Five Factors that Contribute to a Viable Grassroots Grantmaking Program

Excerpts from A Legacy of Leadership and Support for Grassroots Grantmaking.

1.  The Goals are in Line with Resources

It is important that the funding organization has explicit expectations about what the program can accomplish and not be naïve about the role of residents as volunteers and what they can do.  A key variable is whether or not the goals are realistic and in line with the scale of resources that have been committed.

For example, when a small number of grants are made once a year, an unrealistic goal would be long term neighborhood change; whereas, a goal of connecting with residents to increase the funding organization’s visibility or to encourage active citizenship would be more reasonable.  If on the other hand a significant number of grants are made in a defined geographic area, the grantees receive technical assistance at every stage of planning and implementation and are linked to a broad community development agenda, the goal of neighborhood change may be more feasible.

The following are examples of the program goals expressed by a sampling of grassroots grantmaking programs:

  • Increasing visibility and credibility with diverse constituents.

    Grassroots grantmaking programs can be utilized to help change the funding organization’s reputation as a resource for only more established civic groups, non-profit agencies and donors.  A grassroots grantmaking program gives the funding organization a window into the community to hear the perspective of residents and groups of people whom they may not have a relationship with.  The program can be an entrepreneurial way to build relationships with new communities and groups of people and to respond to their needs.  For example, the small grants program was an opportunity for Seattle Foundation to connect with low-income communities of color and design a program that would respond to their needs. The Battle Creek Community Foundation’s small grants program has brought the foundation a view of reality from the neighborhood perspective and enriched its understanding of the state of the city.

  • Strengthening fragile neighborhoods.

    Many grassroots grantmaking programs are focused on developing the leadership skills and capacity of grassroots leaders and groups and improving the social organization of the neighborhood (social capital).  These are seen as part of the work of reweaving the fabric of fragile neighborhoods that have experienced significant periods of disinvestment or that are threatened with further disinvestment unless steps are taken toward neighborhood stabilization.  The Central New York Community Foundation’s small grants program is coupled with a strong neighborhood leadership training curriculum; the foundation recently revamped its program and narrowed its focus to several neighborhoods that were identified through a study process that involved a review of demographic and economic data and input from community residents.

  • Organizing for social change.

    Grassroots grantmaking programs can help to advance a social change goal and focus on increasing civic engagement and organizing residents so their voices could be heard.  For example, in Baltimore, the foundation provides mobilization grants for residents to organize and increase involvement, as well as mobilization grants to develop and improve neighborhood strategic plans.  In Denver, the small grants program is a vehicle to organize and mobilize residents as advocates for social change. In Memphis, the Memphis Community Development Partnership recently retooled the small grants program to have a stronger emphasis on community organizing and projects that connect to a strategy for neighborhood change.

2.  Return on Investment Beyond the Impact of Individual Projects

For some of the Mott initiative sites the program has been maintained primarily because it gave the foundation a way to hear from and be connected to low-income residents and neighborhoods.  For these foundations, the modest investment in a small grants program increased their understanding of community needs and issues.  This grounding in community was seen as a way to “put the community back into the community foundation” and enhance the foundation’s core philanthropic mission.  For other community foundations, the expected return from small grants work included other benefits, such as complementing or enhancing other program investments or strengthening its capacity to exert institutional leadership on other civic issues.

The following are examples of the different types of return on investment:

  • Creating stronger neighborhood organizations.

    The grassroots grantmaking program can serve as an “on-ramp” for new groups and organizations. For example, the Cedar Rapids Community Foundation now has a door for every age and stage of organizational development. The number of resident-led organizations that have the capacity to make use of larger grants from the foundation has increased.

  • Adding value by reinforcing other program goals.

    A grassroots grantmaking program can be a strategic way to expand or build on an existing area of focus such as a community development, leadership development or civic engagement agenda. For example, at the Cleveland Foundation the small grants program fills a gap in existing community development efforts and is positioned as part of the foundation’s broader neighborhoods program area; the expectation is that this program will over time become a clear complement to the foundation’s larger scale support for community development organizations involved in neighborhood physical revitalization work.

  • Enhancing grantmaker capacity.

    A grassroots grantmaking program can be an opportunity to build a funding organization’s organizational knowledge, skill and expertise. In the case of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the small grants gave them the background and experience to launch a large-scale community development initiative in a defined neighborhood. For the Central Indiana Community Foundation the small grants program experience increased the foundation’s risk-tolerance and comfort level to make grants to new or emerging organizations. For the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, the small grants program taught the foundation how to include grassroots groups and people in their community engagement efforts.

3.  A Stable Source of Program Funding

Where grassroots grantmaking programs have remained viable over time, the level of funding has remained steady over time; in some cases, the funding has increased and the funding base has been broadened.

Although the amount of funding that is typically directed to grassroots grantmaking programs is relatively modest compared to overall assets and other grantmaking programs, the fact that funding has remained in place over the long term is a key factor for sustainability.  The more durable programs are in part, or wholly, supported by dedicated foundation funding (including both discretionary and in some instances donor-advised funding), and have multiple funding partners.

A grassroots grantmaking program can be used as an opportunity to establish funding and program partnerships with governmental entities, other foundations and the business sectors by aligning with the self-interests of these entities (i.e., the city’s neighborhood planning process).  A number of long-standing grassroots grantmaking programs that did not have funding partners at the beginning of the program have brought in partners to ensure that the program is sustainable.

Examples of different funding strategies include:

  • Broadening the ownership base.

    Several sites have created and sustained a funding collaborative to support the program. In the case of the Seattle Foundation, the collaborative includes corporations, family foundations and the United Way, and the community foundation serves as the convener and fiscal agent. The Southern Arizona Community Foundation in partnership with the United Way, the city and county created PRO Neighborhoods, an intermediary organization to manage the small grants process and provide technical assistance. The funders continue to serve as investors and advisors.

  • Securing a dedicated funding stream.

    Sites have used a variety of strategies to create dedicated funding streams including: endowments, donor advised or field of interest funds, and creating support organizations. The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint have set up endowments for the small grants program. The Denver Foundation has earmarked a share of its unrestricted dollars to the small grants program. The Board of Directors at the Hawaii Community Foundation designates their donor funds to the small grants program and specific projects. In the case of the Calgary Community Foundation an anonymous donor made a 10 year commitment to fund fifty percent of the small grants program with unrestricted foundation funding covering the other half of the program.

  • Positioning the program for multi-year support.

    Other ways of ensuring stable funding for small grants programs involve working within individual foundation program funding parameters to increase the likelihood that funding for such programs is protected and not subject to year-to-year uncertainties and fluctuations. In the case of the Cleveland and Hamilton community foundations, unrestricted funding has been allocated to a multi-year (but time-limited) foundation-sponsored initiative. In both cases, the programs include an independent evaluation. In the case of Cleveland, there are periodic opportunities to inform the board about the program’s performance and offer stakeholder feedback about its impacts.

4. High-Level Institutional Commitment

A key factor that is contributes to the long-term viability of grassroots grantmaking programs is the organizational leadership’s (Board, CEO and senior management staff) commitment to the values of diversity and resident engagement.

Grassroots grantmaking programs can be challenging to established policies and practices that have historically kept funding organizations at arms length from the grassroots community. Change at this level – within the organizations that sponsor grassroots grantmaking programs – has resulted in some profound shifts in the way that funding organizations see themselves and utilize their resources. The leadership acknowledges that a relational style of grantmaking takes time and requires sufficient staff resources to achieve both the program and institutional goals. There is a commitment to support resident-led groups at every stage of their organizational development. Senior leadership supports a planning and evaluation infrastructure that allows the grassroots grantmaking experience to inform and influence a range of foundation activities including program grants and donor development.

The more durable programs (those that have sustained leadership and staff transitions) appear to be those where the program values are embedded into the organizational culture and there are champions at every level in the organization. In many cases, small grants have become a platform or organizational strategy for all areas of interest such as arts and education.

Examples of how institutional commitment is expressed and infused into institutional practice include:

  • Engaging the Board of Directors.

    Members of the foundation Board of Directors are actively engaged in the small grant program. Board members at the Hawaii Community Foundation routinely promote the program, identify potential projects for staff consideration, seek donors for the program and direct their personal giving to the program. The East Tennessee Community Foundation Board members participate in site visits. This exposure has helped the Board become more knowledgeable about low and moderate income neighborhoods, thus increasing their ability to make informed decisions. In Atlanta, the board chairman personally raised funding for the small grants program. Additionally, the Board participated in a full day retreat to discuss the impact of the small grant program and recommitted the organization to grassroots engagement.

  • Positioning of staff support.

    The funding organization’s leadership explicitly acknowledges the amount of staff time needed to engage with low-income resident groups, since it requires a hands-on approach that is often a departure from traditional grantmaking and ensures that the small grants work is connected with other program endeavors and that the program is mainstreamed in the foundation. The Community Foundation of Greater New Haven has a full-time program officer assigned to the neighborhood small grants program who manages two geographically based programs and conducts grant reviews of any general program requests that are received relating to neighborhood improvement and/or citizen engagement.

  • Influencing other grantmaking.

    A grassroots grantmaking program can inform a funding organization’s core program efforts by either serving as the “on-ramp” for other civic initiatives, an entry point for larger grants to resident-led groups or the formation of a comprehensive community development agenda.

    At the conclusion of the Mott program, the Dade Community Foundation decided to continue the small grants program by creating an open door to emerging, resident-led groups to the foundation’s unrestricted fund, and made the modifications that were needed to create that access. In Seattle, experience with the small grants program demonstrated the need for operating support for community-based groups, and the foundation created a vehicle to provide this type of support. In the case of the Winston Salem Foundation, what began as a modest program commitment in the small grant program has led to a multi-pronged investment approach that includes the creation of community development corporations through a partnership with LISC, funding for community organizing in partnership with IAF, and a high-level investment in a social capital initiative.

  • Increasing investments in technical assistance.

    There is an organizational commitment to support resident groups at varying developmental phases. with resources to ensure that the appropriate technical assistance is available to groups at all phases. In Seattle, the local funding collaborative that supports the small grants program worked together to create a local technical assistance center for emerging resident-led groups. Technical assistance centers in Silicon Valley, Omaha, Tucson and Winston-Salem also had their roots in small grants programs at community foundations in these areas.

5. Valuing Resident Voice and Influence

The final sustainability factor is one that extends the organizational commitment beyond resource allocation. It is the keystone for sustaining changed organizational behavior and is a prerequisite for going deeper and broader.

The funding organizations that institutionally value resident voice acknowledge that the grassroots grantmaking program is a means to change the power dynamics in a community. They recognize that the work of developing and supporting resident voice is not a one time activity but an ongoing process that is never done. These values become the DNA for how the organization does and approaches its work.

Examples of how this organizational value may be expressed include:

  • Delegating decision-making to residents.
    The funding organization can delegate the grassroots grantmaking program decision making authority to residents – allowing residents to decide how grant money is allocated. A resident leadership group, supported by funding organization staff, set the program guidelines, review applications and make grant decisions.In the case of the Steans Family foundation, the small grants program is focused in one neighborhood and the residents of the neighborhood make all program and funding decisions.
  • Equalizing voices at policy tables.

    Working side by side, residents and traditional decision-makers have the opportunity to influence and learn from each other.

    At the Central Alabama Community Foundation, small grant program participants are members of the foundation Board of Directors. In East Tennessee and New Haven, foundation Board members sit on the small grants program advisory committees with residents and other community representatives.

  • Promoting resident voices in the broader community.

    The funding organization can serve as a champion for resident voices in other community efforts. For example, the Central New York Community Foundation from the beginning established a neighborhood leadership curriculum and then provided grants to leaders to undertake projects that make use of their skills. This is true in Denver where the focus is on resident organizing, and in Baltimore, where the TA partner is the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. These foundations encourage others to involve neighborhood residents in the design and implementation of programs and initiatives.


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