When The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta moved through its revisioning process last year, Program Officer Tene Traylor, coordinator of The Neighborhood Fund, the foundation’s grassroots grant making program, said that at the time the work “needed a fresh approach – we were drowning in paperwork.”
To shift out of that mode and bring a new focus to the work, the staff began to review some of the latest literature in the field. Among the works they studied was “Grassroots Philanthropy” by Bill Somerville. “We started the process with this book, which was really interesting,” says Traylor. “It gave us the chance to see what philanthropy could be if we were more nimble and less restrictive.”
Over a 6-8 month period, a broad mix of staff, board members, volunteers, coaches, donors, and non-profits participated in the revisoning in a variety of ways. Traylor jokes that the change was “gruesome but rewarding,” requiring everyone to shift their thinking and approach to the work in new ways. This eventually brought forth a more grassroots focus. “This work and study bore good fruit, and all of the Foundation’s competitive grants programs became less restrictive. The changes were especially useful to the grassroots grant-making fund,” she says.
Traylor altered many things in Atlanta’s grassroots grant making program, but her primary objective was to try to shift grantees away from “separating process and product” to a broader vision of community based change.
In the three years she’s worked with grantees, she observed that they tend to think about funding for a project in a limited way, rather than seeing how that one experience could lead to broad, long-term community change. “We wanted to get away from the idea that we were just funding a playground or a newsletter. Instead, we want to leave grantees with a sense of a process that is broader, bolder.”
In order to do that, the Foundation decided to utilize “community organizing as a coaching strategy,” where organizers work with grantees in an intensive way. Leadership skill learning is now part of the process for each grantee, and the technical assistance offered is “more direct and focused on inspiring change.” The number of applicants the Foundation selects to fund each year will also decrease from 40 to 20, permitting larger grant amounts.
“We want to go deeper with grantees, and wrap around them,” says Traylor. She’s also changed the evaluation process from a “simple end of grant report,” to one that identifies “building blocks” to enable grantees to see the incremental movement toward the community’s vision of long term social change.
“We want neighborhood grantees to identify what they can accomplish with the grant, with themselves, and the community – to walk with them as they use the process to determine their own vision for the changes they want in their own community – and the responsibilities they have to make those happen.
The difference, says Traylor, is not just a specific project such as the construction of a playground – but also the development of leadership and communication skills among community members that will broaden that experience into other related activities.
“It’s one good thing to help build the playground for the youngest children,” she says. “But now imagine the neighborhood kids are older and need the support of a strong local PTA, so grantees now have the skills to establish it. Or, later, as the children might face issues of school violence, the grantees could work on public and school safety. We want to give grantees every opportunity to view the full horizon – to see clearly that there is no end point. We begin by meeting them where they are.”
She says the Foundation is also trying to “add variety” to whom they fund – not only neighborhood or home-owners associations, but “community based groups of every ilk.” Recent funding choices have included an art gallery, a group providing a neighborhood youth sports program, and an all volunteer-led non-profit.
Traylor says the process and the outcome in her grassroots grantmaking work helped confirm the “value of resident voice and the personal connections” that she’s weaved into her work all along, particularly through the influence of the Somerville book.
Advise for others moving through a similar process? “Stay connected with community because their voice matters in terms of who makes the decisions. And work to tell their stories, because it serves as the best microphone,” she says.
TENE’ TRAYLOR serves as a program officer for The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. She joined the team in August of 2006. Tené’s primary role is working with the Common Good Funds and managing The Neighborhood Fund. The Common Good Funds link her with nonprofit organizations and critical issues facing the region. Through her role with the Neighborhood Fund – a community leadership program that provides small grants, leadership development and coaching directly to residents for community-building work – Tené serves as the Foundation’s liaison for neighborhood transformation and community development.
Tené is an Atlanta native who grew up outside of the city in Henry County. She graduated from Georgia State University with a B.A. in political science, and is currently pursuing an MPA at the University of Georgia. Tene is a 2007 Southeastern Council on Foundation’s Hull Fellow.
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