September 13, 2012

Hey, Giving Circles

Hey, giving circles, this post is for you.   I love what you're about, and what is happening along side you in the fascinating and very promising new giving world.  I'm looking forward to swimming in some very exciting giving circles water next month in Birmingham at the Community Investment Network's 2012 conference.  If you're with a giving circle and you'll be there, please say hello!

While my work in philanthropy began as a staffer with a community foundation, my community work goes back to circles of neighbors, connecting around shared interests and getting the job done with time, talent and treasure resources that we contributed ourselves.  We grew our circle through connections with people around their time, talent or treasure.  And we kept a constant eye out for people who had gifts to give (even if they didn't see themselves that way).  We also had welcome mats and on-ramps out everywhere to help people find us and make a connection that was about contribution.

You might not work exactly like that, but my hunch is that you are working with that same spirit in your giving circle.  My hunch is also that the energy you feel when you come together around giving together is the same energy that we felt that kept us going, tackling big issues that others thought were too big for us to tackle. And, this is the same energy that fuels the citizen space groups that the big thinking on small grants world is all about.  We may have on different jerseys, but my hunch is that we're all on the same team - the team that is about the possibilities that open up when everyday people connect around a shared interest and get something going together.

Here's a question and a proposition for you, giving circles. 

When you meet with money on the table to give, are you finding and funding groups of everyday people that are not on the more typical funding radar screen?  When you are making decisions about where to invest your giving circle dollars, are you looking for groups that are operating with the same time, talent and treasure spirit that gives you energy?  I'm asking for 3 reasons:

1) I know that it is hard to find these groups - even for foundations with paid staff.  These are groups that aren't seasoned grantseekers or show up on Guidestar or even in a phone book.  Hard to find - yes.  But findable and worth finding - also yes.

2) I've been surprised the power of money to change the conversation - even when neighborhood residents are making decisions about funding that is specifically designed for community projects, specifically in their neighborhood (with their neighbors as the do-ers).  I'm fascinated at the moment with how easy it is for people to embrace, with the most noble "do good with this money" impulses, a hard-line approach about who should be trusted with money or who can deliver on a project.  It's almost as if people become different people when they put on a funders hat.  I'm not saying that this is you.  I'm just saying that I've seen this happen so often that I'm really curious now about what people would do if they didn't have a preconceived notion of what to do to be a good funder.  Would the conversations be more like neighbor to neighbor conversation "time, talent, treasure conversations" than the bottom-line bank finance officer to customer trying to take out a loan conversation?

3) I'm intrigued by the new possibilities that you are creating, giving circles, and the change you could create as part of the big thinking on small grants movement. And, I can imagine how much fun it would be for you if you could see and feel your role in building bridges between the funding world and the energy and efforts of everyday people who are connecting for mutual aid and collective action right on their own block in their home communities.

Here's my proposition:

I am inspired by what I hear of the relationship that one giving circle - Cleveland Colectivo - has developed with Neighborhood Connections, one of the grassroots grantmaking funders in our network.  Cleveland Colectivo has gotten to know Neighborhood Connections in easy ways that help them spot the types of groups and projects that they might not find otherwise - and as a result of these easy connections, have funded some of these groups and projects.  Just easy connections - opening up the list of possibilities for Cleveland Colectivo to consider for their giving circle conversations.

I'm interested in what Grassroots Grantmakers might be able to do to help create or nurture other easy connections so that other giving circles can also have citizen space groups on their list of possibilities.  We're happy to share some quick "what to look for" tips to giving circles who are curious about supporting groups of everyday people who are pooling their time, talent and treasure to make a difference on their own blocks.  We're also happy to see what we can do to help you create some easy connections like Cleveland Colectivo has made with Neighborhood Connections.

I'm mostly interested in hearing if there is anything we can do to provide an easy on-ramp for you to the big thinking on small grants world of resourcing citizen space.  I have an eager ear to the ground on this question and am looking for people to join me as on-ramp co-creators.  Connect with me via a comment here or an email.  Or if you're in Birmingham, say hello and let's see what we can cook up.

August 17, 2012

Citizen Space is Relationship Space

I was in Syracuse last week for Grassroots Grantmakers' 2012 On the Ground learning exchange, working now with batteries recharged by the amazing people and wonderful work that I had a chance to experience.

There is so much to stay, but I want to start by sharing something that connects to a common theme in this "big thinking" blog - the challenge of language when it comes to describing the "what" and "why" of work in citizen space that is about what people do together in their own communities in a spirit of mutual aid and collective action. The default language that we're skilled at using is about programs or projects that are conceptualized and managed by people associated with an organization. It's the language of business. A challenge that I face, and I bet many of you face, is how to distinguish work that is intentional and strategic, has some sort of organizational home, but grows from and is fueled more by community relationships that are based on mutuality than business oriented organizational structures and processes.

That's why I was really intrigued to hear how Nicole Watts, Founder and Executive Director of Hopeprint, described her work.  Nicole shared her story - a story that began with connecting as friends with refugees and "having people over for dinner" and led to Nicole moving from the suburbs into Syracuse's Northside neighborhood, connecting with four others to establish the first Hopeprint home. Nicole described her work as relationship-based and talked about the opportunities that working this way open up - opportunities that would not be there if they viewed their work as programs or projects.  If you take a look at the Hopeprint website and peruse the menu of things that are described there and the stories that are shared, you will see relationships everywhere and see what she means.  You will also spot some things that could easily show up in a more traditional social service organization.  But my hunch is that if you could be a fly on the wall in the tutoring, life skills training or youth activities that happen here, you would know you are in a very special place where relationships are driving the activities.

When I think about situations when I've needed help (or most recently, when I've found myself in institutional settings with my sweet mother), I can only dream about finding myself in a place where people approach their work as relationship-based, personal in ways that could actually lead to being invited over for dinner.  The promise of work that we describe as grassroots grantmaking - focused on helping to resource and support what people do together as citizens - is that it is inherently relationship-based.  The work that people do together is about who is there, what everyone can contribute, and the relationship bonds that they have and grow through working together.  Effective "resourcing" of these groups also requires funders to work in a relationship-based way, letting down their professional guard and opening up new ways for their institutions to foster community engagement.  What is frustrating to me is that when we look for outcomes, we only count programmatic outcomes and overlook the relationship-based outcomes - or often ignore how important the relationship-based orientation is to achieving the outcomes that we desire.

I want us to get over that hurdle, and get as comfortable with and trusting of relationship-based approaches as we are with programmatic approaches.  Join me for thinking about what we can do together to make that happen.

July 2, 2012

The Two World Views of Squares & Blobs

It is so easy to make things so hard - and so hard to make things easy.  That's what I love the video that I'm sharing here today, No More Throw Away People, by Edward Cahn (author of the book, No More Throw Away People: The Co-Production Imperative). This ingenious video uses cartoon-like blobs and squares to illustrate the different contributions that institutions and people can make in solving problems, and - most interesting to me - paints a good picture of the relationship that I see most frequently when institutions try to solve problems through the most typical paths of community engagement.

In my experience, community engagement for most institutions (governments, foundations, established non-profits) involves people in institutions (squares) talking to people (blobs) to understand a problem and get their advice on how they should solve the problem.  Institutions talk to people individually (surveys) or collectively (focus groups or forums or via other community engagement processes.  They sometimes ask the most enlighted people they find to serve on a committee or even their board so that they can get a continuous stream of problem-interpretation or advice.  And sometimes, they might even give grants to community groups so that they can work on the problems directly.  Too often, when they give grants to community groups, they do that without understanding what they are doing to them by forcing them into a non-profit organization mold by their requirements or expectations.

It also shows what happens to the grassroots groups that people in a community form for mutual aid and collective action become more like squares than blobs - most often, when they are trying to gain legitimacy or find resources in their quest to get something done about a big problem in their community.  They gain something (capacity to do things that squares are good at doing) but they lose something (capacity to do what blobs are good at doing).

This video, like Cahn's book, calls for co-production - a way of working together that allows squares to do what they do well and blobs to bring their unique gifts, perspectives and talents to the table.  This is one of those things that sounds easy but apparently (because it happens so rarely) is really hard.  I think that one of the things that makes it hard is that we - all of us - have a love-affair with squares and a dismissive attitude about blobs.  Our love affair with squares has made us forget that we all are also blobs in some hours of our day or that the world of blobs even exists.

Check out this video, but do more than that. Begin your love-affair with blobs by using this video to launch a conversation that includes both squares and blobs about how people and institutions connect to get things done in your community.  And let me know how it goes.

The Parable of the Blobs and Squares from James Mackie on Vimeo.

May 16, 2012

Yes! Democracy is for Amateurs

I'm sharing a recent article by Eric Liu, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy and creator of the Guiding Lights Weekend, a conference on creative citizenship that appeared in The Atlantic.  Eric was formerly a speechwriter and deputy domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Please read and pass on.  I feel and see what Eric is talking about, and know that vibrant communities and effective local democracy will happen if more people agreed that democracy is for amateurs and saw themselves as citizen citizens. 

Check out the four forces that Eric says need to be activated to revive a spirit of citizenship - and let's share thinking on these via comments.
by Eric Liu

This year I'll wrap up a decade as a trustee of the Seattle Public Library. Our board of five citizens has unusual authority. Appointed by the mayor, we are an independent operating body. The city council gives us a line in the budget, but how we spend those funds, on what programs, in what allocations across which neighborhoods, with what kinds of popular input, and under what policies -- all such decisions rest in the hands of our citizen board.

There's something very American about such a volunteer body. We celebrate the "citizen scientist" or "citizen diplomat" or "citizen soldier" on the idea that while the job -- scientist, diplomat, soldier -- requires professional expertise, amateurs who care can also step in and contribute. Indeed, this is something of a golden age for amateurs. With big data and social media amplifying their wisdom, crowds of amateurs are remaking astronomy, finance, biochemistry and other fields.

But not so much the field called democracy. The work of democratic life -- solving shared problems, shaping plans, pushing for change, making grievances heard -- has become ever more professionalized over the last generation. Money has gained outsize and self-compounding power in elections. A welter of lobbyists, regulators, consultants, bankrollers, wonks-for-hire, and "smart-ALECs" has crowded amateurs out of the daily work of self-government at every level. Bodies like the library board are the exception.

What we need today are more citizen citizens. Both the left and the right are coming to see this. It is the thread that connects the anti-elite 99 percent movement with the anti-elite Tea Party. It also animates an emerging web of civic-minded techies who want to "hack" citizenship and government.

Why is government in America so hack-worthy now? There is a giant literature on how interest groups have captured our politics, with touchstones texts by Mancur Olson, Jonathan Rauch, and Francis Fukuyama. The message of these studies is depressingly simple: democratic institutions tend toward what Rauch calls "demosclerosis" -- encrustation by a million little constituencies who clog the arteries of government and make it impossible for the state to move or adapt.

This tendency operates in an accelerating feedback loop. When self-government is dominated by professionals representing various interests, a vicious cycle of citizen detachment ensues. Regular people come to treat civic problems as something outside themselves, something done to them, rather than something they have a hand in making and could have a hand in unmaking. They anticipate that engagement is futile, and their prediction fulfills itself.

So how do we replace this vicious cycle with a virtuous one? What does it take to revive a spirit of citizenship as something undertaken by amateurs and volunteers with a stake in their own lives? There are four forces to activate, and they cut across the usual left-right lines.

First, we have to develop what filmmaker Annie Leonard calls our "citizen muscle." As Americans we have hugely overdeveloped consumer muscles and atrophied citizen muscles. When we are consumers first, our elected leaders sell us exactly what we want: lower taxes, more spending, special rules for every subgroup.

Having a citizen muscle means thinking about the future and not just immediate gratification. It means asking what helps the community thrive, not just oneself. It means observing social change like a naturalist, and responding to it like a gardener. It means learning and teaching a curriculum of power -- in schools, and in settings for all ages -- so that we can practice power, even as amateurs.

Second, we need to radically refocus on the local. When the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson launched the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, he broke down that city's many paralyzing problems into human-scale chunks of action -- turning an empty lot into a park, say, or organizing faith communities -- and then linked up the people active in each chunk. Localism gives citizens autonomy to solve problems; networked localism enables them to spread and scale those solutions.

Third, think in terms of challenges rather than orders. One of the best ways to tap collective smarts is to set great goals and let diverse solutions emerge -- to be big on the what and small on the how. This is a lesson ecologist Rafe Sagarin emphasizes in his work: challenge grants like the X Prize motivate people to participate and innovate far more than top-down directives do. How can government behave more this way?

Fourth, create platforms where citizen citizens can actively serve. Code for America plugs software developers into city halls for a year so they can help government work better and spark decentralized citizen problem-solving. It's a great program -- and a template for other kinds of talent-tapping for the common good. How about Write for America, or Design, or Build?

So what are the obstacles to the cultivation of "citizen citizenship"? One is the assumption that only the privileged can afford the time to participate. There's of course truth to that. But the rising immigrant rights movement and the emergence of domestic workers as a civic force, to name but two recent examples, suggest that where there is will to make time there's a way.

A cynic might also say that the well educated and well connected will always have an edge in the game of civic participation. Maybe. This is the benefit of a robust ecosystem of nonprofit citizen organizations that can circulate that expertise and the power of those contacts to people with fewer advantages. Think of it as progressive taxation of social capital: the more connected you are, the more obligated to pay that social wealth forward.

A final fear is that when amateurs get organized they can get coopted by the powers of the status quo. But if so, reconstitute: Mark Meckler, who co-founded the Tea Party Patriots as a political amateur and an independent, found that his original network was hardening into a rigid GOP interest group. So he left and started Citizens for Self-Governance, which has a conservative bent but is dedicated to getting people from left and right to address issues like criminal justice in more creative, orthogonal ways than our politics typically allows.

Recently I came upon a billboard by a congested highway. "You're not stuck in traffic," it said. You are traffic." We aren't stuck in sclerotic government and extractive politics. We are these things. Our actions and omissions contribute to the conditions we decry. Or, to put it in positive terms: if we make the little shifts in mindset and habit to reclaim civic life, they will compound into contagion. We are the renewal of self-government we yearn for. That may sound like Obama '08 -- but it's also Reagan '80.

Citizenship, in the end, is too important to be left to professionals. It's time for us all to be trustees, of our libraries and every other part of public life. It's time to democratize democracy again.

May 10, 2012

Now Trending: Resident-Led Grantmaking

I'm in Cleveland, wrapping up two days with teams from 7 organizations who are plowing new ground in the grassroots grantmaking world on resident-led grantmaking.  I've been watching resident-led grantmaking take root over the past few years and am ready to say with certainty that this approach is now trending, with a growing number of funders now heading in the resident-led grantmaking direction. 

When I say resident-led grantmaking, I mean grassroots grantmaking - funding that is designed to support work that happens in the citizen sector via groups that everyday people form as vehicles for mutual aid and collective action - where everyday people are making funding and program design decisions vs. funding professionals or posiitonal leaders.  In the grassroots grantmaking universe, resident-led grantmaking is just one of the five decision-making approaches that funders are using (look here a chart that shows all 5 options with pros and cons).   Each approach has value and can be the right approach. But resident-led grantmaking is the one approach that transforms the grantmaking process itself into a powerful and authentic vehicle for activating and elevating citizen engagement.

April 30, 2012

Signing On with Copernicus

Do you remember Copernicus? He was the Renaissance era scientist/revolutionary who shook up conventional thinking by demoting Earth from center of the universe status to one of many planets rotating around the Sun.  I'm signing on with him now, rearranging things in my big thinking on small grants universe - moving funders from the center of my universe and moving everyday people and the groups they form for mutual aid and collective action into the center.  My telescope might still be focused on "Planet Funder" as it makes its way around my citizen sector sun, but it will also be focused on the other planets in my new universe - planets representing the people, places and non-monetary resources that citizen groups find helpful for moving their ideas into action and contributing to the vibrancy of their local communities.

This is not such a big deal in one way, since the big thinking on small grants world that I have been describing for several years is a world where funders strive to work from a "we begin with residents" point of view - leading from behind or by stepping back, investing in what everyday people identify as important and are willing to get behind with their own time, talents and resources.  But it is a big deal in other ways.

For one, this new Copernian universe puts the role of funders, and especially the grants that they make, in the right place - secondary not primary, in the back seat and not the front seat.  It also has the heat and energy to get things done originating from the right place - the citizen sector - instead of a foundation board room.  It's about a core set of assumptions about how change happens and what contributes to community vitality, with people connecting and moving plans into action around things that matter to them more important than a carefully detailed theory of change or a blue ribbon panel meeting of 30 people who have prestigious positions.  For those who believe that strengthening the nonprofit sector is the answer to addressing the challenges that our communities are facing, it is indeed as revolutionary as Copernicus' suggestion that the accepted picture of the universe at the time (earth in the center) just might be wrong.

What this means for this blog is that some changes are in the works.  I'm waiting for inspiration for a new name that is not so grant or funder-centric (and appreciate all suggestions!) and better reflects post-Copernian thinking, and will be moving to a new blogging platform that more easily allows others to join in this conversation with me.  In the meantime, I will be opening up the aperture on my blogging lens to catch and share thinking about questions such as:
  • What new language will help advance understanding about citizen space and what goes on there, and free us from using using inappropriate nonprofit language and models to describe and interpret a world that is fundamentally different from the nonprofit world?
  • How are citizen groups immunizing themselves from being hypnotized by visitors from Planet Funder and others who arrive with the better way or today's new tool?  And once immunized, what are they learning about building working relationships that make sense for everyone?
  • What are other "joining with Copernicus" people doing to build constructive bridges between the institutions and organizations where they work - funding organizations, schools, libraries, hospitals, governmental entities, businesses, non-profits - and citizen space.  And what are these inventors learning about resource sharing between citizen groups and their organizations?
  • What new pathways are opening up that are or have the potential to change the relationship dynamic between Planet Funder and those on the other planets in this new universe and citizen space?
I hope you will join with me in this exploration by adding on to the questions that might be worth exploring together.  Comments from co-explorers are welcome. 

March 30, 2012

On Target Commentary: Philanthropy's Responsibility to Democracy

I'm sharing this on commentary on philanthropy's responsibility to democracy, offered by William Schambra as the closing plenary of the recent Grant Manager's Network Conference in San Antonio.  I'll offer my thoughts on Schambra's speech in a follow up post.

Philanthropy's Responsibility to Democracy
by William Schambra

My marching orders from the conference organizers went something like this: be provocative, but try not to be offensive.  I’ll certainly aim for the former, but I suspect, for some of you, I’m going to be the latter, and for that I apologize in advance.

Your conference theme for this year is, I see, “The Sky’s the Limit.” And your opening plenary, featuring John Colborn from the Ford Foundation, promised that he would tell you why – and I’m quoting here — “grant managers are central to philanthropic effectiveness and (perhaps) the future of civilization.”

I’m going to talk a bit this morning about the role philanthropy might play in the future of American democracy – I’m not quite sure I can quite reach all the way up to the civilizational level.  And – fair warning, for those of you who are thinking you might want to slip out early to catch your flights — I’m going to be a bit less optimistic than Mr. Colborn about philanthropy’s role in that future.  So your conference began on a theme of “the sky’s the limit,” and I’m afraid it may end on the theme of “this guy’s the limit.”

To ease into this rather large theme — the role that philanthropy can play in preserving American democracy — I’m going to describe an experience I had about twelve years ago, while I was a program officer at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.

One very cold, wet, dismal, blustery spring evening in Milwaukee — those of you who have been in the upper Midwest in early spring know that there’s a lot of redundancy in that description — I was invited by a community organizer to join him and a group of a dozen or so parents and teachers in a cold, dismal, unheated field house in a park on the city’s south side. They were parents and teachers who had just learned that the school superintendent had targeted their school for significant changes in curriculum, and they were very unhappy about it.

In most American school districts, that would have been the end of the story — the parents would have had to just sigh and take what was dished out. But Milwaukee has a pretty expansive choice and charter school law. And with the help of the organizer, these parents were going to do something unthinkable and outrageous. They weren’t going to just take what was coming down at them from on high. They were going to start their own school.

For four hours that evening, these citizens discussed every aspect of what they wanted out of their own school — what was to be taught, how it was to be taught, who they were going to hire to teach it. At first, they were pretty timid and shy about it — as if they were trespassing on forbidden ground. After all, they had been told all their lives that education is an incredibly difficult and demanding thing, requiring all sorts of credentialed teachers and principals with PhDs and professional curriculum specialists.

They didn’t have any of that. They didn’t even know who to contact to turn on the heat in the field house.

But slowly, as the evening went on, they became less reserved and timorous, more engaged and vigorous, more expansive about what sort of school they wanted their own children to attend — and what sort of school they were even at that very moment designing for their children. By the end of the evening, they had established the outlines of what came to be known as the IDEAL school — IDEAL standing for Individualized Developmental Approaches to Learning. A dozen years later, it’s still going strong and enjoys a productive partnership with the YMCA in Milwaukee, with upwards of 200 students and a waiting list.

But even today, on their website, they recount the story of their humble and unpromising origins. As they say, “We started with no building, no students, and no name. What we did have was a vision.”

I came away from this evening feeling incredibly energized and excited, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, and I’ve come to realize that it inspired me so deeply because I had been fortunate to witness the great and central act of American democracy. It was the act of everyday citizens coming together around a shared vision and forging their own community to embody that vision.

From nothing except a shared purpose — and in the face of all sorts of obstacles, ranging from the bureaucratic charter application process to the hostility of the teachers unions to the scorn of the education professionals telling them that parents know nothing about teaching children — they nonetheless created a nonprofit organization to solve their own problems their own way.

Now, I knew about this particular American quality in theory because I, like many of you here today, had read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  We learn therein that Americans are particularly gifted at establishing their own local organizations to solve their own problems, unlike Tocqueville’s French compatriots, who, as he puts it, tend to fold their arms and wait for government to show up to solve problems for them.

But he warns us that getting citizens to pay attention to the larger affairs of the community is very difficult, even in America. The science of association or of community-building, he warns us, is rare and difficult to sustain. First, because we democratic individuals tend to be selfish and materialistic and prone to pursue our own immediate self-interest without regard for others. Second, because narrowly self-centered individuals are all too willing to surrender to others the fuss and bother of governing. The experts in governing, in turn, would just as soon do without all those independent and obstreperous civic associations that only clutter up the orderly, top-down delivery of services.

Well, all that I knew by way of theory. But it didn’t prepare me for how awe-inspiring it would be to witness first-hand the essential Tocquevillian act of citizens gathered in a community to take back the power from centralized bureaucracy and become masters of their own future once again.

Don’t mistake this for “volunteering” or “service.” This was not nicey-nice giving blood at the Red Cross. On the issue of utmost importance to these parents — the future of their children — they were able to act, for the first time in their lives, as genuine citizens of the great American democracy.

A friend of mine who’s a labor organizer described it well: in this field, there is nothing quite like seeing citizens coming into the first realization of their own agency, and living into their ability to control their own lives.

American civil society has over the centuries been the arena within which everyday citizens come to realize their own democratic agency, no matter how marginal, neglected, or oppressed they may otherwise have been in this imperfect democracy of ours. By forming associations within civil society — what we would later call nonprofits — despised religious sects organized their own self-supporting communities. Abolitionists organized against the slave trade.

Freed and self-liberated slaves established their own churches, lodges, and burial societies. Powerless and voteless women came together in powerful reform movements to reshape the workplace for women and children, and earn for themselves the right to vote. Fraternal and ethnic associations formed among poor laborers to insure provision for their own widows and orphans. The African-American church worked to undermine and finally to topple Jim Crow.

When we in philanthropy make grants to nonprofits, it’s essential for us to remember that we hold within our grasp — we play a part in the fates of — the groups that Americans have formed over two centuries to give form and substance to the precious and rare act of self-governance. This is an awesome responsibility indeed.

Now, we don’t often think of our grant-making that way, because the nonprofits we typically see in our everyday work don’t look like passionate, self-governing democratic communities. Or rather, they don’t look that way, given the way we look at them.

What we tend to see, no matter the specific subject area, are organizations designed to deliver professional services to clients — health care to patients, jobs to applicants, artistic performances to audiences, and so forth. And when it comes to service delivery, we tend to have certain very firm notions of what’s good. Delivery should be efficient, effective, best-practice, up-to-date, professional, comprehensive, systematic, streamlined. These are all adjectives, incidentally, that I gleaned just from the first few pages of your conference program.

Now, this is hardly a new state of affairs. It was inaugurated by the first large American foundations — Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage — at the turn of the twentieth century. In the view of these donors, we needed to get away from the piecemeal, partial, parochial approach of mere charity, which just sought to put Band-Aids on problems, and turn instead to the systematic, efficient, wholesale solution of public problems once and for all, by getting at their root causes. The way to do that was to take our public affairs out of the hands of everyday citizens, and put them instead into the hands of professional experts. They were being trained in the new natural and social sciences, which would allegedly enable them to reach and alter root causes. Our problems would now be addressed not by citizens clumsily working out superficial remedies with each other in local association, but rather by credentialed experts, smoothly delivering therapeutic services to passive, grateful clients. In other words, our first major foundations seemed to encourage precisely the short-circuiting of democracy so much feared by Tocqueville — the displacement of the everyday citizen from democratic self-governance by centralized bureaucratic service providers.

In recent years, this displacement has been further encouraged by the nonprofit sector’s enthrallment to the corporate model. You’re all familiar with this powerful urge to make nonprofits more business-like. We say that a nonprofit needs a business plan; it should consider contributions “investments;” it needs to be more entrepreneurial; it needs to focus on generating fees for service; it needs to describe outcomes with clear, concise measurements, just like the profit and loss statements of the business world.

This approach to philanthropy has only been reinforced over the past few years by the entry of so many newly wealthy entrepreneurs into the world of philanthropy.

Consider this comment by Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon in their recent book The Art of Giving, which captures perfectly this new philanthropic attitude. As they put it:
[These new] donors . . . are ready to make use of the sophisticated management instruments they have developed in their business life to achieve greater performance in this new, more challenging arena. . . . . .[T]hey give purposefully, think strategically, rely on measurements and regular monitoring.
Nonprofits should be run just as crisply as for-profits. Meetings should start on time and end on time too. They should not be social gatherings that drag on endlessly for no purpose.
I particularly like that last comment — about the crisp conduct of nonprofit meetings — because it captures perfectly the two contrasting ways to look at a nonprofit. Are nonprofit meetings just obligatory calendar entries, occasions to clip through an agenda briskly and efficiently, glancing at the performance dashboard, digesting data, and peering at PowerPoints? Or are they not in fact sometimes precisely social gatherings — leisurely opportunities for citizens to come together and socialize, to form deeper personal bonds of friendship and trust, to create a community, as well as to conduct business? Is a nonprofit just another business, or is it not also often an instrument of democratic self-governance?

Beginning with Robert Putnam’s monumental volume of research, entitled Bowling Alone, published a decade ago, philanthropy has been concerned about the issue of civic disengagement in America — the fact that citizens are becoming far less involved with each other in the sort of social and political undertakings that Tocqueville once described as the very essence of the American character.

Indeed, there’s even a thoughtful foundation affinity group, Philanthropy for Active Civil Engagement, or PACE, the purpose of which is to attempt to reverse that trend.

But the irony is that philanthropy itself may be contributing to that very disengagement from civic life. That is precisely the cost of regarding nonprofits primarily as efficient and effective service-providers, rather than as instruments of democratic self-governance.

When citizens undertake to do something for themselves, it can of course be amateurish, time-consuming, sloppy, contentious, and clumsy. But in the final analysis, what they’ve achieved is likely to endure and to succeed, because it’s rooted in the opinions and values of the citizens themselves, those whom the programs are meant to serve.

More important, as Tocqueville told us, no matter how awkward the outcomes, this approach also serves to draw people out of the isolated, individualistic shells into which they’re likely to retreat in materialistic times. It engages them in the always messy and tumultuous processes of self-government. It may be frustrating and exasperating to those who prefer crisp, business-like meetings. But this grittiness and tumult are ultimately essential ingredients of the humanizing and democratizing process of self-government.

If we’re only interested in efficiency, then indeed it may be better to resort to professional experts, who have a neatly organized menu of standard operating procedures to deliver services smoothly and quickly. But all too often, without the engagement of the citizens affected, those services come to be resented and resisted as outside impositions, rather than native-grown products of self-government.

Furthermore, and more important, by employing experts to undertake the tasks of democratic government, we’ve relieved citizens of the need to engage with each other and to work out their differences in their own messy and amateurish ways. That can only spell the end of democratic self-governance.

Now, consider all the standards and practices that philanthropy increasingly demands of the nonprofit world:
  • Ever longer and more elaborate application processes;
  • Ever more burdensome reporting requirements;
  • Ever more complicated ways of describing goals through logic models and theories of change;
  • Ever more sophisticated modes of measuring outcomes;
  • Ever more elaborate ways to evaluate results.
All of these foundation demands flow naturally from the view that nonprofits should be more businesslike. And they flow naturally from the view that foundations aren’t there just to assist nonprofits in putting Band-Aids on problems, but are rather driving scientifically toward root cause solutions of those problems. And these demands are perfectly amenable to the large, sophisticated nonprofits whose primary purpose is indeed to deliver professional services to passive clients. We’ll hear no complaint from them about this state of affairs. As part of their elaborate expert apparatus, they employ professionals whose entire purpose it is to address the needs and desires of other professionals employed by foundations.

But for the smaller nonprofit launched by everyday citizens who urgently need to solve some immediate problem in their own backyard — for the organization that would serve to convert passive clients into active citizens — all of these requirements put out of reach any hope for a grant, thereby ruling out philanthropy as a solution to the problem of civic disengagement.

So the nonprofits that we foundations see do indeed all tend to look like efficient service-deliverers, because that’s precisely what our own requirements and procedures encourage or even demand. At the same time, they serve to discourage or even filter out altogether non-professional, amateur, self-governing democratic associations.

Now, the sad thing is that all of this is so unnecessary, in the world of philanthropy. For government, of course there must be strict requirements for soliciting and reporting on grants, because it’s the taxpayers’ money. If a nonprofit runs a business or sells its services, of course we expect certain corporate-like practices, to avoid fatal mismanagement. But for the foundation, there are no such strictures.

Philanthropy has extraordinary, perhaps unparalleled, freedom to do with its resources whatever it wishes, within some legal boundaries that are pretty generous and undemanding. It would be entirely possible for a foundation to announce today that it was not going to fund delivery of professional services anymore, with all the burdensome requirements that entails. Instead the foundation could announce as its purpose the cultivation of self-government among democratic citizens. It would not put out RFPs or delineate narrow program areas or create its own nonprofit subsidiaries to carry out its own programs. It would rather announce that funding is available for whatever efforts citizens come up with in the give and take of immediate civic deliberation.

The application process would be brief; the reporting requirements kept to the legal minimum; and the grant would be for general operating support, renewable for as many years as the foundation and the nonprofit see fit to cooperate. As I say, foundations have the freedom to undertake this sort of radically free-form and democratic grant-making.

But as with Steve Martin in the old “Saturday Night Live” sketches, at the end of this exuberant thought experiment, I’m afraid the answer of philanthropy will be — “nah.”

Short of that, I ask all of you, as you leave this conference armed with lots of new information and skills in grant management, to remember this: the organizations you deal with every day once were, and potentially still can be, the vessels by which Americans have tried to govern themselves for more than two centuries.

As Tocqueville argued, democratic self-governance is a rare and precious thing, all too readily surrendered by citizens to professional experts who are only too happy to take charge. Given the institutional requirements of government and business, they aren’t likely to care too much about, or to tend to the preservation of, the democratic heart of the nonprofit sector. Only philanthropy has the freedom and the mandate to do so. In that sense, you may very well hold within your hands the future of American democracy, if not civilization itself.I particularly like that last comment — about the crisp conduct of nonprofit meetings — because it captures perfectly the two contrasting ways to look at a nonprofit. Are nonprofit meetings just obligatory calendar entries, occasions to clip through an agenda briskly and efficiently, glancing at the performance dashboard, digesting data, and peering at PowerPoints?  Or are they not in fact sometimes precisely social gatherings — leisurely opportunities for citizens to come together and socialize, to form deeper personal bonds of friendship and trust, to create a community, as well as to conduct business? Is a nonprofit just another business, or is it not also often an instrument of democratic self-governance?

March 20, 2012

Grace Lee Boggs On "Becoming Detroit"

Here's a powerful way to spend an hour.  Tune into "Becoming Detroit", a recent episode of Krista Tippet's On Being podcast.  Krista's interviews with civic rights legend Grace Lee Boggs and others who are reinventing Detroit are inspiring.  They also get to the heart of why it's so important for funders to think big about small grants and invest in everyday people who are re-discovering, re-imaging and re-spiriting their communities - without using the awkward, often de-humanizing language that we use in philanthropy.

I've been thinking about language alot recently - reminded again recently about the limitations of the language that we're using to describe grassroots grantmaking.   I find it discouraging that the language that is most easily digestible by philanthropy is about professionalized solutions delivered by organizations and not about people. It was thus so refreshing to listen to the conversations shared in this podcast - so refreshing that I jotted down some of the phrases that caught my attention.

You have to make a way out of "no way".
Activism is often more about rights when we need to be talking about advancing humanity.
There's something about people who are doing something for themselves - creating the world anew.
People have been seduced by size - by the idea of the mass media.  They haven't realized that by creating solutions to everyday problems, they are creating movements.
The disintegration of neighborhood and community makes it difficult for us to know how to care for each other; we are now relearning how to do that.
What does it mean to be a human being?  In America, you can't be successful unless you can consume or produce - but you still have value as a human being.
It's not just a warm and fuzzy garden; its about people becoming part of an ecological system.
Progress comes about via something new or rediscovering something old - and reinventing what you discover for today's world. 
It's important for change-agents to know the difference between "necessary" and "possible"; it's possibility that demands the most of us.
Detroit as the City of Hope - where people are creating hope for themselves.
Our right and our duty is to shape the world with a new dream, and to rebuild, redefine and respirit our city.

Check it out, and join me in working on this gnarly problem of language by sharing what this sparked for you or another resource that you have spotted that brings humanity into the center of the discussion about big thinking on small grants. 

March 1, 2012

Finding a Grassroots Grantmaker

I had a conversation with a small group of great people earlier this week I've had way too often. I was wrapping up a short talk on grassroots grantmaking and the network, Grassroots Grantmakers, when a young man raised his hand to share his story about trying to find someone - anyone - who is interested in what he and his neighbors are doing and could help them get connected to the modest resources they need to work on their next idea. He really identified with my "big thinking on small grants" perspective and was surprised to learn that there are funders out there who actually open their doors to people like her. He asked where he could go in his community to find one of those funders and what he needed to say or do to open the door. I answered him with the what I have to say way too often. In terms of funders who thing big about small grants and are interested in ideas like yours, there's no one at home in your community.

I was thinking about this and the disconnect I see between people with energy, passion and the will do work that could be described as the work of active citizens and place-based funders who have connections, resources and mandate to acknowledge and strengthen the contribution of such work to community vitality and viability when I spotted Rich Harwood's recent blog post about the importance of community anchor institutions. I was thinking about how many people would read Rich's blog and then identify a funding organization as a community anchor institution that felt welcoming, and a place that had the confidence of everyday people to help to spark and lead change, convene and connect others, and focus on the community (rather than programs alone).

My hunch is in most places, funding organizations are thought of as mysterious places - where money is stacked up and given out in mysterious ways. And I've seen funding organizations that seem to actually cultivate that impression. But the good news is that I have also seen funding organizations that work really hard to be accessible, transparent community anchor instituions. And I'm with Rich - when that happens, the moon and stars line up to open up a new environment of possibilities. 

What I would add, however, is that when it's funding organizations we're talking about as community anchor institutions, grassroots grantmaking is almost always there - increasing the funding organization's reach, legitimacy and breadth of intellectual capital that changes the equation from mysterious community institution to powerful community anchor institution.

While I try to keep my focus on the full part of the glass and the possibilities that the entrepreneurial funders that I know about are creating, I must say that I'm more than a bit perplexed by the few places that grassroots grantmaking is showing up - especially considering that in the United States alone, there are:
  • 650 community foundations (and these are defined as tax-exempt, nonprofit, autonomous, publicly supported, nonsectarian philanthropic institutions with a long term goal of building permanent, named component funds established by many separate donors to carry out their charitable interests and for the broad-based charitable interest of and for the benefit of residents of a defined geographic area, typically no larger than a state);
  • 89,000 private foundations - with at least some specifically focused on the vitality of a local community;
  • more than 1200 local United Ways;
  • and countless community-focused public-sector and non-profit organizations.
And, considering that grassroots grantmaking is a low cost/high return proposition, I just have to ask why more funders are not including grassroots grantmaking in their portfolio of grantmaking strategies.  I've been poking around on that question recently, and have some hunches that range from big boulder obstacles to things that should be easily swept aside - many that I've written about from time to time on this blog and others that I'm still exploring.

Nevertheless, if I had my way, I would be able to say "call here" whenever I'm asked about what funding organization in a particular community is the go-to, big thinking place for groups of everyday people who have skin in the game when it comes to their community. And when people showed up at the door of that funding organization, they would find places where what Rich Hardwood is describing is happening, but they would also find places that feel good - like places of possibility. 

So now I'm asking you.  Do you know of a funding organization that meets the criteria that Rich describes as a community anchor institution and, for everyday people, feels like a place of possibility?   If so, please share a story about that place or some thoughts about what makes it stand out for you.  We need more real-live examples of a boulder-breaking funders - an important step in making it easier for all of us to find a grassroots grantmakers in every community.

February 16, 2012

Inner Visions and the Power of One

Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the bigness of the problems that you are trying to address and wonder what difference you can possibly make?  I do. Often. That's why I find so much inspiration in people who find a way to make a difference, one step at a time, in the most surprising ways.  And I'm inspired now. 

Imagine that you are living in a city that was just awarded the dubious honor of "Poorest City in the United States" and you are just one person, volunteering with a transitional housing program and tutoring a young boy from one of those neighborhoods that always show up on lists that include words like "poor" or the more politically correct "challenged" in their title.  What more than you are doing could you do?

I talked with a woman who was in exactly that position this morning.  I first met Jan Thrope last winter when Grassroots Grantmakers organized a special training for delegations from Cleveland and Denver in Lawrence, MA with Lawrence Community Works.  I saw Jan again this fall in Atlanta as Grassroots Grantmakers' most recent On the Ground learning gathering.  But this morning was the first time that we really talked.  I contacted Jan because I had heard about the Good News Tours that she is now doing and was curious.  As Jan shared her story, I quickly went from curious to inspired.

Jan talked about the discouragement she felt when Cleveland was named Poorest City a few years ago and the new determination she felt to be part of something that made a difference.  She isn't a native of Cleveland but has lived there long enough to have deep roots and the ability to see a different side of Cleveland than that distinction suggested.  A man who spoke at a poverty summit that she was attending brought the conversation about big plans and big programs back to the ground for her - saying that what he really needed most was some underwear.  Who in that room was thinking about real people like him, in very real situations like his? 

Jan had that in mind as she was working with the young boy she was tutoring, and began to listen to this young boy in new ways - hearing what he thought about his neighborhood and then taking pictures of what places he described.  She also heard dreams in what he was telling her - not just despair.  These conversations and these photos resulted in an amazing book - Inner Visions: Grassroots Stories of Truth and Hope - on sale now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and, hopefully, your local bookseller, with all profits going to support community work in Cleveland.

So that's Chapter 1 - and Chapters 2 and 3 get even better.  Jan has now established Inner Visions of Cleveland, an organization that is dedicated to transforming Cleveland and East Cleveland neighborhoods into thriving communities by supporting community improvement projects that are initiated and led by residents. Jan describes Inner Visions as a non-profit but then goes on to say that she was intentional about not seeking non-profit status for the organization, saying that the red-tape in obtaining that status and the responsibilities that go along with having the status felt more like a barrier to doing what she had in mind.  She wondered if there was another way, and is indeed finding that way. Working with a commitment to using all donations and proceeds from books sales to fund community projects, and a belief that "small bucks can bring about big change when neighbors work towards shared goals and contribute their talents to projects", Jan is focused on getting things done by creating connections between people who are on journeys from pain to passion to purpose - a journey she says all people share, regardless of their economic situations. 

As one way to do this, Jan has been experimenting with Good News Tours - relationship-building excursions that are designed to challenge the perception that poor neighborhoods are devoid of hope and possibilities and plant relationship seeds that can grow into purpose-driven connections.  This weekend she will taking 15 people - including an 11 year boy who wants to get other kids excited about giving back to their community, people of wealth who are open to a new way of giving, and people from a church in a neighborhood they will be visiting - on a Good News Tour.  And good news is abundant on this tour, with these stops along the way:
  • Breakfast prepared by a woman who offers healthy cooking classes for community residents, using organic, locally grown food;
  • A visit with a powerful woman who has been at the forefront of responding to the foreclosure crisis in Cleveland and is now working on creative ideas to put vacant houses back to good use for community purposes;
  • Another woman who is establishing a new business, making organic beauty products;
  • A visit with an entrepreneur who has a green dry cleaning business (and teaches a class on entrepreneurship to neighborhood youth) and dreams of using the heat generated from the dryers to warm a greenhouse that can house a new youth-led business, growing and selling produce and flowers;
  • A visit with a printer and bookmaker who is creating journals of hand-made paper produced from the fibers from military uniforms for returning veterans to use to share their stories.
So think about it.  Imagine the connections that are about to happen, the stereotypes that are about to be challenged, the possibilities that are about to turn into realities.  Now imagine what would be lost if this all had to happen within non-profit organizations on both the giving and receiving side of the equations.  And think about  - and be inspired by - the power of one.  Kudos to you, Jan!

February 14, 2012

The Gray Zone

Grassroots Grantmakers is digging into a new project in 2012 with the help of Rachel Oscar.  Rachel is working with Grassroots Grantmakers as an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer, focused on helping our network learn more about resident-led grantmaking. 

We could also call resident-led grantmaking constituent-led grantmaking - at its most basic, grantmaking that is designed in a way that positions people who have "skin in the game" as grant proposal reviewers, evaluators and decision-makers.  In most cases in our network, that means people who live together in a neighborhood are making decisions about grants that benefit their neighborhood.

We have spotted resident-led grantmaking as an exciting trend within our network, and have asked Rachel to help us see the resident-led grantmaking experience through the eyes of the residents who are serving on resident-led grantmaking committees and to help us develop tools that will help funder who are either currently using the resident-led grantmaking approach or want to move in that direction.  We hope that what we learn will help funders spot and avoid avoid the pitfalls of this approach and pave the way for a better, more powerful experience for grantmaking committee members.  If you want more specifics about this project, check out this short article on our website.

With that background, I am sharing an insightful reflection that Rachel wrote after sitting in on a discussion with people who work with The Cleveland Foundations' Neighborhood Connections' resident-led grantmaking committee in Cleveland.  I will be sharing reflections from Rachel from time to time on this blog.  You can also check out Rachel's Reflections on Grassroots Grantmakers' website. 

The Gray Zone
by Rachel Oscar

The tricky thing about grassroots grantmaking is that it operates in the nebulous gray space of the funding world. Behind the foundation walls are dollars and cents that add up very neatly, accounts receivable records coming through humming fax machines, and proof of non-profit status reports in piles across cubicle desks. On the streets of Cleveland City’s neighborhoods the papers don’t stack up quite as nicely and in many cases there aren’t even papers to stack. There are grassroots groups that operate out of community centers and homes, there are neighbors and friends that clean up their local parks, and there are teachers and students whose projects are only just ideas on paper. Community projects are widespread and diverse and, as you can imagine, difficult to hold to a set of grantmaking rules. But in the grantmaking world where clear expectations and rules are essential parts of doing business, how do you accommodate small, neighborhood grants?

Enter: The Gray Zone. As I mentioned grassroots grantmaking functions in the gray zone of the funding world. But here is the kicker, grassroots grantmaking programs do this intentionally. While it may seem far easier to build a set of all-encompassing rules that will quality and disqualify groups for funding, the truth is that in order to have a successful program the rules have to be relatively loose. I was at a lunch meeting a couple days ago with a group of people who provide support and technical assistance to Neighborhood Connections grantees. In the Neighborhood Connection circles these technical assistance providers are called Connectors. The group was sharing successes and problems they faced when conducting their site visits. People raised concerns about how tempting it is for non-profits that act as fiscal agents to to present their own projects as resident-led projects and about residents who apply for multiple grants for the same project in an attempt to get more money. The Connectors started brainstorming about rules that could be put in place to deal with these challenges – more rules for fiscal agents and more rules for residents.

As I reflected on the suggestions, it became clearer and clearer that there couldn’t really be any one hard rule put in place to prevent these kinds of things from happening. Because, as members of the grantmaking committee will tell you, some of the most unlikely characters have seen some of the greatest successes and some projects that have been set up for success have seen failure. Neighborhood grantmaking seems clunky because it’s as much about people and relationships as it is about good planning and experience. As I continue to observe it, it becomes clear just how crucial the skills and talents of the grantmaking committees are—specifically resident-led grantmaking committees. They are the champions of The Gray Zone. Their observations and discussions help navigate this nebulous space and identify which applicants are working to achieve the goals of Neighborhood Connections: strengthening neighborhood relationships, building community capacity, and empowering grassroots community groups.

What has been your experience with the contribution that everyday people can make in the gray zone? Or do you have thoughts about resident-led grantmaking to share? We're all ears. Post a comment here or connect with us via email.

February 8, 2012

The Big Three for Grassroots Grantmaking

Grassroots Grantmakers kicked off its 2012 webinar series recently with a conversation about grassroots grantmaking through an environmental lens.  Three leading grassroots environmental funders - Cheryl King Fischer from the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund, Tim Little from the Rose Foundation's Northern California Grassroots Environmental Fund, and Kelly Purdy from Global Greengrants Fund - shared insights on these questions:
  • Issue-specific grassroots grantmaking - how it is alike or different from the more generic grassroots grantmaking that is used for broad civic engagement and community building purposes?
  • What can issue focused grassroots grantmaking do beyond giving voice to residents?
  • What are you already doing that might be considered environmental grantmaking - and how can you be more intentional and effective in that work?
  • How can you employ grassroots grantmaking to position you to effectively do place-based funding in multiple places?
There was a lot of funding wisdom shared on this webinar.  When I asked Cheryl, Tim and Kelly to sum up their remarks with their top three list for funders who are approaching environmental work through a grassroots grantmaking lens, here's what they said - stellar recommendations for big thinkers on small grants everywhere, regardless of the issue:
  1. Remember that even if you are not a place-based funder, grassroots grantmaking is a place-based proposition - requiring funders to go the extra mile to understand the local context.  For Cheryl, that means understanding the nuanced contextual differences between the hundreds of communities in New England where NEGEF has funding relationships.  For Tim, that means never assuming that one community in California works like another - and remaining curious about the differences.  And for Kelly and her colleagues at the Global Greengrants Fund, that means investing in the relationships they need to work authentically and appropriately in 140 different countries with 13 regional advisory boards representing areas from Brazil to Russia to West Africa.
  2. Work with a spirit of co-creation and the belief that people coming together can find the answers. When I asked about balancing a commitment to working from a grassroots perspective - focusing on what everyday people can do - and a desire to have impact on pressing environmental concerns, all three of my guests spoke about traveling down the road with everyday people to get from here to there.  I was impressed that they did not describe themselves as leaders - leading new people down the road - but instead as fellow-travelers.  While there was experience to share, it was clear that the sharing is multi-dimensional, with funders, those with specific issue-oriented expertise, and the grassroots groups that they are funding all sharing and learning.  People coming together can find the answers.
  3. Trust the community.  Trusting gets back to the "we begin with residents" position that the best big thinkers on small grants utilize - fully understanding how important it is to involve grantees in setting the objectives that they will be expected to achieve.  This is true no matter what - even if you're interested in those issues where you can also call on a full array of experienced professionals on such livelihood, transportation, health, environment, education - issues that directly impact the people that you are engaging with grassroots grantmaking.
So smart.  Thanks, Cheryl, Tim and Kelly for reminding us of the big three for grassroots grantmaking.

If you missed this webinar but would like to check it out, the recording and associated materials are available on Grassroots Grantmakers' website.  Also check out and register for the upcoming webinar  - Community Network Building (February 21, 3:00 ET), featuring Bill Traynor and Frankie Blackburn sharing insights from a recent convening of a group of highly innovative community network builders. Hope to see you there. 

January 11, 2012

Lessons from Hamilton about Balancing Strategy and "We Begin with Residents" Grantmaking

I am back from a holiday hiatus, looking forward to another year of thinking big about small grants and connecting with big thinkers everywhere via this blog.  I can't think of a better way to begin the year than to share the thoughtful work of The Hamilton Community Foundation, one of the funders affiliated with Grassroots Grantmakers, the network that I lead as Executive Director.  I have followed the work of The Hamilton Community Foundation for almost  ten years and have huge respect for their work.  If I could point to one funder and say "look here for patient money in action", I would be pointing toward Hamilton.

You can learn more about The Hamilton Community Foundation's approach to grassroots grantmaking by checking out the profile that we just updated on Grassroots Grantmakers' website or watching the wonderful video below. 

As I read their profile and looked at their video, I remembered how nervous I was when I learned that they were moving their "Growing Roots" grassroots grantmaking out into the community, fearful that this move was really more about putting the program "out to pasture" so it could fade into the sunset.  I heard what they were saying about the strategic decision that is described in the video, but was worried because of what I have seen happen with other grassroots grantmaking programs, when moving out really means "done with you" from the funder's point of view.  How wrong I was to be worried.

The hub concept that they are utilizing, with hubs designed to be authentic community spaces (vs. institutional spaces that where community residents feel more like guests or clients) and the approach that they are taking to balancing community planning and priority setting and the more nuanced, day to day work that strengthens people to people connections and supports neighbors coming together in a spirt of mutual aid, has a lot to teach us about balancing funding priorities (in their case, alleviating poverty) while working from a "we begin with residents" perspective. 

Take a look - you'll see what I mean.

Thanks to the team at The Hamilton Community Foundation for your generosity in sharing your work and your learning with our big thinking community!