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.