In October 2018 Grassroots Grantmakers announced to its membership the hiring of Executive Director Roderick Wheeler. In this Q&A, he shares his personal story and his vision for enhancing the organization and the institutions and communities it serves.
Grassroots Grantmakers (GRGM): What should Grassroots Grantmakers members know about the new Executive Director?
Roderick Wheeler (RW): First of all, I would like to thank the board of directors for having confidence in me to lead this amazing organization at such an important time in philanthropy. Today, our philanthropic institutions are wrestling with the question of how to achieve real impact in the communities they serve. But real impact can be achieved only by engaging those most impacted by the issues philanthropy seeks to address — residents.
Grassroots Grantmakers occupies a unique niche in community philanthropy. It’s the only philanthropic serving organization that engages residents in everything it does — from the organizational and board structure to featuring resident-led workshops during its signature event, On The Ground.
Members should know that my life story personifies the mission, vision and values of the organization. I grew up very poor in Indianapolis, Indiana, and aged out of the child welfare system with one goal: finding out how I could help people. I found my way into philanthropy after serving four years in the U.S. Army. I’ve always approached work and service to the community as a function of meeting the needs of residents — many of whom I’ve felt a personal connection to because I’ve faced many of the challenges they’re facing.
This sense of humility from my own personal journey and the conviction in the purpose of Grassroots Grantmakers are the two areas I value most in approaching my new role.
GRGM: Although you are just getting settled into this new role, can you share a preview of your vision with Grassroots Grantmakers’ past, current and potential members?
RW: Absolutely. My vision is to lead Grassroots Grantmakers into the next era of excellence by focusing on four distinct areas that will add value to not only those we serve, but also the field of philanthropy and community-organizing efforts as a whole.
First, I want our organization to be the leading champion of equality of opportunity for all residents. The goal is to work with residents in their respective communities to ensure a realistic chance of achieving life-affirming goals without systematic barriers or discrimination. We will engage residents civically and influence philanthropic resources, seeking community improvement strategies that benefit those marginalized or disconnected due to real or perceived barriers.
Second, I want our organization to focus on small neighborhood grant programs and inclusive grantmaking initiatives. I want to hold true to Grassroots Grantmakers’ history of providing the philanthropic sector with the tools, resources and assistance needed to launch, grow and sustain small neighborhood-based grant programs — while also helping the field shift to a more inclusive, resident-involved environment, including neighborhood participation and sound management of community improvement resources.
I would like to see increases in the number and percentage of community-based philanthropies that report engaging residents before, during and following the grant process. I’d also like for more institutions to gather resident input about how to best invest philanthropic resources and leverage community assets.
We’ll lead diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that involve residents in our communities.
My third area of focus for Grassroots Grantmakers is community organizing and civic engagement. As our motto states, “We begin with residents,” and to do so, we must focus a considerable amount of our resources on building resident and civic leaders. Our membership comprises both philanthropy and community organizations, so we must develop robust products and services that help cultivate the next generation of community organizers and resident leaders. These organizers and leaders will join the philanthropy community to help solve today’s problems, with an eye on a better future.
Finally, I want Grassroots Grantmakers to remain a leader in the field in measuring qualitative impact. We’ll continue building membership capacity and our collective ability to share the impact that investments have on residents.
I believe in what Albert Einstein once said: “Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.” The wisdom of this quote as it relates to community philanthropy is that measuring only occurrences of specific outcomes misses the opportunity to capture stories of how community investment makes residents’ lives better.
I see our role expanding to elevate community voices and share resident stories that help us better understand the impact of community investments in America.
GRGM: What are your major priorities for accomplishing what you shared in describing your vision for Grassroots Grantmakers?
RW: When I accepted this role to serve our Grassroots Grantmakers membership, it was with the understanding that my role will be to help transform the organization into a sustainable and disruptive force in the field of community philanthropy and organizing.
To do this, we must strengthen our membership base and revenue to provide basic, yet valuable, services. My most important goal is to re-engage with past and current members in a “Make It Personal” campaign, to ensure they know about the bright future in store for Grassroots Grantmakers. Here’s an example of the great things ahead for this organization: We are so pleased to have The California Endowment join as a member. I personally have tremendous respect for the work of the California Endowment as it relates to civic engagement and investments made in resident-led community development strategies.
And no strategic transformation effort can succeed without enlisting talented leaders from the field. Once we have re-engaged our members and stabilized our membership revenue and support, we will be better suited to recruit the talent needed to lead Grassroots Grantmakers into a new era of excellence.
We are personally inviting members to serve on the national board of directors as we implement a regional growth strategy. We are honored to have Janis Richardson, our first Executive Director, rejoin our board as Executive Director Emeritus. I believe her involvement provides the institutional knowledge needed to build on the past, while creating our future. We are also recruiting members to help shape the next On The Ground conference.
We’ll recruit local and national sponsors of our signature On The Ground national conference to help provide unrestricted net revenue, which we will use to develop programs and services to better serve our members and influence the field of philanthropy. For example, we are pleased to have long-time member and Director of Neighborhood initiatives at the Gifford Foundation, Sheena Solomon, a former board member and a tremendous advocate for grassroots strategies and resident-led community improvement strategies recently join our national planning committee.
And finally, we need to be innovative and entrepreneurial to grow our membership base and expand our influence. So my third priority is developing strategic partnerships to grow the influence and impact of our organization in civic engagement, grassroots organizing and funding, and inclusive grantmaking strategies.
We will soon reach out to our network to see what partnerships we can leverage. These partners will work with our talented membership to help expand funding for grassroots initiatives, increase civic engagement among residents, and prepare philanthropic institutions for a more diverse world — while equipping them with the tools to become more inclusive in their grantmaking practices.
I truly want to see a more civically engaged America, with more resources invested in effective grassroots and resident-led strategies, in addition to a widespread adoption and embracing of inclusive grantmaking practices for more philanthropic institutions.
GRGM: How can members reach you to learn more about you and your vision and priorities for Grassroots Grantmakers?
RW: I am sending personal emails to all our members, inviting them to share more about their individual work and how they are serving their communities. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to learn more about the new direction of Grassroots Grantmakers. Reach out to me by email at email@example.com, or call me at 317-550.5317.