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.

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