicit or implicit in that statement that says that she can't use the money to make her next Visa payment or put gas in her car or get a massage.  It's a gift.  I might hope that my daughter likes the gift that I give her or, if it's money, uses the money in a way that I think is smart, but I can just hope.  And on her side of the exchange, she also has no way of initiating my gift-giving impulse.  All she can do is hope (or maybe hint) that I remember her birthday with a gift - something that she will like or can use.

I think of a grant as a deal between two parties, and deals, by their very nature, come with strings attached.  Deals also are places where two parties come together who want to get something done that they both care about – perhaps in different ways and for different reasons.  And there's usually some negotiating that happens until both parties get enough of what they want to forward.  When the moving forward happens, there are clear expectations of what is supposed to happen.  In the grantmaking world, the grantee can expect a check from the funder when the grant agreement has been signed and everything has been done that the grantee agreed to do as part of the negotiations about the grant.  The funder, in turn, can expect that the grantee will make their best faith effort to achieve what they said they would achieve in the grant proposal.  For the funder, it's not about getting a massage when you promised to use the money for a new winter coat.  For the grantee, it’s not about a funder deciding to change the terms – how much, for how long, and for what – once the agreement is signed.  It’s a deal.

I know this is basic, but I'm being so basic because I think that in the murkiness that happens when money enters the picture, there's some confusion out there about the difference between a gift and a grant.  I think that this confusion is a cloud that gets in the way of using money well in a "we begin with residents" funding environment.  When I hear grants described as "free money" or a grantmakers' job described as "giving away money", I know that people are thinking about giftmaking and not grantmaking.  And if they come into the grantmaking environment with giftmaking in mind, they are sure to be disappointed, even when the best "we begin with residents" funders is at the table.  When I hear funders say that money isn't important, I hear frustration that comes with being perceived as a walking dollar sign with expectations that people have about getting "free money" when there is so much else the funder could bring to the deal and when the “walking dollar sign” person has to navigate through both legal requirements and policy guidelines that come with the grantmaking territory.

My response to the community group that says "we begin with residents" funding is about giving freer access to the funder's checkbook is this:  If you're talking about getting to the checkbook in a more straightforward way, without feeling like you've just made it through an obstacle course that is specifically designed to weed out all but the most determined or skilled grantseekers - you're right.  If you're also talking about more opportunities for real conversations about what you are trying to accomplish, more opportunities to really listen to what the funder is trying to accomplish, and a relationship that will enable you and the funder to craft a deal that is good for both of you - you're right.  If you're talking about the type of relationship that allows you to see more than the checkbook, and talk with the funder about what else you need besides money - what information you need, what doors you need help opening, where you're stuck and could use another perspective - you're right.  But if you're talking about free money, with an expectation that this grantmaker will become a giftmaker instead - you're missing the boat.

I'm not one who will ever say that money isn't important or that it's always a mistake to lead with money.  I may be naive, but I believe that the opportunity to apply for a grant can be positioned as a powerful invitation that moves people into action on something that they have been thinking, dreaming or worrying about.  I also understand the limitations of money, and have seen many groups, through the small grants experience, get disillusioned because they really believed that money was the answer and discovered for themselves that it's just part (and often the easiest part) of the answer.  That's why it's so important to completely understand the difference between giftmaking and grantmaking in the "we begin with residents" environment.  If you just want the checkbook, you just may have left more of what you really need to achieve your dream on the table.  And if you're only thinking about money, you're not in a position to join with a funder who aspires to work from a "we begin with residents" orientation and together bring everyday, tangible meaning to that term.

I know that there are people reading this deal with the sticky part of grantmaking every day - on the grantmaking side and on the grant receiving side - would love to hear what you have to say about grantmaking and giftmaking in a we begin with residents world.  Look for "comment" and join in.