My original title for this post was "Dumbing Down". I backtracked on that because no one in the stories that I'm about to tell are anything near dumb.
Remember the Goldilocks fairy tale? Goldilocks enters the home of the three bears and tries out chairs, porridge and beds - finding some too big, others too small, and some that were "just right."
The Goldilocks story came to mind when I was thinking about some work I was doing recently with a foundation staffer on a process to recruit residents to serve on a new resident-led grantmaking committee for the foundation's new mini-grant program. We were talking about a form that she was going to ask residents to complete at the end of an interest meeting if they indeed were interested in serving on this committee. This was what we were talking about, but we could have just as easily been talking about a grant application, a final report form or any other form that a funder is expecting a community resident to complete.
I was making some suggestions about possible questions to ask. I like friendly questions that might be fun for people to answer, help them relax about the form filling-out process, not think about what they give you at the doctor's office, and challenge any assumptions they might have about what you, the funder, wants. I like just a few questions. I like hearing people's own words rather than having them respond to mine.
In the end, it doesn't really matter what I like. I was simply trying to share my experience to help this funder who was new to the resident-led grantmaking arena avoid some pitfalls.
Where we went with this conversation took me back to time early in my foundation career. I was talking with a consultant, hatching an idea about an event where the work of groups that received grants from our small grants program would be recognized and celebrated. I had noticed that such good work was happening, but those doing the work were feeling bogged down. They were doing what's so easy to do when you have full lives. We often forget to look back at what we've accomplished when we're looking at the pile of things yet to do.
I wanted event to be more like a party than a foundation meeting or even an awards ceremony. I was thinking of a dinner with some good food, entertainment and a cash bar for those who wanted to partake. I wanted to position this work - and these people - as just as important as our foundation's donors.
The consultant advised me that holding something in a hotel would not be comfortable for grassroots people. He said that they may not have appropriate clothes to wear to a nice event. He suggested that I find a fellowship hall in church instead. I was taken aback, but glad to know that what I had in mind might make people uncomfortable.
What I learned about what came next was about co-creating for "just right."
I decided to run my idea about having such an event by the leaders of the groups we had been funding and wanted to celebrate. When there was enthusiastic interest, I asked if people would be willing to plan the event. We ended up with a great group of people who took over the planning. They selected the venue, the entertainment, the food, the date and time, the emcee, and everything else that needed to be decided. And, we ended up in a hotel ballroom on a Friday night, having one heck of a party. If I had taken the consultant's advice and based planning on his assumptions about who the beneficiaries are, we would have done something nice but not too memorable. When I checked the idea out with the people that would be the beneficiaries of the event - and moved to the backseat so that they could drive the planning - something wonderful happened.
Let's zoom to the present and get back to my conversation with this funder about the form. She told me that asking people to write something would make community people uncomfortable, even if it was just a few words or a sentence or two. She said that we needed instead to give people some options and ask them to check off some boxes. One question that we wanted to ask is what people love about their neighborhood. She suggested we offer options such as the housing, parks, schools, and access to transportation. I told her that I didn't see any juice on those options. What I love the best about my neighborhood is how everyone waves to me when I'm outside and they drive by. I couldn't find a box for that.
We also wanted to ask what people cared enough about to do something about if they had the opportunity. She suggested a list that included housing, safety, schools, environment, graffiti removal, and youth activities. I said that I want newcomers to feel welcome in my community and would love to get together with others to think about what we could do to make our community more welcoming and hospitable to everyone. Where did that fit? Obviously, I was being a bit of a pill in an attempt to challenge her thinking.
I suggested that we draft up a couple of options, and ask some of the people who would be coming to the gathering to take them for a test drive and share their experience. We asked a small group of people to fill out the check box form, and then try out the one that asked people to write a few words about whatever came to mind when they read the questions. We then asked them to talk about how the experience was for them and what they learned from the insights that each provided. We asked them what they could imagine doing with what they learned.
What we learned is that checking off the boxes was faster and easier, but asking people to share their own thoughts and words was not a big speed-bump. We also learned that the only thing we could think to do with the check box answers was to get people together who checked the same boxes. For example, we could get the schools people together and see if there is anything people wanted to work on together to improve the neighborhood school.
We learned that hearing what came to mind for people in their own words provided much richer insights into what people really loved and cared about. We mostly heard about people's care and concern for people - their family members, their neighbors, and the strangers in their community - and not about things. I love that I have some neighbors who walk with me every morning. I love that the elderly woman down the street is teaching my daughter to knit. I care about doing something about the cars that go to fast on the street where neighborhood kids are crossing to go to the park.
I can think about this funder's interest in making sure that this form was comfortable and accessible as dumbing down. I can assume some things about what she was thinking about what people can and cannot do as a bit insulting or degrading. Or, I can think about our conversation as just one step in a process of getting things "just right". By "just right", I mean not not feeling like a final exam, not feeling so easy it's boring or insulting - but something in between that is accessible and inviting in a way that sparks thinking, imagination and learning.
Here's what I think is important about the stories that I'm sharing.
First, there's often some clumsiness when funders are beginning to work with community residents. In the interest of trying to be sensitive, accessible, and all the good things that good with those instincts, sometimes there's an over-reach that feels more like dumbing down than being sensitive. If you see yourself doing this, give yourself a break. At least you're on the road.
Second, it's important to develop some awareness about when you're doing this and catch yourself in the act. And stop. Saying something to yourself such as "Hello Goldilocks" might be a fun (and self-compassionate) way to acknowledge that you've caught yourself in the act of assuming what other people want or will do. And this acknowledgement can help you move to the next step.
When you catch yourself in this assuming/deciding moment, head over to a co-creation space. In this space, you invite the people you have in mind as the beneficiaries of the situation to move into the front seat and you move into the back seat.
So much of the good work in resident-centered investing is about discovering the co-creating power of the back seat. Try it out, You'll like it. It will feel "just right".