Neighbor Power Lessons for Effective Giving

What does effective neighborhood empowerment have to do with effective, meaningful giving? It turns out more than I thought.

I recently re-read “Neighbor Power:  Building Community the Seattle Way.”  The 2004 book describes the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ work in empowering citizens to improve their blocks and neighborhoods.  Author Jim Diers is the former director of the department and evangelist for grassroots-up approaches to community development.  I confess that I share Diers’ fundamental belief in the power of citizens-first, grassroots-up community improvement strategies.

Diers shares lessons from his experience working at the intersection of government and grassroots groups.  I think many of the lessons are great guidance for donors and foundations as they work with nonprofits, small and large:

  1. Start where the people are and build on their assets – sometimes funders forget to listen to nonprofit and community leaders with open minds and “fresh ears.”  I know from experience it is too easy to mentally race ahead to the foundation’s own agenda and guidelines, forgetting that the person on the other side of the table may have different experiences or passions to work from.  Starting from those perspectives may lead to a more meaningful, effective grant for both parties.  See guides by the Center for Effective Philanthropy and Asset-Based Community Development Institute for more good info.
  2. Organize people around issues that are immediate, concrete, and achievable – nonprofits and donors often convene to solve complex systems, policy, and practice issues.  But we sometimes forget that collaborative groups also need short-term wins to build confidence and problem-solving skills.  And, concrete and achievable wins are the best way to engage a broader community in the issue (see #1), leading to more sustainable results.
  3. Build the organization – Diers worked from the basic principles of not doing for people or organizations what they can do for themselves, and not letting one person’s leadership get in the way of growing more strong leaders and organizations.  Donors and foundations are more often pursuing capacity-building, catalytic philanthropy, and community leadership strategies to produce better, faster community change.  I’m not necessarily opposed to the strategies – I’ve planned and staffed them.  However, they unfortunately can be pursued in ways that don’t actually strengthen the long-term ability of nonprofits or community leaders to manage community change on their own.  It is those nonprofits and citizens that have to carry on after a foundation is through with an initiative or when donors and foundations aren’t there to begin with.  See Heifetz and Linsky’s work on adaptive leadership for a possible solution.
  4. Small grants make a big difference – Seattle offers grants to groups of neighbors and community organizations to improve their communities, matched by neighbors’ cash and volunteerism.  The grants were often in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars, had a fairly simple application process, and were decided within a month or so of application.  They produced both big physical and social change and launched innovative ideas that government or foundations would have never developed or pursued.  There’s as much power to small, quick money as there is to large grants.  More cities and foundations have joined in on the idea – see Grassroots Grantmakers (note, I’m a board member) and Janis Foster’s blog for great information on this strategy.

Do you think Diers’ neighborhood empowerment principles apply to effective giving and grants?

One thought on “Neighbor Power Lessons for Effective Giving

  1. Hi Tony,

    Love reading your blog – encouraging as we move forward with the West Indianapolis Community Fund. And yes! small grants make a big difference.!

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