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.