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!


    1. I am surprised that you don't mention community foundations. Good community foundations enable large funders and small donors alike to make contributions that are translated into locally and democratically decided grants that are transparent and accountable to locally communities. Community foundations also provide all the other benefits of grassroots grantmaking. That's what community foundations are for.

    2. Hi Nora - Thanks for your comment. You might have missed it, but I did indeed mention community foundations as one of the first places to start to look for the right community partner. I'm completely with you on the appropriateness of community foundations for this role. I love community foundations, formerly worked for one, want community foundations to be right in the middle of all things "community".

      Grassroots Grantmakers has a lot of community foundation members - some of the best and most experienced grassroots grantmakers in the US. While it seems that grassroots grantmaking is such an obvious activity for community foundations, there are more in the "not experienced in grassroots grantmaking column" than the "experience in.." column. I would love for this to change! Not only is grassroots grantmaking an important way for community foundations to connect with larger funders and donors, the work of grassroots grantmaking expands a community foundation's knowledge base about its community and deepen its relationships with active citizens beyond the usual suspects.

      Thanks for lifting up the important role that community foundations can play. And please join us in inviting more community foundations to the work of grassroots grantmaking!