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.