July 29, 2011

Creating a Welcome at the Edge

I had the opportunity to reconnect with John McKnight when I was in Toronto recently at the Inclusion Network's Summer Institute and have been thinking about a comment that he made there and my work in philanthropy, trying to strengthen and connect the big thinking about small grants funders out there and grow some more.  I've known John over the years through my association with the Asset Based Community Development Institute that he and his colleague and my friend, Jody Kretzmann founded.

John was talking about "community" - the various interpretations of what we mean when we talk about community.  He mentioned one of the 100+ definitions that sociologists use for community includes the notion that you can spot a community by the innies and outies (my language, not his).  That some people belong and others don't.  That associational groups - the groups that people form out of common interest - basically include people who have that interest and don't include people who don't share that interest.  The community choirs of the world are for those who love to sing, the dalmatian lovers group is for those who love spotted dogs, and the runners clubs are for those who like to run. 

There's another type of community, however, where everyone is "in" - or should be.  These are the communities that are defined by geography, where the thing people have in common is their block, their street, their neighborhood or their small town.  The place IS the thing in common, even though everyone in that place may experience it in different ways or see it from different angles.  This tie that we share with others is the common denominator among the hodge-podge of people who find themselves living in the same place, by accident or on purpose.

I love this idea and believe in the magic that happens for a community and for the people involved when there is a place at the table for everyone.  No children's table, no one in the other room or exiled to the front porch or conveniently not invited.  Perhaps that's why I fret when I find myself living in places that don't feel hospitable or welcoming.  In John McKnight's terms, they are places that don't have a welcome at the edge. I've experienced those places - haven't you?

Having a welcome at the edge means that someone is paying attention to who is not included, who's missing.  Who are the strangers in our neighborhood or town? They may be new to town or to the neighborhood.  They may be elderly or young.  They may have health-related challenges that make it difficult to venture out.  Or they may be people who speak another language or practice another religion or think of themselves as different in some way that makes them feel that stepping out comes with the risk of rejection.  Someone with labels - self-imposed or community-imposed.

When there's a welcoming at the edge, there's someone who doesn't see the labels, someone or many someones who believe in their hearts that "all" really means "all".  Someone is thinking about how to welcome the people who are standing at the edge and bring them into the circle in a way that is welcoming and accepting.

So what does this have to do with big thinking about small grants?  The "big thinking" that I'm talking about is about small grants that support everyday people as the difference-makers in the community change equations.  And making a difference means that in any community change equation, there's a welcome at the edge.

If you're a big thinking funder, are you looking for the welcome at the edge when you're reviewing proposals?  When you're talking to people about the small grants invitation, are you reminding people to think about how small grants can be used to welcome the strangers - and asking questions that expand thinking on who might be considered a stranger? Are you talking with your grant review committee about the power of a welcome at the edge?

If you're on the other side of the grantmaker/grantee equation, have you thought about who is missing - what blocks or houses or age groups or cultural groups bring up question marks rather than names and faces for you?  Can you imagine how you can include a welcome at the edge that can bring these people are groups form the edge to the center - even if you're trying to secure funding from a grantmaker who is not on the grassroots grantmaking wavelength?  

I'd love to hear your thoughts on creating a welcome at the edge and your experience with welcoming the strangers in your community or providing funding for this purpose.  Join me on this topic by posting a reply.

July 18, 2011

Searching for Four Leaf Clovers

I just returned from Toronto, attending the Inclusion Network's Toronto Summer Institute.  As I got to know people in this amazing group of community builders and they got to know me, a number of people asked how they could find a funder who thinks big about small grants.  I wish I could say that there's one in every community, and here's the list.  That's the future that I want to see, but that's not where we are now.  There are more and more everyday, but I know for many people, finding one is like finding a four leaf clover.

I'll share what tips I offered about where to look and what signs you might see that a funder is a big thinker about small grants.  But first, I have to say that I'm perplexed about why grassroots grantmakers - the big thinkers of the small grants world  - aren't popping up everywhere.  It just seems so obvious to me that funders with community roots and sensibilities would be natural big thinkers about small grants - the type of small grants that are a centerpiece of grassroots grantmaking.  If you care about strong resilient communities - places that are friendly places of opportunity for people - and are want to invest your philanthropic dollars in ideas that increase your community's livability, viability, and ability to tackle and overcome challenges, how can you overlook the incredible possibilities that can come from relatively small investments made to everyday people to do things that they think will make a difference?  And how can you make decisions about where to focus your philanthropic investments if the intended beneficiaries of your investments - community residents - are not helping you sort through the millions of options that you have before you?  Beats me. I often write here about resistance that I spot to the small grants idea - perceived risk, reluctance to invest in the staff capacity needed, transaction cost, short-term horizon, tunnel vision on an issue - but the benefits so far outweigh the costs, that I just don't get it why some funders are so reluctant to embark on a serious exploration of how to cross those bridges.

So if you're looking for a funder who thinks big about small grants, here are some pointers of where and how to look:
  •  Look for funders who focus their work in a place - a region, a metro area, a city, or a neighborhood.  These are the funders who are often most likely to be viewing their work with a wide-angled lens, and understand the power (and necessity) of inviting everyday people into the action;
  • Look for funders who get out of the office, invite people in, work hard to build relationships with a diverse group of people, and are consciously navigating around the dollar sign that they and all funders wear on their foreheads;
  • Listen for curiosity about what everyday people are experiencing and what ideas everyday people might have, and what additional assets, energy and connections everyday people can bring to the table;
  • Listen for frustration with business as usual - with an appreciation of the built-in limitations that come with investing in programs and services as the primary vehicle for changing lives and communities;
  • Look at the grants that the funder made in the previous year, seeing if you can spot any (or many) that were made to groups instead of organizations, and that fall in the small grants range of $500 to $5,000. Or a larger grant that was made to a community-based organization who is working as the funders small grants partner - managing the small grants program for the funder.
  • Look for stories that show that this funder understands that small grants can have big impact.
  • Listen for interest in spotting and developing the people who get things going on their block - the natural "capacity finders and mobilizers" in their community, with a knack for connecting people and making the first step on a big idea seem do-able.
Some funders who are big thinkers about small grants don't call their work grassroots grantmaking.  Some don't even call themselves "funder".  Fertile ground for big thinking on small grants can be found in local governments, neighborhood resource centers, neighborhood houses, giving circles, and community-based organizations in addition to community foundations, family foundations and other private foundations - organizations who understand what happens when people in their active citizen roles connect and bring their voices and values to shape choices that affect them in very personal ways.  And know that when you spot a big thinker about small grants, you have found something better than an opportunity to apply for a small grant, something even better than a four-leaf clover.  You've spotted a funder who is thinking outside of the traditional funding box, part of making a change in how institutions with money are partnering with everyday people to improve their communities.

If you spot some signs that there might be a big thinker about small grants in your community - or even see just one of the signs that I listed above - help us spread the word and build the community of grassroots grantmakers by sharing this blog, Grassroots Grantmakers' website (www.grassrootsgrantmakers.org) or sending a note of encouragement to check out what we're learning about how to think big about small grants.  Let's make it easier for groups of everyday people to find the modest resources and institutional partners they sometimes need to move their idea into action or amplify their impact.  Let's make it so that spotting big thinking about small grants isn't be as hard as finding a four leaf clover.