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.

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