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What Brought Me Here

How much time do we need to give an idea before we decide it's the wrong idea and try something else? How much time needs to pass before innovation catches on and makes its way into the center? What does it mean when it feels like the time is right, or an idea's time has come - but that time comes and goes and nothing much changes? These are the questions that have brought me here now.

I've thought about how many times community engagement has been hot or trendy in philanthropy. In my twenty-five years as a philanthropy insider or near-insider, I've seen wave after wave, called by different names, but about the same thing. Community building, resident engagement, asset-based community development, stakeholder engagement, (continue adding here, please).

We can debate the differences, but I bet we agree that they all grow from the same seed. Growing resident voice and power - my name for what this is - grows from a seed of realization that no amount of money, professional smarts, data crunching, or well-intentioned help can substitute for people grabbing on to something together because it matters to them. It is people and the groups that they form for mutual aid, mutual delight and collective action that are at the heart of communities that are vibrant, welcoming, sustainable and just - communities that work for everyone.

I've thought about what I've repeatedly seen happen when resident engagement gets hot in the place-based funding world.

  • Something starts out as an attention-grabber, such as a national funder with a new funding initiative, a dynamic speaker at a foundation conference, or a provocative article or book that catches someone's eye.

  • Some new jargon enters the philanthrosphere and there's a rush to get on board with the new jargon. Some people or organizations emerge as the newest/coolest experts on this new thing and they get really busy - consulting, training, researching, speaking, creating models, identifying best practices and writing reports.

  • Some funders dive in and do some courageous or innovative things and hang in there for a while, or maybe even longer.

  • Some of these go really deep, with their boards and senior leadership on the resident power boat.

  • Some of these enjoy the privileges of being in the cool-at-the-moment crowd, but take the easy way out, resting on the laurels of one program or the energy and vision of one very committed staff person while the rest of the (ever-growing) foundation continues on untouched.

  • And, once the fever of the moment passes and another idea takes center stage, many of these funders head over to the next new thing and either drop their resident power work or maintain it on a starvation diet.

Put these steps into a circle - watch them repeat.

I ran into this problem every day in my years as Grassroots Grantmakers' Executive Director. I spent a lot of time talking with funders who were jazzed by an article, a speech, or a conversation and wanted to get started with some resident-centered micro-granting as a first-step resident engagement tactic. I loved that. New interest. New possibilities that this could be the one of the divers.

I probably spent more time talking with staff who were the lone-wolf internal champions for the values and practices of resident-centered investing. I loved this too. That was me at my foundation. And, the people I got to know who were in this position were fabulous and courageous.

I strategized with these folks about how to make the case to board members and senior leadership and how to open up more space for doing their work. We talked about how small grants and other resident-investing approaches challenge traditional philanthropic practices, belief systems and power dynamics. We talked about the technical side of small grants work as well, but most of the time, the big hard nut was not about the technical questions or what happens in the community. It was about the foundation.

I learned to anxiously watch what happened when the internal champion left or when a new CEO came in - knowing from experience that resident-center investing might be the first thing that hit the cutting room floor, a reset button was pushed, and we were back to square one.

What kept me going was the marvelous work I saw when the moon and stars lined up just right, connecting top-level institutional support with staff who were really good on the ground. What burned me out was feeling like the best we could do was tread water. Those were the places I celebrated in every way I could.

Here's what disappoints me about the picture I just painted.

Even though the number of foundations has grown dramatically in the past twenty-five years, I see only a modest net increase in the number of place-based funders who are adept at using appropriate tactics to reach beyond established non-profit organizations to help grow the civic capacity in their community. Those that are actively working to elevate the role, power and voice of residents to set agendas and come up with solutions are an even smaller subset of this group.

No appreciable net increase, in light of the growth of foundation numbers, means a net loss.

In doing this calculation, I'm not counting those funders who are doing resident-investing in a token way. By this I mean one small grants program that operates as a side-car community engagement tactic to a massive, well-oiled funding machine designed to support programs that are designed and run by professionals. I'm thinking more about funders who are working from a set of values that includes resident voice and power at the core AND are doing work that moves them closer and closer to those values in ways that resonate with the everyday people in their community.

It's promising that there may be a new crop of funders showing up at the edge of organized philanthropy who are not feeling restrained by some of the rubrics of main-stream philanthropy.

But I believe that so long as the massive amounts of money that flow through place-based philanthropic organizations is allocated based on the belief that professionals, not citizens, are the vehicles that generate communities that work for everyone, the most we'll get is incremental change and missed opportunities. That's not anything new. Incremental change is better than no change. Strong, capable non-profits are an important part of the community infrastructure, so funding that is intended to support that sector isn't wasted.

The problem for me is when the funders who say that are about the vitality of a place leave residents out of the solutions picture. Or include them but only as advisors to professionals - the "tell us your experience and we'll deliver what you need" approach to community engagement. I believe that the message that approach to community engagement sends is a problem in itself, especially when those on the receiving - citizens who are closest to the problems - are already feeling "less than".

What's the alternative and how will that emerge? That's the question that has brought me here.


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