Sharnita Johnson on Value-Added from Grassroots Grantmaking

Sharnita Johnson was accustomed to approaching her work from a pretty broad frame. As Program Officer for the Skillman Foundation, she focused on the needs of low income children through a six neighborhood community change initiative in Detroit.

Four years ago, Johnson says the foundation realized they needed some new avenues to do what community members desired and what local service agencies or CBO’s wanted to offer. The foundation launched an intensive planning process to better understand what mattered to residents and what new avenues would make sense.

Johnson says they learned that “people were really concerned about their kids and were willing to get involved. They trusted the Foundation, and this was a new way of working in Detroit.”

To begin moving toward what the residents wanted, Skillman tested out alternative one-time funding “Learning Grants” to small groups like a neighborhood block club or church. Johnson says this test was really useful – it helped the foundation gather “lots of on the ground data.”

“Then my Vice President, Tonya Allen, approached me and said she wanted the Foundation to implement a small grants program,” she says. “And I knew that was a tall order.”

She contacted other foundations who had successfully implemented a small grants model, connected with Grassroots Grantmakers, and learned from Neighborhood Connections, the Cleveland Foundation’s grassroots grantmaking program.

As she learned more about structuring a small grants/grassroots grants program, Johnson soon realized that an intermediary was needed to manage the program on a day to day basis. She sought out “a good fit – someone who could work well with the neighborhood.”

The Prevention Network – a 25 year old organization that focused on tobacco and alcohol prevention – was identified. Johnson was pleased to learn that they had handled a re-granting program through Skillman some years ago, so the two had some “institutional history” and experience working together.

For six months, Johnson took on a “hands on” role as she and the Prevention Network developed their program, guidelines, and vetted the resident panelists who would serve on their grants committee. They agreed that they wanted it to be resident driven, to represent all six of the Skillman neighborhoods, and to grant regularly, rapidly, and on a year around basis.

Once the framework was established, Johnson knew it was time to hand it off to someone who could devote their full attention to it. She admits that after all of the time and care she spent, it was a little like “handing over your baby.”

“It was like sending your little one to kindergarten – you know they can’t stay with you anymore, they have more to learn. It had reached a state of maturity for someone else to take this on and give it wings,” she says.

They chose Lisa Leverette of the Prevention Network, somone who Johnson says was “very savvy and had the pulse of the neighborhoods. She was aware of the players, someone who can get things done.”

The “passionate” group of volunteer grants panelists became more committed to the process, and the applications grew in “competitiveness and strength” through Leverette’s guidance. And through the success of the program, other funding for an arts and culture component was attracted and retained.

Johnson also saw community members strengthen and grow. Whether it was the bright young high school student council president who earned a grant for a mentorship program, or a long-time community member who ran an informal summer reading program on her porch – “just needing a little money to do the good work” – Johnson saw the potential for solving simple problems today, and far beyond.

“When I think of this young high school student, I realized that he understood these investments when even some adults don’t,” she says. “My hope of hopes is that he’ll earn his degree and give back to the community. I believe we’re growing new leaders through this process.”

Johnson came to see that the grassroots grants program was providing a critical link that Skillman’s broader community change initiative needed in order to thrive. “It gave us entry into the neighborhoods to give people resources who had been in the trenches, helped us build relationships and trust, and informed us how to work with community – this was instrumental in our work and important,” she says.

From her once broad grantmaking frame, Johnson knows that grassroots grants are a “nontraditional way of funding,” and that some might see support for an unknown individual or start-up group as a “risk.”

“You must be willing to make mistakes – but the pay off for the grants that do well is invaluable,” she says.

“There are different ways of doing this work – sometimes bottom up, sometimes top down. I think grassroots grants are the true meet in the middle approach.”


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