Where Do I Start?

 It can be easy to let the complexity of the work stymie new ways of doing things.

In the past 30 days I’ve attended two conferences, one the Neighborhood Funders Groups National Convening and the other The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers Annual Conference.  While definitely distinct in their feel and approaches, they each shared a strong focus on what it is foundations can do to better help build democracy, foster justice and create strong vibrant communities.

At both conferences, much of the context for the different sessions was concern about the quality (or lack thereof) of the relationships between foundations and their grantees.  Having been rooted for the past 30 years in nonprofit organizations, I often found the same concern to be a repeating refrain whenever the topic of funders came up.

It goes without saying (doesn’t it?) that grantmakers want to have the best possible relationships they can with their communities. Yet there are barriers that get in the way:  institutions that are wed to old-fashioned grantmaking practices (named “Jurassic Philanthropy” at last year’s On the Ground); lack of understanding about why inclusion, diversity and equity are crucial practices for philanthropy; uncertainty about how to implement changes at an institution; fear of risk in reaching beyond comfort levels to build new relationships and try new strategies of giving.

I see a necessary similarity between relationships in philanthropy and personal relationships.  If I think about my relationships – personal or professional – I have found that in order to create stronger and better relationships, I need to decide that the relationship is important and then pursue it consistently over time.  I need to observe and listen, and take to heart what I see and hear. I need to bring good faith to my relationships and not get defensive when someone does something differently than I would. If something baffles me, I need to ask questions. I don’t get to dictate the way things will be, I need to make room for different realities. I am responsible for being honest and clear about what I need and want and then I need to allow space for others to be honest and clear about what they need and want.

In all of this, the other party’s importance as a co-creator is fundamental.  This is particularly challenging when there are privilege and power differences between parties. That is why it is so inspiring to learn from those that are successfully building relationships with residents that create change – regardless of whether a resident group is a registered nonprofit or not.

I spoke at a regional conference of grantmakers earlier this year and one question that came up more than once was “Where do I start?”  It can be easy to let the complexity of the work stymie new ways of doing things.  Grassroots Grantmakers wants to help support new endeavors in grassroots grantmaking in any way we can.

Across the country, there is a growing body of grantmakers with rich, lengthy, tried and true experience working in resident-driven change and grassroots grantmaking.  One example is what the Baltimore Community Foundation is doing – they are hosting the 2016 On the Ground and will provide a window on their work in creating partnerships with the grassroots through the arts, working with youth, and addressing issues of education and community/police relations.  BCF has built strong relationships by bringing diversity, equity and inclusion into all levels of their work and their institution. If you join us at our On the Ground, you will hear their stories and the stories of their resident partners!

If you are interested in learning more about grassroots grantmaking, contact me and I’ll be happy to work with you or provide you connections to wonderful people nationally or in your area.  Take a look at our website,, to see what resources are there for you. Consider attending our On the Ground 2016 in Baltimore (register by clicking here) and please, join us as a member by clicking here.


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