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.

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