October 24, 2011

"What If" Spices Up The Gifford Foundation's Work in Syracuse

Travels took me to upstate New York last week, presenting at the New York State Funders Conference in Ithaca at the invitation of the Grantmakers Forum of New York, and then trekking over to Syracuse to spend a day with the amazing big thinkers at the Rosamond Gifford Foundation.  Sheena Solomon, the Gifford Foundation's Director of Neighborhood Initiatives, was my partner for the NYS Funders Conference, bringing my presentation on grassroots grantmaking to life with her remarks on how grassroots grantmaking is showing up in Syracuse and what she has learned about the difference between a small grants as a funding transaction and small grants as a vehicle for powerful resident engagement.

Of all the great things I could share about the Gifford Foundation's work in Syracuse, it's "What If" that's on my mind.  Gifford introduced their "What If" mini-grant program earlier this year after working very deeply in two Syracuse neighborhoods for over six years.  Resident-led groups from all Syracuse neighborhoods can tap into What if mini-grants of $5,000 or less.

Here's what I love about The Gifford Foundation's What If mini-grant program:
  • Rolling application deadlines, a simple application, and a solid pre-application workshop, all contributing to a program that is more about inviting community groups in than using the grant application period to screen applicants out.
  • A clear statement about who the Gifford Foundation had in mind for What If mini-grants - groups, associations, and neighbors with not one mention of non-profit organizations.
  • Just as much clarity about the type of capacity building projects that What If mini-grants are designed to fund, with almost no funder jargon sprinkled in. Check out what they have to say and you'll see what I mean.
  • The link that has already been established, even in the first year of the mini-grant program, with the Community Foundation for Central York's Leadership Classroom to connect some big thinking What If grantees with additional capacity building opportunities.
  • The What If Film Series - a fun way to use documentaries that share stories of  people coming to together to make a difference in their communities to spark ideas and inspire action.
  • And of course I love this.....that the networking that Sheena did with Grassroots Grantmakers planted the seed and provided the fertilizer for the What If mini-grant program.
 Way to go, Gifford Foundation. Keep asking "what if" and spicing it up in Syracuse!

October 17, 2011

The Spice in Your Civic Engagement Salsa

Have some salsa, without the spices. That's like supporting civic engagement without small grants.

I'm talking specifically about grassroots grantmaking today, and by that I mean the work that funders do to support everyday people coming together for mutual aid or collective action. Truth is, every time I talk about big thinking on small grants, I'm talking about grassroots grantmaking, and here's why.

Many if not most funders say that they care about resident engagement. Many of these funders do really good jobs of engaging residents without grassroots grantmaking - using everything that comes with the grassroots grantmaking package except small grants. And that's fine. So much more fine than funders or other powerful institutional players who speed past residents because engagement is too messy, too time consuming, too this or too that.

But what I would like to tell these funders who are doing really good jobs of engaging residents without grassroots grantmaking is that their work can come alive in new ways, their investments can do so much more to tip the scale towards community vitality and resilience, if they bring small grants into the picture - in a big thinking way, of course.

The big thinking way of small grants means that we're talking about a lot more than a funding transaction. But we are indeed talking about a funding transaction – a deal that a funder makes with a group that says we believe in your idea, you have something to offer to this picture, and we have confidence that you can deliver. It's also about something that comes with a plan, a timeline, an end-point that signals "take stock (were you able to do what you were trying to do) and reflect (what have we all learned from what happened or didn't happen), and a budget that lays out what money can do and suggests what only people can do that money can't do.

The spice the small grants bring to a funder's civic engagement picture is the spice that most directly propels people with good ideas into action with some intentionality and built-in accountability that keeps them going when life intervenes and sets the stage for the power of learning through doing. That's kind of learning is so much more powerful than learning through just thinking, talking or advising others who are the do-ers. It's like the difference between thinking about the type of parent you will be, how you would handle that unruly child four seats up in the airplane and being in that seat with your child. It's about the difference between issues that other people take on, and the issues that are so personally important, exciting or personal that you're compelled to take them on yourself. It's about moving from supporting actor to center stage as an essential member of the cast.

If you're a funder who is serving up civic engagement salsa without some grassroots grantmaking spiciness, here are some suggestions for a new recipe with some ingredients that are probably already in your cupboard:
  • Incorporate small grant opportunities in your dialogue processes as a way to help the people around dialogue tables who "click" with a hot idea move that idea into action.
  • If you've been convening around a certain issue or engaging community residents in a planning process, invite even more people into the action by inviting community residents to present an idea for how they would address that issue or move forward on a goal via a small grant. I can guarantee that the ideas (and people) you will see will expand on the ideas that even the most expertly facilitated community process will surface – with a promise that community residents are not going to suggest another literacy program if you issue an invitation for creative thinking on how to encourage more people in the community to read with a small grants program rfp.
  • Invite one of your well-connected community partners to expand their repertoire and move into the role of funder world by managing a small grants fund – and, after being clear about the most minimalist list that you can come up with of "do's and don'ts", ask them to be as creative as they can be in setting it up so that it will invite in more than the usual suspects. This will be good for you, good for your community partner and good for the community.
  • Put the question out there – how could some small grants help get some things done in this community in a way that involves the people we're not seeing now – and listen carefully for some good ideas.
I've had it both ways, but I want some spice with my salsa. And you?

October 9, 2011

The Big Grant Part of the Small Grants Landscape

I recently returned from two days with directors of state agencies working in the developmental disabilities world, making some introductions about grassroots grantmaking as a tool that could be really useful in opening up new relationships and possibilities that focus more on people and less on disabilities.  Loved the group, loved the conversation, loved the ideas that began percolating.

As we were talking about the small grants work that is core to grassroots grantmaking, I could sense the discomfort of some in the room about getting into the small grants business.  As people began listing the "why nots" of small grants - transaction costs, staff time required when your goal is to use grants to build relationships at the local level, the different type of outreach strategy needed when you are trying to reach new people and groups, the challenge that comes with geographic distance when you're working statewide but want to have impact at the local level - I found myself nodding yes, yes, yes, you're right. Big thinking about small grants is mostly about building relationships and only partly about funding transactions, and the relationships that you want to build as a funder are face to face relationships with people and groups that normally don't show up at your funder door on their own. Grassroots grantmaking is also about building relationships between groups - creating the connective tissue between associational groups in a community that is so often missing but so very powerful. These relationships are the conduits for learning, inspiration, and the discovery of shared interests and agendas.

This is work that requires enough time from the right person - a person who can live with one foot in the funding world and the other foot in the community world, someone who likes people (and not just the idea of people), sees gifts and possibilities in every person and situation, and is a natural connector. This is work that is also about the connection between people, place and community - quintessentially local in nature. So it's not surprising, is it, that this is work that would be really hard to do long distance?

So what do you do if you're a national, state or regional big thinking about small grants funder?  How do you put your big thinking about small grants into practice?  Can you be a grassroots grantmaker if your feet aren't planted squarely and deeply in a specific community?  What does past experience tell us about what works and doesn't work if you're across the region, across the state or even across the nation from the people you want to invite to move into action with small grants delivered in a grassroots grantmaking way?

Here's my take on those questions.

Yes, you can invest in grassroots grantmaking, yes you can derive the benefits that funders get when they invest in grassroots grantmaking, and yes, you can think of yourelf as a grassroots grantmaker.

But, your approach is a different approach because of the very local nature of this work.  You can't do it directly, but you can do it in a very powerful way with with the right local partner or set of local partners.  That's where bigger grants come into the big thinking about small grants picture.

You can do what The Vancouver Foundation is doing, and partner with a set of deeply rooted community-based institutions - neighbourhood/settlements houses in this case - in your community to be your grassroots grantmaking partners.  Or you can do what The Skillman Foundation is doing with their Good Neighborhoods Initiative and partner with a local non-profit who has experience as a small grant maker and a willingness to bring on another person to their team who has what it takes to effectively staff a grassroots grantmaking program.  You can do what Indianapolis LISC did with the Great Indy Neighborhoods Initiative and partner with an entity like the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center for Imagine Grants, the small grants component of the initiative.  Or, you can follow the lead of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities' Real Communities Initiative and partner with local governments and community based organizations to bring grassroots grantmaking to communities across your state.

Sounds easy enough and it is, in many ways, especially if you find the right local partner.  But, if you are a regional, state or national funder - or even a funder who doesn't have the staff, time or relationships yourself to do this work in-house - and want to work this way, making a bigger grant to a credible partner organization who has what it takes to do the day to day work of grassroots grantmaking, here are some tips to help you stay on the road and out of the ditch or at a disappointing dead-end.
  • While there are some logical places to look for local partners, there's no one right place.  Starting your query with a community foundation is smart, but that doesn't mean that your community foundation is your ideal partner.  Similarly, while settlement houses are serving as ideal partners for The Vancouver Foundation, that doesn't mean that the neighbourhood house in your world will be the right partner.  The smartest way to search for the right partner is focus more on how the organization approaches its relationship with community residents and less on the nature of the organization - placing more stock on experience the organization has with connecting with and supporting active citizens and less stock on what their name or even mission statement suggests.  It also means keeping a special eye for the right person - wherever they are housed - your secret ingredient for some wonderful grassroots grantmaking
  • Even though the bigger grant that you're making is essentially for regranting, if you want to get all the juice you can from your grassroots grantmaking investment - and by "juice" I mean access to the insights, perspectives and powerful people and groups that always surface with grassroots grantmaking - you need to think about big thinking on small grants regranting as a "staying in the relationship-business" way instead of a "we're your funder" way.  This means being intentional about staying in touch with your on the ground buddies and being in the room with their grantees often enough to get to know people and organizations face to face instead of only on paper. 
  • Go out, but also bring people in.  Invite your local partners and their grantees in to meet with and speak to others on your team so that they too have a better picture of what big thinking on small grants means.  Use these new relationships to inform your future work or work in other areas of your funding organization by inviting people from the small grants side of the fence to join those planning committees include community notables and experts. You'll be doing yourself a big favor, but also giving your local partners and their active citizen grantees to see the funding world from the inside out - an experience that can have important capacity building possibilities.
Anyone want to add some additional tips to this list for arms-length funders who want to get into the grassroots grantmaking business?  Or, does your experience suggest another approach for regional, state or national funders who want to be part of the big thinking on small grants world?  Look for the "comment" link and join in!