September 22, 2011

So Obvious It's Not Obvious

Have you ever had the experience of spotting something and then suddenly seeing it everywhere?  That's what's happened to me recently.

In my work with Grassroots Grantmakers, I have found myself becoming more and more tuned in to how "issues" show up in the grassroots grantmaking world, and what happens when grassroots grantmaking and issue-specific funding - funding focused on education, health, environment, aging, arts, housing, economic development, disabilities, etc - are occupying the same space.  What I have noticed is that many times, funders are doing excellent grassroots grantmaking/resident engagement work on one side of the fence, and very thoughtful issue-specific work on the other side of the fence, with very little visiting between staff, much less grantees, across the fence.

Here's the even more fascinating part of this picture.  The people on the grassroots grantmaking side of the fence are searching for ways to demonstrate the importance of their relatively small but very strategic investments in connecting people for mutual support and action, searching for data that can convince the "prove it" skeptics in their world.  The people on the issue-oriented funding side of the fence are searching for ways to engage the community in their work, sensing that the solutions that are developed by professionals for the people who are most directly experiencing the problems are falling short.

The opportunity is so obvious, isn't it?  The problem is that it's so obvious, it's not obvious.  The work that we describe as grassroots grantmaking is really good at deep resident engagement and, because it typically isn't issue specific, provides an open ground for residents to step forward on issues that they identify as most important, with solutions that they design and believe will make a difference.  Issue-specific work is typically well informed by trend-information, demographics, and the policy environment impacting the issue, and is focused on moving the needle on something measurable.  Two sides to the same thing, in my opinion.

We're now intentionally delving into the all-too-common divide between grassroots grantmaking and issue-oriented work via a learning circle has just launched, with seven organizations joining over two years, each exploring the intersection of grassroots grantmaking and aging.  We're doing this in partnership with Grantmakers in Aging, a colleague philanthropic affinity group, and are thus in an exploration of our own with our issue-oriented partner. We've had our first group conference call, first round of one-on-one check in calls, and are planning our first in-person learning circle gathering, and teams from all seven organizations are busy working on the angle they want to take in this exploration and a project they will pursue down the road.

What I'm noticing in my own thinking and in the conversations we've had so far as learning circle members is how tempting it is to begin believing that all of the answers are down the road that is paved with professional problem solvers and issue expertise - that we can't begin working on the intersection of grassroots grantmaking and aging until we get fully briefed by aging experts and immersed in aging research.

While I was talking with one learning circle member about possible first steps, it hit me that we were all overlooking the obvious - the issue experts that were already in our midst.  So obvious it wasn't obvious.

Where to start quickly began to shift from going to school with the professional experts in the aging arena to looking at the grassroots grants that had been made in the past with new eyes, identifying those that had something to do with aging - those that focused on creating inter-generational connections, decreasing the isolation that so many older people experience, making community spaces more suitable for aging in place, tapping into the wisdom and leadership abilities of older adults and similar activities.  We began to talk about how many "aging" grants we had already made, and to think of the residents associated with these grants as aging experts in their own right - experts who had developed and tested ideas that might not have ever occurred to their counterparts in the professionalized helper/research world.  What new possibilities might open up in the intersection of grassroots grantmaking and aging if we began with bringing together our partners in this work - the resident-led groups that had requested and received small grants for aging-related work - to share their experience and what they had learned, and to think together about what else they/we could do.  What other possibilities might open if we then connected with the agencies and researchers in our area who are focused on aging-related issues - and who are often wishing for the community insights and energy on aging-related topics - for some intentional cross-pollination and possibly even some creative collaboration?

Community wisdom, community energy, people who have already stepped forward in a concrete way to say "this is my interest" - grassroots grantmaking's biggest asset and ace in the hole, so obvious it wasn't obvious.

Have you had a similar experience - blinded by the "shoulds" associated with issue-oriented work, only to see how far ahead the resident-led groups you fund are when you look at the grants you have made with new eyes and created opportunities for a new type of conversation, with grantees as the experts teaching you/the funder about the issue?  Or have you been on the other side of the equation - on the resident side of this equation, frustrated when your funder doesn't recognize you as an issue expert, or energized when you have been invited to show up as an issue expert?  Please share your experience here. This is an important "big thinking" aspect of the small grants world that deserves more exploration.

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