Hey funders. This one's for you.
For more than fifteen years, we’ve been talking about the power of people “grouping up” and the possibilities that you can support by funding closer to the ground in your communities.
We've talked about the inherent limitations of investing mainly (or only) in service oriented non-profit organizations when you are seeking a better life for people in your community. I've encouraged you to position at least a small pool of your significant grantmaking dollars as patient money that is available for informal groups of everyday people in your community who need some cash to help them with an idea that they have hatched together. This was how I spent a great deal of my time in the years that I was with Grassroots Grantmakers - making the case for elevating the role of everyday people and their "grouping up" in your community change picture.
Over the years, I've seen so many hidden and not so hidden messages signalling that the people and groups that we are talking about are not capable or trustworthy. I've hit so many walls when the sustainability questions came up. Why invest money in groups and projects that may not meet (or even aspire to meet) your standards of non-profit excellence or seek some degree of permanence? We’ve talked about the learning that happens when people do things together and how it can last even when there isn't a non-profit organization in place to house that learning.
I’m not complaining. I’ve appreciated every single conversation. I know that the funding world is hard-wired to fund non-profit organizations and move the organizations that you fund closer to an organizational model that allows them to produce consistent results in a stable way over time. For me, your curiosity about why and how to challenge that hard-wiring is courageous and full of possibilities.
That's why I'm writing this now. I want you to forget everything I said and look around. All you need to do to get a crystal-clear picture of what people can do together without the non-profit structures you are funding is look at The Women’s March, the Indivisible movement, and the dynamic arena of citizen action in this unprecedented Trump era. Every place you see people coming together and taking action represents the work of group that was probably born yesterday, with people who, for the most part, are working outside of their comfort zones, doing things they didn't think they could do. They are pulling together around a shared concern without plans or guarantees that what they are doing will endure beyond this very moment. They are coming together without spending a weekend together in a facilitated retreat to develop a mission statement or a strategic plan. Contrary to what President Trump says, they are working without pay or paid staff.
These thousands of groups are quintessentially local and powerfully global all at the same time. It is their localness that is giving them the energy and tools that they needed to act and building their citizen muscle memory. It is their globalness that offers the potential for the knitting together that will ramp up their collective power.
I participated in The Women's March via a group that came together in Memphis. Almost overnight after the election results were in, a few people who later identified themselves as organizers stepped forward to reserve the buses, find some hotel rooms, launch a Go Fund Me campaign and a Facebook page, find and communicate with the national organizers and groups from other communities, create mechanisms to collect reservations and money, and award scholarships to those who needed some financial help to attend. These were not people who had worked together before. There was not an established group behind the planning. No one was paid. Nevertheless, a mountain of work was done - and done well!
As we were heading out to D.C., the organizers on our bus said that they had never done anything like this before and asked for our tolerance and help if there were some bumps in the road. What I know in my gut, however, is that they have indeed done something like this before. It might not have been a bus going to a national march, but it might have been organizing travel for a sports team, or putting together a family reunion. It could have been something connected with their church or their neighborhood. It might have even been involvement with one of the types of projects that are funded by the mini-grant programs that are so often poo-pooed as insignificant - like a community garden, a neighborhood festival, or a clean-up. It was obvious, however, that the people who we looked to as "leaders of the day" were drawing from some well of experience that they did not realize was there. And it was even more obvious that where their individual wells were dry, there was more than enough experience among others on the bus to handle whatever needed to be handled.
The same is true with Indivisible groups The group that is forming now in my tiny rural town in Texas is probably following the same trajectory as the thousands of other groups in the United States that have sprung up since November 8. Its starting point was a couple of people who connected around a shared concern and used their own connections to invite others to join them. Its fuel is that shared concern and the belief that they could be more powerful together. Its power comes from what everyone is willing to contribute - their time, their courage, their networks, a little bit of their own money and the associational muscle memory they bring from doing something with others in their community in the past.
Both The Women’s March and Indivisible have something else that is making things work, however. They both are connected to some infrastructure at the national level that local associations have used to get going and grow their power. For The Women's March, there were indeed people "at the top" connected to organizations that have organizational-knowledge and capacity to put together a large-scale march in Washington, D.C. For Indivisible, it is the Indivisible Guide that some former congressional staffers put together overnight and put up on the web, with its straightforward how-to information that is drawn from lived experience and not theories of movement building. This infrastructure has been essential to what is happening now in communities everywhere. But it is important to understand that this infrastructure supports people working in association - and is not the main event. These infrastructure groups, while essential to what is happening, are responding to – not creating – the associational energy that we are now seeing in communities everywhere.
If you're a funder who sees this and is wondering what you can do to help, there are some lessons here.
First, you can challenge the assumptions that are embedded in your institutions about what it takes to make change. You can take a hard look at the mechanisms that are currently in place that lean toward business-like non-profit organizations. You can listen for the messages that you and your organization are sending that you it is not necessary for you to understand or appreciate the power and importance of people “grouping up”.
Second, you can seek ways to affirm, support and open space for everyday people in your community who are “grouping up”. You can carve off some of your probably immense resource stash to proactively serve as encouragement to people who have an idea to get together and get busy - even if the idea seems trivial to you now – in the interest of helping people in your community build and strengthen their community muscle memory.
Third, you can regularly tell their stories – using a frame that clearly communicates that the powerful common denominator in these stories is growing community and working together.
Finally, you can study the infrastructure of support in your community that local residents who are “grouping up” are using or need to get going and grow their power. You can look for those people and organizations in your community that seem to always have their feet on the ground and an enthusiastic open door to community members and associations. These are organizations where someone inside might be regularly bending the rules to make their meeting rooms available to groups, serve as a no-cost fiscal sponsor, and challenge organizational traditions that limit the community members that show up in their world to the roles of client or customer. You might look for people and organizations that are good at spotting and telling stories from your community’s past and present that remind people of what happens when they come together around a shared interest. You might keep your radar out for people in organizations that work close to the ground who regularly do what they are not funded to do – and see what you learn. And when you find some of these, you can support and affirm them with your grants, your recognition and your appreciation for the essential role that they play.
And continue to be courageous in your quest for new possibilities, with assurance from this remarkable time on the power of grouping up.