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.

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