November 11, 2013

Credentialing Informal Groups

How do you size up a group? As people in the world, we have a lot of experience with that question. We may not think about our sizing up criteria, but we probably have them. Is this a group of people that I want to hang out with? Will going to the meeting of this group be worth my time? Do I want to step forward and get more invested in this group? Do I like the people? Will hanging out with this group be fun? Are our values in sync?

As funders we have our own ways to size up the groups that want to get on our "groups that matter" list, crossing the first hurdle in the path to receiving funding. And how we size up group does indeed matter in the big thinking on small grants world.

It matters because we may be using a sizing up yardstick that just doesn't work for grassroots groups. When groups don't measure up according this yardstick, they may not make it onto the "groups that matter" list. Or we may offer them technical assistance or make grants with strings attached to help them measure up. Or as a program officer, you are not equipped to answer questions that your distribution committee or board members might asking in a way that assures the most risk-adverse members that the grant that you are proposing isn't fraught with danger.

I have had an ear to the ground recently about how funders regard groups that have not been recognized by the IRS as public charities - listening because so many grassroots groups don't have (and don't need) this status. A survey that Grassroots Grantmakers conducted earlier in 2013 surfaced some interesting perceptions about funding non-501(c)(3)'s - such as providing grants to non-501(c)(3's is not permitted by law or that grants to non-501(c)(3)'s can never count toward a foundation's payout requirements. These are simply perceptions that are not based on accurate information.

Providing accurate information should take care of that, right? I don't think so. I think there is something about using the 501(c)(3) status as an entry-level mechanism of credentialing that is at work here.  Since funding non-profit organizations is the main-course type of funding that most foundations do, it is understandable that taking away a basic tool in a program officer's credentialing toolkit might cause some uneasiness, especially if you're not sure what other tools (or yardsticks) to use.

We all know that even for established non-profits, having a 501(c)(3) is not sufficient as a stand-alone seal of approval. And that's why normal funding due diligence processes go along with checking on an organization's 501(c)(3) status. We can all probably tell a horror story an established non-profit that has had a 501(c)(3) designation for decades and completely bombed with a project looked great on paper. But there is indeed some comfort in knowing that a group that is new to you has persevered through the process of requesting 501(c)(3) status.

Without the 501(c)(3) letter of determination as a starting point, how DO you begin to credential an informal citizen sector group of community residents - a group that most typically has no staff, no office and possibly not even a bank account? I invite you to join me here in what you do, but here's a few thoughts from me as a start.

Since we're talking about everyday people moving an idea into action together, each contributing their time, talent and treasure to the effort - look for "group-ness". For me that means that the idea has been developed by more than one person and that more than one person has some skin in the game. One person might serve as a spokesperson, but when you did just a little deeper, you should be able to easily find at least two more people's energy, creativity, passion, and commitment to this effort.
  • When you're beginning to credential an informal citizen sector group for funding, I think that   three signatures on the grant proposal form is more important than a 501(c)(3) determination letter from the IRS.
  • I also think that paying attention to who is speaking and how they speak is an important indication of "group-ness". Do you hear I and my or we and ours? Does the same person always show up to represent the group? And if different people show up, are they knowledgeable about the idea or mainly there as moral support?
  • Can you spot some fun? When people are voting with their feet (vs. being involved because it's their job), and when they launching into something that is just at the tip of a bigger ice-burg question (as is usually the case for first time projects, right?), it's really important for fun to be somewhere in the picture.
What else would you add to this list for your credentialing toolbox when funding informal citizen sector groups?  Let's build this list and provide appropriate alternatives to the 501(c)(3) as a credentialing tool for funding informal groups.

October 14, 2013

Dinosaurs and the Next Generation: The Tough Work of Institutional Change

When I look for the seeds of change in the big thinking on small grants world, I most often see them in the next generation of grantmakers - the newest (and often youngest) people on a funding organization's staff.  Because small grants programs are not typically big budget operations, they are often assigned to the newbies.  And it is these people with their fresh eyes, new ideas and energy that become internal champions for breaking open the assumptions and processes that are masking new opportunities for co-production and community change.

That's why White Courtesy Telephone blogger Albert Ruesga's post - What the Next Generation of Grantmakers Wants to Accomplish - caught my eye.  Albert shared this list that younger people in philanthropy produced when asked what they want to be remembered for in philanthropy:
  1. Being an ethical partner in community transformation
  2. Collaborating with others in and outside the field; inspiring collaboration especially with nonprofits
  3. Addressing the problem of the capitalization of nonprofit organizations
  4. Making a meaningful difference on some difficult, complex issue; helping to achieve justice, beyond charity 
  5. Bringing about systemic change 
  6. Keeping the field honest about what it has accomplished 
  7. Keeping inalienable rights in focus; addressing the structural barriers to social change
  8. Redistributing philanthropic dollars to native communities; helping to empower these communities 
  9. Focusing on accountability and governance; being accountable to the people we ultimately aim to serve 
  10. Empowering people to “stir the pot” of philanthropy; remaining accessible to stakeholders
Albert shared that list with the same feeling of humility that I feel when I witness the courageous internal change-making role that some of the big thinking on small grants staffers assume within their organizations.  He also pointed to two inter-related challenges that I have seen (and personally experienced):
  • What can we do to avoid simply turning newer (and I'm using newer instead of younger on purpose) practitioners into older practitioners - sucking out their aspirations to be replaced by those that are more aligned with the status quo?
  • How can we encourage and support newer practitioners to continue to give voice to these life-giving ideas - in a way that makes change but doesn't cost them their jobs?
Albert concludes by telling younger people in the field to take heart - that we narrow-minded dinosaurs will someday go extinct and their ideals will eventually have find more fertile soil to take root.  I agree in part, but think there's more to it than that.

I think this is somewhat but not mainly generational. I think there is something about what happens after people come on board as staff - how they find their way, how their aspirations find a place to take root and grow, and how they see (and are seen) by the institution. I think the hope that shines brightly in Albert's column can only be realized if we acknowledge and get smarter together about what it takes to advance change inside our philanthropic institutions.

When I came to philanthropy more than two decades ago, my wish list would have been very similar to the younger generation list that Albert shared. And, to my surprise, my steepest learning curve was about the work that was needed inside the foundation to make the room for a different type of work out in the community. It was that internal work that kept me up at night.

I know that I am not unique in that experience. There are those of us oldies who have experienced times when we had to decide if we were going to let go of our ideals in order to keep jobs - and know people who went both ways. There are those of us who found encouragement to hold tight to our ideals and keep going - primarily through association with others who were or had been in internal change making positions. There are those of us who learned through success and failure about pacing - when to be quietly persistent, when to push and when to pull back.  And also how to take care of ourselves so that we do not find ourselves in the pit called burn-out.

There is a a cyclical part of this process that comes from naivete about what change requires and the powerful institution-preserving, hard-wiring that contributes to the power of institutions and systems to resist or slow-down change. When we talk about what it takes to shift an institution - especially ones that have a noise-cancelling mechanism (aka an endowment) that tunes-down messages from the outside world - we can probably find more stories of hope and earnest intentions than real change. Isn't it because our intentions are so earnest, our hope is so real, and our experience has shown us how hard it is to overcome institutional resistance to change that we find the stories of remarkable institutional shifts to be so inspiring?

So besides waiting for the dinosaurs to die off, I am wondering what more can we do to prepare people who have the vision of philanthropy that Albert described to be the most effective internal change agents possible? What can we dinosaurs who have been around a while do to give the new staffer who is coming on board to staff a grassroots grantmaking program (which contributes to at least 8 or the 10 aspirations for a new philanthropy that Albert listed) a clearer heads-up that the change-agent job is just as much about what happens inside the foundation's walls as it is about what happens in the community? And what are the tools that we can offer them to help them be effective as internal change agents, keep their jobs, and use the progress they see as fuel to keep going?

I welcome your thoughts on these questions.

September 30, 2013

What's Complicated About a Pocket Park?

What could be complicated about a pocket park? I am digging into that question to explore some of the ways we can over-think, over-judge, over-complicate and get in our own way as big thinkers about small grants - unaware of how our own world view and personal perspective impacts what we see, hear and interpret.

I was with a group of funders and community change-makers recently for Grassroots Grantmakers' 2013 On the Ground learning exchange in Milwaukee. One of our community visits was with a group of neighbors in the pocket park that they had created in their neighborhood. This was a tiny sliver of a park on a narrow resident lot with a fence down one side, a house on the other and some sitting areas sprinkled with mulch and dotted with benches that the neighbors had built. We heard that this vacant lot had been a problem in the past, how the idea for the pocket park was hatched, what it took for the neighbors to get their idea going, and what difference they thought it was making. We heard from the director of the local CDC who had helped the neighbors find some resources to help with the vacant lot to pocket park transformation, and from a woman with a project that connected neighborhood kids with local artists to create some modest public art installations in the park. We heard quotes from the kids about what that experience meant for them.

This project is a classic grassroots grantmaking project. It took a modest amount of money that was spent only on supplies and neighbors working together to move an idea that neighbors had hatched into action. This simple project had provided the opportunity for people to work together, experience success together, and strengthen their ties as neighbors. I was happy to be there, reminded again about how something as simple as a pocket park could do so much.

That was my perspective. As we began walking away from the park, I began to get wind of different perspectives - and was fascinated that we had been all standing right there together, hearing the same stories, but came away with different meaning.

I heard that someone was deeply concerned because one of the steps in process of creating the park was dealing the problem neighbor who had lived next to the vacant lot - and that the neighbor had moved away.  I heard from someone who had wandered down the block a bit to talk to another neighbor and was told that no one uses the park, making her conclude that we were being led down a primrose path with a fairy tale that was constructed to make the funder involved look good. Another person commented about the social engineering that was going on - with neighborhood institutions creating opportunities to put people together and do things that they (the institutions) thought were important. Someone else criticized the city because they had not been more forthcoming with mulch, and thus must not be such good partners after all. And someone else commented that spending time and energy on something like a pocket park was needless diversion from focusing on the "questions behind the problem" questions that were the at the root of the problems facing that neighborhood.

What we didn't build into the pocket park experience was time to sit down together and pour out all of these different perspectives and make sense of what was going on. Lesson learned.

But if we had, here's what I wish we could have unpacked - possibly exploring these questions.
  • How can we be more self-aware of our personal perceptions and learning journey experiences that are coloring how we understand what we are hearing and seeing?
  • What questions can we ask that come from a place of curiosity versus a place of judging - and how do we keep ourselves in a place of active listening versus active judging?
  • How do we connect our real-world experiences as people who live in neighborhoods of some sort with our work as professionals whose business it is to fund/organize/train/coach groups of everyday people who are at work in their neighborhoods in their spare time?
  • What is our understanding of the journey that institutional players are traveling as they are learning how to be good partners with residents - and when is it constructive to move from patient encouragement to more forceful nudging to encourage those players to stay in the path?
  • How do we most constructively use each other as co-unravellers for the tangled story string that showed up in this situation and shows up so often in the big thinking on small grants world?
As I think about these questions, I'm reminded of a webinar, Program Officer as Coach, that I moderated for Grassroots Grantmakers several years ago that focused on the second question - what questions do we ask that come from a place of curiosity rather than judging and how do we keep ourselves in a place of active listening versus active judging?  Pamela McLean, a master coach and president of the Hudson Institute of Coaching shared her perspectives about leading from behind in coaching and pointed us to Marilee Adam's powerful book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life.  There were so many light-bulbs that Pam's remarks and tools that she shared from Marilee's book that we have included one of Marilee's charts - Moving from the Judger to the Learner Mindset - with basic tips on the practice of grassroots grantmaking.

I'm sharing this not to dismiss the perceptions that were shared about the pocket park in Milwaukee - but as a reminder to myself and big thinkers everywhere of three things: 1) we all bring our own life stories and journeys into every situation - even those that appear to be quite straight-forward on the surface, 2) reality is relative - depending on who you are, and 3) if we aspire to work effectively from a "we begin with residents" perspective, we must continually swim upstream, with as much self-awareness and group-awareness as possible, to stay in a learning mindset and approach conversations with curiosity. I hear myself often saying that big thinking on small grants isn't rocket science - but is also not as easy as it might appear. What we experienced in the pocket park in Milwaukee is what I'm talking about.

July 16, 2013

Seeing, Not Watching

I have been working on a blog post that I'm putting aside for another day in light of the events of this past week.  It's about neighborhood associations and what we do as funders and institutional actors to grow the group behaviors that turn us off down the road.

Today I'm thinking also about neighborhood watch groups - the dark side of neighborhood watch groups and neighborhood associations.

I spotted this poster this morning that got right to the heart of the question that I have been pondering.  When did neighborhood watch groups get to be more about watching than seeing?  And when did neighborhood associations get to be more about controlling than associating?

I am willing to look at myself and the work that I do professionally with eyes that see some uncomfortable truths about what we do with the best intentions that push people away from neighboring, friending, associating, and seeing.  I know that those of us in the institutional world have a part in this.

But what really troubles me is what people sometimes do in the name of being a good citizen - being responsible, going the extra mile, showing that they care.  And, I must admit, what I have done myself when I was a zealous neighborhood association leader - cataloging and reporting code violations without talking to people as neighbors or offering to help as one embarrassing example. 

I appreciate the spirit that moves people to connect, mobilize and act out of concern for their neighborhood.  Without implying that I think that every neighborhood association or neighborhood watch group has gone over the ledge of vigilante-ism or suggesting in any way that I think we would be better off without these groups, I do have a wish.  My wish is that every neighborhood association and every neighborhood watch group would gather for a conversation about this poster, with eyes that let them see - and confront - any uncomfortable truths that may come up.  And then begin again - this time with a pledge that whatever they do will reflect their strong commitment to really see and not watch.

June 21, 2013

Knocking at the Door of Community Philanthropy

I just spotted this new report - The Case for Community Philanthropy: How the Practice Builds Local Assets, Capacity, and Trust - and Why It Matters.  This is a follow up to Barry Knight's February 2012 report, The Value of Community Philanthropy: Results of a Consultation.  Spotting this new report was funny since I very recently pulled out Barry's report again to take a look - and was once more struck by the congruence between what we describe in the United States as grassroots grantmaking and what Barry describes as community philanthropy.  That's why the map that appears just inside the front cover of this new report was particularly interesting to me.  Under it's banner - A Local Practice, Spreading Globally - is a map of the world that shows hot spots for community philanthropy. With North America conspicuously missing.

Yes, yes - I know.  The focus of the conversations that have resulted in these reports has been elsewhere.  It is truly exciting to see the energy and new forms that are springing up EVERYWHERE that share the characteristics of what is now being described as community philanthropy.  But what a shame that the true scale of this global movement isn't being represented in these conversations.  

I want to go back a bit to Barry Knight's definition of community philanthropy because I believe how he framed that definition is really important - and frankly, quite brilliant.  Barry captured the spirit of many conversations involving people from around the world in shaping a definition of community philanthropy - and instead of a carefully wordsmith-ed, dictionary type of definition, Barry compiled a set of qualities that, in combination, add up to community philanthropy. This is also so in sync with how I think about grassroots grantmaking - not easily defined in one sentence, and impossible to separate from the core values that under-gird practice.  Barry listed the following characteristics of community philanthropy:
  • Organized and structured
  • Self-directed
  • Open architecture
  • Civil society
  • Using own money and assets
  • Building an inclusive and equitable society
And he underscores that the fifth characteristic - using own money and assets - as the essential component, bringing in an asset-based approach that relates to both attitudes and to the accumulation of monetary assets.  "On the development of resources, it is an essential component of community philanthropy that local people put in some of their own money to develop long-term assets for a community".

If you have read my blog over time, you know how much I fritz over language - not because I especially love fritzing with language, but because I have the seen the power of language to limit thinking.  You have probably gathered that I don't particularly love the term "grassroots grantmaking" and have come to accept using it as a practical step forward out of the boxes that "neighborhood small grants" had built around the work that I write about in this blog.

So I'm wondering if it's language that's once again limiting our thinking about the full scope and energy of this growing community philanthropy movement - by not realizing the parallel world here in North America that in some circles identifies as grassroots grantmaking.

With Barry's definition in mind - especially the "using own money and assets" characteristic as an essential component - I can see how grassroots grantmaking could be overlooked as a core mechanism of community philanthropy.  After all, the very word "grant" implies that people are receiving money and not using their own money and assets, doesn't it?  It suggests that there is a benevolent grantor - with money that comes from donors or private wealth - and that the collecting and distributing sides of the grantmaking equation are separate.  And then there's the problem with grassroots - often a code word for "marginalized", "poor", "disadvantaged" or everyday (not individually important) people.  So put together, grassroots grantmaking could be construed to mean powerless people who are receiving money from powerful (wealthy) people and organizations so that they can learn that they too can be powerful.

But it's not that.  If it was, I wouldn't be in this seat writing this blog.  Instead what I see is a flexible, practical, powerful vehicle that more and more people and organizations are discovering as a way to connect monetary giving with the first investors in a community - the people who experience the community every day and are putting their ideas, their time, their talents, their relationships, their personal reputations AND their money on the line for community benefit.  It puts money in the mix as just one important ingredient, casting aside two very naive assumptions - 1) that money doesn't matter and 2) that there is a direct correlation between money and impact.  Using Barry's words, it does this:
"Having local people involved as donors (I would use the word  first investors) us a game-changer in efforts to build civil society and enhances the prospects of sustainability of external funding when the program ceases.  If successful, community philanthropy also leads to more lasting, entrenched outcomes by increasing local ownership and local accountability."
Even more important is that when there is an organization in the mix such as a foundation, it requires a changed relationship between the organization and local citizens - a relationship that requires reflection, learning and internal culture shifting on the part of those in the organization.  It requires a shift from reliance on experts to co-learning with local citizens - walking along-side or even behind rather than leading or directing.

I believe that grassroots grantmaking is a place where the values and characteristics that Barry says add up to community philanthropy mesh with grantmaking practice.  My belief is that where you see grassroots grantmaking, you're going to see and feel community philanthropy.

This seems so obvious to me - so obvious that I'm can't help but wonder why we can see community philanthropy with one set of eyes when we look at what is happening outside of the United States, but when we look within the United States, grassroots grantmaking sits at the margins of the silo-ed worlds of civic engagement, social justice grantmaking, and neighborhood capacity building, and community philanthropy is seen as an organizational form - most commonly a community foundation.  The exciting world that I see what I look at what is happening in the United States is that it really mirrors what is happening internationally - with some (not all) community foundations fully embracing the characteristics of community philanthropy that Barry describes, and community philanthropy bubbling up in more and more places through many different organizational forms.  This is such a hopeful landscape - and grassroots grantmaking, because of the values that embraces, its flexible form and its do-able scale - is adding energy and an easy on-ramp into that landscape.

The problem with failing to recognize the growing grassroots grantmaking sentiment in the United States and Canada as part of this international movement  - recognizing it in spirit and not as a narrowly defined grantmaking tactic - is that we are missing out on a huge opportunity that has field building implications - missing opportunities to further a shared identity and invigorate learning, and spread the practice. 

The latest report ends with a call to action:
"Community philanthropy has proven to be effective and compelling across a variety of geographic and cultural contexts. It is time to help it become a mainstream development strategy........With the practice poised to improve and grow, now is the time to take action."
And some possible questions that should be explored, including:
  • What kind of international infrastructure could fund experiments, develop tools, raise
    funds, map assets, convene leaders, create networks, and strengthen practices?
  • How can we build a global movement for community philanthropy?
So with this call to action and these questions (along with the others that are raised in the report), I'm here knocking on the door - not knocking the authors or sponsors of these reports, but knocking on the door for what comes next.  Knock knock, community philanthropy.  It's time to let grassroots grantmaking in and take the next step of making this a global movement.

June 18, 2013

What is community?

So often in the funding world, when we talk about "community", it's all in our heads - an intellectual construct instead of something we feel and experience on the sidewalks of our neighborhoods and around our kitchen tables.  When we talk about small grants that build community, we think of what we can measure and how those things link with other things we can measure - how connectedness leads to less crime and better schools.

I stumbled on this beautiful expression today that jolted me right out of that "head space" and back into another reality of community that is calling to me.  I'm sharing this with you in case you hear some singing in this too.

We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been - a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time.  


Somewhere, there are people
to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.

Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.

Community means strength that joins our strength
to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing.
A circle of friends.
Someplace where we can be free.

- Starhawk

I believe that the what keeps us all coming back to this very challenging conversation about building community is because we have all seen or felt glimpses of of this - "strength that joins our strength" - either in our own lives or in those that we have witnessed.  "Voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power" as people act boldly to move their ideas into action with those around them.  And "arms that hold us when we falter in a circle of healing - a circle of friends" to help us be courageous.

And, that in addition to work that tries to reverse big trends like those that Living Cities just identified in their State of the City report, we absolutely must not forget about the work that is done with this understanding of community.

Community means strength that joins our strength.  

May 19, 2013

It's Not Just Cicadas

I'm fascinated by all the buzz about this being the year that the cicadas come back. But what really fascinates me is something else that isn't getting nearly as much buzz but is a much bigger deal. It's the re-emergence of active citizenship.

I recall a conversation at a Grassroots Grantmakers' Board of Directors retreat just 8 years ago when we were brainstorming about this question:  "What surprising thing could happen that would change the landscape for Grassroots Grantmakers dramatically?"  After a dozen very thoughtful responses were added to the flip chart, I offered my out of the ballpark (and intentionally flip) response - "a citizen revolution".  In the years that I felt alone on the edge and found courage and support from the connections I made through networks like Grassroots Grantmakers, a citizen revolution felt like a preposterous idea.

But here we are.  Everyday I spot active citizenship energy emerging everywhere:
  • In the going-wild proliferation of micro-granting activity for citizen-sourced ideas that is coming from every place imaginable.  Eight years ago the micro-granting landscape included some innovative place-based foundations, a handful of United Ways, some local governments (with Mayor's Matching grant programs, spread by the Johnny Appleseed of that work, Jim Diers) and a few community-based funders.  Today the landscape includes more happening from all of these groups, spurred on by the crazy energy coming from crowd-funding vehicles (see ioby),  soups/dishes and other events, contests and competitions, giving circles, Awesome Foundation chapters, national groups such as Project for Public Spaces (see Lighter, Quicker Cheaper), Generations United (see Youth Jumpstart Grants), and a tidal wave of innovative mico-granting outside of North American that are contributing innovation in this arena.
  • In the focused attention that civic and philanthropic organizations are giving to community engagement.  We're clearly over the hump of community engagement as a necessary evil and into the new territory of community engagement as a core value and competency for place-based institutions (see CFLeads' recent work on on community engagement, Georgia Council for Developmental Disabilities' Real Communities, and Bright Spots on Community Engagement), with sincere exploration of the "what do we do tomorrow/how do we do our work differently" questions that come with moving values and theories into practice.
  • And, most exciting for me, what people are inventing, initiating and growing unprompted. I've heard some "tired of waiting/no help is coming" explanations for this new energy, but  personally, I don't want to spend my energy exploring why.  I just want to be part of this new energy and let it fill me up with hope and joy - and do whatever I can to fan the flames and build some firewalls that will keep it from well-intentioned efforts from the institutional side of the fence that could tamp it down in the name of building capacity or making it sustainable.
My thoughts are now with Grassroots Grantmakers, during this citizen revolution. What's our most important role?
  • It's obvious to me that people everywhere are making the case for people powered solutions for our community's futures - and that the hardest part of our job from the previous era - the case-making - is getting easier. We need to listen, document and join with others to share with a big loud voice all of these creative case-making messages.
  • I also see that the institutional trail-blazers in the big thinking on small grants world - those who started early and kept at it with small grants for block clubs, neighborhood groups, youth groups, and other groups who were thought to be risky bets - have enabled us to have treasure chests full of practical wisdom, applications, final report forms, technical assistance approaches and "what not to do" guidance that gives that can be shared with those who want to activate community engagement by using small grants to invite more citizens into the action.  We need to make sure that people can spot and open these treasure chests of documents, wisdom and practical information, and spot more good stuff to add to the treasure chests.
  • This is a wonderful time - what we've been hoping to see!  But, we've had glimmers of this before - when community building was all the rage, when we were just learning about importance of social capital, and when big dollars were flowing from public sector and national philanthropic partners for community development and community change.  I think the most important thing that we can do is limit how much this time has in common with cicadas!  I can't stand the thought that the wonderful hum of active citizen energy that we're now hearing might go silent again and we'll have to wait another 17 years to hear it again.  I want to hum to become a buzz. I can't wait to see what happens in our communities when we are so accustomed to that buzz that everyone notices when it's not there and hungers to get it back.
So here is my question for you.  How do we - all of us - keep this going?  I have some ideas about case-making, and have experience sharing what's in the treasure chests of practical wisdom and information.  But I'm not too sure about how to steer around our short attention spans and love of the next new thing to ensure that this active citizen energy doesn't go underground for another 17 years.

I anxiously await your help with that question!

May 10, 2013

Using Small Grants to Get It Going

I was so excited this week when I spotted info about the City of St. Louis' Sustainable Neighborhood Small Grant Competition and can't wait to tell you why.

The City of St. Louis adopted its first Sustainability Plan in January of 2013 - with 50 specific objectives and 317 detailed strategies.  This plan includes more than 1,000 ideas for what can be done at the individual, neighborhood, city, and regional level to make St. Louis a more livable and sustainable place to live, work and play.

I am sure that the work that went into the developing this plan was huge and probably even exhausting to both staff and community participants.  And so many plans that I've seen like this - maybe because the work that is required is so huge and exhausting - get to be ends in themselves as the classic plan that sits on the shelf.

I have been asked over the years about next steps for plans like this in a question that goes like this:  "We have had hundreds of people participating in this planning process, and we have done our best to incorporate all of the amazing ideas that people have put forward into this plan - but now that the community convenings and planning sessions have wrapped up, what do we do?"

Hooray for St. Louis!  You have the perfect answer to that question.  I'm sure the Neighborhood Small Grant Competition isn't the only "what next" that's on your list now that the plan is completed, but my hunch it will be one of the most fun, most rewarding, and most important things that is on that list.

Here's what I love about this particular "what next":
  • It's a competition!  I think this is a great way to frame a 1-time opportunity that uses good small grants program basics but is designed for a particular 1-time purpose.  And, what a great way to invite people into the action in a way that feels safe, fun, and not as a commitment for life.
  • It's open but specific!  This is a competition that is especially for the types of groups that I talked about in my last post.
  • There will be more than 1 winner!  Instead of setting this up so that there is a super grand prize winner and a mostly losers.  This competition will have 7 winners and hopefully, lots of gold star runners up who get their good ideas acknowledged by being included in the bank of ideas that will be generated.
  • There are 3 pre-deadline help sessions in community settings!  Not 1 but 3.  Love it. We know from the years of experience that members of Grassroots Grantmakers have with small grants programs that what you do before the deadline - specifically getting out there in community settings with information, and positioning the opportunity to apply as an invitation - is essential to getting good energy in the applications that come in.
  • There is an expectation that projects will be different!  While examples are shared about projects that jive with sustainability plan, there is recognition that different neighborhoods are different - via their strengths, character and history, and needs.  My hope is that what the City of St. Louis is really saying is that they hope to be wowed by the creativity of the ideas that come in, and that they will use these ideas to grow the list of 1000 ideas that are already included in the plan.
  • I love that the application begins with questions about why the project is important to the neighborhood, how it engages the people who live there and what team members bring to the project.  These questions are SO appropriate for resourcing grassroots groups, aren't they?
 I could put a few things on my wish list (like wishing that groups were not required to have a 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor as a group member or that the application could skip over some of the long-term impact and evaluation lingo that almost automatically ends up in every grant application) - but I'm just being picky here.  Overall, I just love this.  Can you tell?

Who else out there followed a planning process with a customized small grants opportunity?  If this is you, let us hear about your experience by posting a comment.

May 8, 2013

Funding Grassroots Groups: The Square Pegs and Round Holes Challenge

Some things are clearly one thing or another, and others are hard or even impossible to classify. One of the challenges I spot in the big thinking on small grants world is that grassroots groups fall into the hard or impossible category.  And that classifying, whether intentional or unintentional, gets to be a challenge for both the funder and the group.

The Grassroots Group Spectrum:

From what I see, some grassroots groups wouldn't event recognize themselves as a group at all - no name, no regular meeting time, no clear leaders, nothing but people together doing something at this moment in time with no plan about stretching this one time into ongoing.  Other groups have all the boxes checked - name, by-laws, regular meeting time, continuity over time, and possibly even 501(c)(3) status with some money in the bank and someone that is paid to help facilitate the work of the group.

Some groups are in-between, with just enough of a structure so that they can activate quickly when there is a desire or move in and out of a dormant state on a regular basis. I'm thinking about groups like the one here in my town that comes together every year to plan the Relay for Life - hyper-active at Relay for Life time with some people from previous years and some new ones added in each year, but mostly dormant otherwise.

John McKnight describes most of the groups along this spectrum as associations.  Others describe these groups as networks.  Still others use community-based organizations.  I see these names as important steps towards creating understanding and differentiating these citizen's groups from business-oriented groups.

What grassroots groups have in common - no matter where they fall on the informal/more formal spectrum - is that they are vehicles that allow people to move their shared agenda forward that depends on their collective commitment, energy, passion and skills.  Most of the work is done not only for the people involved by also by them, with little or not paid staff, often without credentialed expertise, and usually without big budgets or other large resource reservoirs.  They provide the mechanism for individuals to discover and bring forth their individual gifts to their community.

The Square Peg/Round Hole Challenge:

Grassroots Grantmakers, the network that I staff as Executive Director, is organized to grow a field of citizen sector investors - and by that we mean creating some identity around investing in the grassroots groups side of the organizational spectrum and growing the number of investors who see value in hanging out there, at least part of the time. The first and most important investors are the people who are forming and fueling grassroots groups - and we want these first investors to claim their unique niche in the community well-being and change world instead of feeling that they need to model themselves after professionally staffed non-profit organizations.  The next set of investors are those that provide money and other things that grassroots groups can use to advance their work.

For even the most savvy big thinkers on small grants, how we do what we do - and most importantly, how we measure what we do - can plane off the corners of grassroots groups to make them fit into to the round holes that work for more typical non-profit organization grantees.  (For a fun reminder of what that's a problem, remember the blobs and squares video). Planing corners off comes with how we size up the organization and it's capacity to deliver on the grant, and how we think about what comes next.  We look at their operations from a business perspective - have they done their market research, are they employing best practices, and do they have the qualified staff and systems in place to deliver, to be stable and to attract resources they need to maintain and grow their services?  

For grassroots groups, I think that those are round hole-square peg questions.  At this risk of sounding like I'm advising to never to ask those questions, here are some I think are a better fit with grassroots groups, especially those on the more informal end of the organizational spectrum:
  • How does this idea use the commitment, passion, energy and skills of the people in the group and others in their immediate community?
  • What experience do people in the group have with moving an idea into action that they can bring to this project (regardless of whether it is with this group or another)?
  • How is the group reaching beyond their inner circle to make room for the involvement and ideas of more people?
  • How will the group share the story of their work together so that it can inspire others to move their idea into action?
  • What support does the group need to be successful with their idea and to maximize their learning together about organizing to move an idea into action?
  • And - adding one that I've heard members of Neighborhood Connections grantmaking committee ask - Who is driving this bus?  Who has ownership of this idea?  
I could add more that I've learned about this challenge through my experience with Grassroots Grantmakers, but invite you to share your perspectives on this.  How do you spot when you're trying to get a square peg into a round hole - and what questions have you learned to ask when you're talking with grassroots groups?   You can share your comment here or contact me directly.

April 22, 2013

Find and Replace: Muscle Memory for Sustainability

Jargon is a fact of life.  I think it can be handy as a verbal short-hand when we're talking shop with insiders.  But I also think that it's a good idea to step back now and then to ask if our jargon words have become so comfortable that they are masking some assumptions that might deserve a second look.

Sustainable and sustainability are twin brother jargon words that deserve a second look.  I heard sustainable and sustainability so often at a recent philanthropic conference that they became distracting.  I began to listen for them and keep score of how many times I had heard them, and became so preoccupied with listening and scoring that I zoned out on the presentation.  I wondered if it was just me. But when I checked out the Communications Network's Jargon Finder, there it was, with an interesting discussion of the journey of sustainable from the domain of environmentalists and economists to the philanthropic jargon world.
Suddenly, no one wanted a sturdy or durable program any more, they wanted a sustainable one. Expenditures could no longer merely be affordable, they had to be sustainable. Skills taught in school couldn’t just be lasting, they had to be sustainable. Anything, in short, that made it past autumn’s first frost was now sustainable.
As I was listening and keeping score, I was thinking about the implications of sustainable for the big thinking on small grants world.  Each time sustainable or its twin showed up, what I heard was something about "permanence".  And often "permanence" was about something that was fixed and was expected to stay fixed - or about an organization that was good at fixing and was expected to keep fixing, whenever fixing is needed.

I do indeed appreciate the question behind the question that is being asked when people ask about sustainability.  What is the investment that we are making setting up that will continue into the future - in a way that at least maintains the change that has been achieved with the investment?  And, I also appreciate the critical role that a staffed presence - a backbone organization - can play. But what I don't get is how these interpretations of sustainability jive with my experience of community and the energy that I see at the community level when I am looking through my big thinking on small grants lens.

When I think about community and the places I've lived over my lifetime, I think about ebbs and flows, comings and goings.  People moving in and out, people more present and less present because of family obligations, job demands or personal burdens such as addictions or depression.  I think of a dynamic environment where change is the norm.  I also think about ways that communities welcome people, what the new people who are entering bring, and how community traditions make their way into community culture - that invisible "way of doing" that people learn from each other.

When I think about the big thinking on small grants world - investing in groups that people form to move an idea into action in their own community - I don't think about the anything as steady or permanent except the "way of doing" that involves people who feel powerful and have the experience of acting together.  I don't think of the same people always acting together or the same groups always in the forefront.  I think about people being invited into the action by friends and neighbors, learning what to do and seeing what is possible in themselves and with others.  I think about people who have experience with one group taking that experience to another, new or existing - inspiring action and leading the way.  I think about my own experience, comparing how things work in my personal-life world versus the world I imagine when I'm around tables with professionals.

I want to suggest that instead of striving for sustainable, we should think about helping people and communities build muscle memory for working together so that when the opportunity arises, people know how to surface ideas, form groups and move the best ideas into action using the resources that they have and can find.  Our friends at Wikipedia say that muscle memory involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, and that when a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.  Imagine a community where people have strong active citizen muscle memory and value it enough as part of their "way of doing" that they keep it strong.  That's a community where I want to be.  It's a place where I can live my life with the peace of mind that we can handle the ebbs and flow, that there are built-in ways for new people to grab on and feel that they belong, where we understand that we need everyone - especially those who are often invisible - and where we understand the power that we have to challenge injustice and have a voice.

If we scan our language and do a search and replace - replacing sustainability with building community muscle memory, what does that really mean for how we think about our work?  What do people, groups and communities need to build their active citizen muscle memory? Here's the beginning of a list of ideas with an invitation for you to add your ideas:
  • Opportunities to work out - moving ideas into action together.  Small grants programs that are designed with a patient money, long-distance running approach rather than a time-limited quick spring approach, are great tools for expanding opportunities for people to work out in a way that builds community muscle memory.  For those who poo-poo those first small grants that support a group of neighbors with their first project - asking about the impact of this micro-investment in the big world - you might think about the importance of making the commitment to go to the gym, and actually going. That's huge.
  • Some personal trainers who inspire people to work harder by exposing them to real life stories of what is possible with a little more exercise, and provide some tip for building muscle.  These trainers could be known as friend, neighbor, teacher, young person, pastor, grassroots leader, technical assistance provider, and even program officer.
  • Storytellers who come in many shapes and sizes who provide regular reminders of who we are, how we do things, and how powerful we are when we are together so that people don't forget and that new people can learn. Storytellers might be artists, historians, photographers, poets, and journalists also known as neighbors, friends, young people, the strangers among us and people who work at powerful, permanent institutions who do their work in a way that uses stories to strengthen community muscle memory.
Join in with a comment and more ideas to add to this list.  Heading to the gym.....

March 11, 2013

Friending in the Big Thinking World

One thing that I have noticed in the big thinking on small grants world is how we sanitize the language of community.  We talk about building community, various types of social capital, individual, organizational and community capacity, social networks, associational groups, grassroots leadership, and community change.  The word we don't use very often is "friend" or anything related like "friendships" or "friendly".

I am experimenting with podcasting as a way to share the conversations with amazing people that I get to have as Executive Director of Grassroots Grantmakers, and am now quite fascinated with how often that word - friend - has been showing up.  Especially when I'm not talking with funders. I'm actually getting a bit obsessed with this.  So much so that when I was listening to NPR this morning about the post-Katrina New Orleans, I began to talk back to the radio when the commentator mentioned the importance of social networks: "Why don't you just say that people with friends are doing better than people who are isolated?"

Mark Hopkins believes so much in the power of friends that he has invited people over to his apartment in Calgary every other Sunday afternoon for FIVE YEARS - just so they can get to know each other.  His "We Should Know Each Other" campaign began with the realization that people in his various social circles didn't know each other, and a curiosity about what would happen if he could help people make connections.  A simple invitation, a few swipes of the dust rag, and some simple refreshments is all is all it took to get this started - and the ripple effect has been tremendous.  So tremendous, that it extends way past Mark at this point.  Friendships, dating relationships, job connections, people helping people out - all that stuff that comes with more social capital - is growing from Mark's simple idea and gift for connecting people.

De'Amon Harges, Broadway United Methodist Church's "Roving Listener", spends his time in Indianapolis listening, watching and appreciating what is already there in the neighborhood around his church, building and nurturing friendships that bring economy, community and mutual delight - weaving together the strands of community that are there waiting for someone with an eye for connecting. 

Dave Runyon, co-author of The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, works from a faith-based perspective, trying to make "love your neighbor as yourself" real in a day to day world.  Dave acknowledges how hard it is to get to know neighbors as people.  He talks about the importance of learning (and remembering people's names, and has developed the most ingenious tool - a refrigerator magnet that looks like a tic-tac-toe board with "my house" in the middle" - that he hands out for people to use to help people learn and remember the names of the people who live around them.  Reminding people about the continuum - stranger > acquaintance > friend - he encourages people to be intentional about turning strangers into acquaintances and acquaintances into friends.

Eric Jacobson, Executive Director of The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, is challenging conventional approaches to helping people with developmental disabilities have better lives through his agency's Real Communities work - investing in ideas involve people who have developmental disabilities WITH others in their local community.  The simple genius of the Real Communities approach is that people - and not disabilities - are the focus, with a recognition that people to people relationships are always about the mutuality of friendship.

Jan Thrope, photo-journalist, author of Inner Visions: Grassroots Stories of Truth and Hope (here's my earlier post about her work), founder of Inner Visions of Cleveland, and wonderful imaginer and possibility thinker, talks about "friending" as a way of investing in people in Cleveland.  When I was talking with Jan, she mentioned times when she and others on the giving side of the equation learned about something that was going on with someone on the receiving side of the equation - something that crossed the line between "business" and "personal" - and jumped in the way friends would do to lend a hand.  She also talked about "friending" coming the other way, and times that people shared their gifts with her - like creating a play around her book and using the play as a platform to share an amazing array of community talents that had previously been invisible.

My conversation with Jan made me think about friending in the big thinking on small grants world.  I thought about the importance of structuring grant processes so that they are friendly - designing out the intimidation factor as much as possible. Tom O'Brien with Cleveland's Neighborhood Connections puts "friendly" at the top of his list for how he wants the small grants experience there to feel for people, and goes so far as to coach grantmaking committee members on how to bring "friendly" into the picture.  This is so important. I love that he does this.

My point of sharing these random stories is to say that it is really powerful if we allow ourselves to connect our personal and professional brains - our right and left brains in the big thinking on small grants world - and remember that when we are using the professional, sanitized words for community connectivity we are talking about what happens when people move down the path from strangers to acquaintances to friends.  We are talking about the "doing together" that generates community gardens, more things for kids to do after school and expressions of local culture like festivals and murals - but most of all, works to help the people who find each other through that idea move along the path from stranger to acquaintance to friend.  We are talking about people around and with people who will provide the moral support needed for people to take on new roles, exercise their personal power and take the risk to get their personal skin in the game.  We are talking about growing friends.

If you have a story that involves intentional "friending" - as a community member or as a funder - I would love to hear about it!  You can share it hear or email me to set a time to talk.  

January 21, 2013

Building a Strategy for Resident Engagement

I had the opportunity to hang out with some of the best thinkers in the community foundation world last week, and the topic of the day was resident engagement.  How it is thrilling that more place-based funders, with community foundations in the lead, are seeing resident engagement as central to their work!

As our discussion moved from resident engagement in the ideal world to resident engagement in the real world, someone told a story about some bumps in the resident engagement world they encountered when their organization was asked by local government to expand community engagement on a topic that was rapidly becoming divisive - providing the safe space that was needed for people to work together to develop a solution that could work for everyone.  Perfect so far.  They brought a group together, only to discover that they had a room full of leaders who did not have any followers - people who were better at gate-keeping than gate opening.  You can probably fill in the next part of the story.  I bet you have lived through that story in your own community.  I have.  It's so common - even when people are acting with the best of intentions and the belief that the extra time and messiness that inviting more people into a process requires is always worth it.

So for the place-based funders - especially community foundations - who are thinking more about resident engagement, here's one thing I think you can do to avoid going down this very common road:  anticipate the opportunity and get ready.  If you think about resident engagement in the same way that you think about donor engagement, and develop a strategy to build relationships with residents that you take as seriously as you do expanding your donor base, you will be ready when the phone rings or when you want to expand perspectives on your own work.  Just as you think about who knows who and how to get know people you want to know, with the hope that one day they will become donors, think about who you know and how you can get to know more people in more places - especially those who are the strangers in your community.

There are a lot of things you can do to get to know people.  Make a list.  And be sure that you have being a big thinker about small grants on your list.  Small grants programs, at their heart, are about resident engagement - residents actively engaging with each other, and, if staffed appropriately and hosted by organizations that really value resident engagement, funders expanding the real relationships that they have with more people in their community.

It's that second part that is really important here - staffed appropriately and hosted by organizations who really value resident engagement.  By staffed appropriately, I mean enough of the right people - people who can see a way to use the mechanics of the small grants process to build relationships and understands that their work is only beginning when the grant checks go out.  People who really believe in people - and not just the idea of people - and who know in their hearts that everyone is important with something to offer.  People who are as comfortable in a church basement as they are in a foundation board room, and who are natural translators and connectors.

Those special people, however, are just part of the picture.  They need to be planted in resident engagement friendly soil - in an organization whose culture values people over programs, and where timelines, workloads, and internal reward systems are geared to encourage and support listening, learning, relationship building and connecting. When planted in organizational soil that is resident engagement friendly, the best small grants program staffers have the internal cover to be out of the office as much as they are in, and the permission to bring the relationships and perspectives that are gaining into internal conversations, planning and strategy development.  In organizations who see small grants programs as core to their resident engagement strategy, planning tables, committees and yes, even boards, look different - with people beyond the usual suspects there, comfortable in their relationship with the funder and confident that they have something to contribute that is valued.  And when the call comes to bring people together around a tough issue, you are beginning at a very different place - with relationships you already have and with people who, by virtue of their relationships, can help expand the circle.

It's about relationships.  And the good news is that for those community foundations who think they don't have much experience with resident engagement, this is a reminder that you do.  If  you do the same thing on the community side that you are doing on the donor side of your business - build a strategy for continuously expanding and building relationships you have with residents - and embrace a time-tested, affordable tool as part of your resident engagement strategy that is well known to the community foundation field - small grants programs - you will be on your way.

If you need some pointers or a sounding board, get in touch and I'll do 3 things.  I'll listen as carefully as I can and share all that I know, I'll point you to info on Grassroots Grantmakers website (and send you an advance copy of the soon to be released, "Short Course on Grassroots Grantmaking"), and, perhaps most importantly, I'll connect you to someone else who is a little further down the road that you want to travel.   And, make a note to stay in touch so I can share what you are learning and how you are making resident engagement real here on this blog in the future.  


January 9, 2013

Changing Personal Narratives as an Outcome

 What is more important?  Process or products and outcomes.  This is a question I'm frequently asked by people who are curious about citizen sector investing, with the expectation that I'm going to say process - and the assumption that in the small grants world, there can't be much "there there" when it comes to tangible products or outcomes.

Here's how I think about this question:

Ultimately, the product or ultimate outcome that we are looking for in the big thinking on small grants world of citizen sector investing is vibrant, resilient and just communities.  But on the way to that destination - because of the process part of the equation - there's another outcome.  It's people who see themselves and their neighbors through different eyes - as powerful, resourceful, and joyful.  And people who know how to get things done, have experience initiating and acting, and are confident that most if not all of what they need is already right in the room - especially when the room is full of people just like them.  It's a stronger citizen sector with people who see themselves as powerful - not because they are told that they are powerful, but because they have experienced themselves as powerful.

And here's what comes to mind when I think about the change in how people see themselves - changing their personal narratives - as an outcome:

I remember feeling initially horrified when a young woman from a community I was visiting stood up and said to the group of funders in the room, "I am an outcome".  She was standing with a nonprofit staff member who was beaming with pride - pride that I interpreted as pride in her agency's ability to successfully fix this young woman.  I couldn't imagine embracing the idea that I am an outcome - that I went into an agency's door broken and came out fixed because of the skilled mechanics inside, like a bum car that went into the shop and came out working.

But as I thought about this more, I realized that I - yes me, personally - am an outcome - the type of outcome that is sometimes invisible in the funding world but is absolutely essential to the community outcome that we're really after.  How I think of myself has been profoundly changed by the experiences that I have had others in my community through the years.  I have discovered personal gifts that I never suspected were there and were only revealed when I was in relationship with other people who valued what I had to offer and was in a situation that required me to give and grow that gift.  Yes, required.  Possibly because I was the one in the room with a missing piece of a bigger puzzle, and that doing something I cared about meant that I needed to move to the edge of my comfort zone and do something that I didn't think I could do.  The imagining, planning, organizing and leading up to the product part - what some would describe as the process part - was where a lot of the growth happened for me, with the importance of the product - the cleaned up park, the community event, the neighborhood newspaper, the success at the City Council meeting - as fuel the reward at the end.

I have also been changed because I have seen people reveal amazing gifts that I never suspected were there because I was not aware of the judgements about who they were or what they could do that were clouding my vision. Again, more learning about myself as I was learning more about others.

And, I have been changed by the joy that has helped manage the growing pains of becoming who I am supposed to be - joy that was only there because I was in relationship with others.
I don't think of myself as a confident person, perhaps because confident, to me, comes close to cocky.  But I know - only because of my experiences with my neighbors - that I have something to offer in spite of my flaws, that I don't have to have all of the answers, and that any moment might be the moment when I will discover something thrilling about the people around me.  I know how to get something going and how to join in when something is already going - and, using my grassroots grantmaking jargon, see myself as an active citizen and someone who has power that is magnified when I connect with others who share the space that I call community.

As I think more about the young woman who announced herself as an outcome, I can say "yes - you go girl!" instead of "oh no".  Even though she might have gone in one door to have something fixed, she came out with something else - a fire inside that ignited her courage to be in that room with us and stand up to proclaim that she is powerful in words that she thought we would appreciate and understand - "I am an outcome".  She was on another path but we ended in at a similar destination. 

So when you ask me about product or process, let me ask you:
  • Are we starting from the same place, with the shared belief that the ultimate product that we are after is community vibrancy, resiliency and justice?
  • How do you think about yourself as an outcome?  And what experiences (or processes) along the way have been really important for shaping how you think about yourself?
  • If you're a funder, are you thinking about the learning by doing part of what you are funding as product-generating, or looking for what you consider to be shorter routes to your desired end?
  • If you are investing in fixing people doors, how are you also looking out for changing people's narrative opportunities that may also be inside those doors but are hidden away - just because people think that you're not interested in that type of product? 

And, as always, I welcome your comments both on and offline.  Weigh in here or connect with me directly via email.