Whom do you trust to lead community improvement?

Whom do you trust to lead community improvement?

This question keeps rolling through my head as I’m participating in the Growing Social Impact for a Networked World conference.

It’s not an easy question. It gets to the heart of a person’s values, upbringing, work history, own sense of self-control, and more. And, it’s a tough conversation for a group, whether that group is a philanthropic family or a foundation board.

But I’m convinced it’s an essential question for self-reflection by foundations and philanthropists, especially now as people, communities, and nations struggle to find the best paths out of the recession.

I think when you boil everything down, a foundation or donor ends up with three choices as answers:

  • Citizens – philanthropy that strengthens citizen engagement and leadership and even helps them exercise their voice in and lead community progress. It’s philanthropy that puts its trust in everyday people, consumers, start-up social entrepreneurs, and unincorporated networks.
  • Frontline delivery mechanisms – philanthropy that strengthens nonprofits, schools, and congregations. It’s philanthropy that puts its trust in the professionals who have studied the issues and had experience in delivering effective solutions.
  • Strengthening institutions – philanthropy that strengthens the ability of government agencies or the corporate community to move our communities and nation forward.  I know that most people will hate that I’ve lumped these together.  But I see them both as expressions of supporting the existing aggregations of power (market and elected).  And the philanthropy that puts its trust in them looks similar – support of public policy, public will-building, multi-sector partnerships, etc.

The easy answer is to support all three, and it can be sometimes be smart to do. But “all 3” is also the weak way out.  It disconnects giving from fundamental core values and beliefs – of the real answer to where you see power* and authority should be placed.

As one example, the community foundation field especially struggles with this question because they try to serve all three audiences simultaneously. Their answers show through how they design their strategic philanthropy and community leadership initiatives. Some answer “We’re about empowering donors and/or neighborhood residents to lead change” (trust the people).  Others answer “We’re about building strong nonprofits and social entrepreneurs through grants and capacity building services” (trust the delivery system).  And others answer “We’re about building community assets for the long run and hiring smart staff to run initiatives” (trust us as the institution to lead change).

As another example, funders in my adopted hometown of Pittsburgh are paying for an assessment of the community development system. Though the essential question above hasn’t been explicitly asked in discussions so far, funders, intermediaries, and government officials are revealing their biases. Some see the community development system at its roots as being about supporting citizen-led change; others as about robust delivery of units, jobs, and saved lives; and others about catalyzing and increasing the investments of government and financial institutions.

So, what’s your answer – where do you place your philanthropic bets?  And, do you have other answers?


Caveat:  I’m a white Midwestern guy, child of two generations of entrepreneurs, with an employment history in state government and endowed foundations. Many will say I have no standing or legitimacy to discuss power dynamics. I’m ok with that.

What I Learned About Networks at Summer Camp

What do funders really want from networks?

I heard one set of honest answers to this question this summer as I wrapped up consulting for the Lumina Foundation for Education.  “Camp” was actually the session “Funder Perspectives on Investing in Networks” that I had the honor to facilitate for Lumina’s partners and grantees in its KnowHow2 GO initiative.

Our insightful panelists were:  Warren Cook, Co-Founder, Maine Network Partners; Tessa Carmen De Roy, Manager, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation’s College Access and Success Initiative; Thomas Kelly, Associate Director for Evaluation, Annie E. Casey Foundation; Donnell Mersereau, Executive Director at Midwest Community Foundations’ Ventures and Vice President at the Council of Michigan Foundations; and Sheri H. Ranis, Program Director for College Preparation, Lumina Foundation for Education.

My key take-away was this:

The field of networks and supporting networks is evolving, and many donors and foundations aren’t versed in the work or see it as too complicated.  Even foundations that fund networks are still learning the difference between supporting a network setting versus a single-organization, direct service setting.  Ultimately, networks will have to “teach up” to funders and donors – proactively helping them connect network work to their own goals.

Their advice for networks and collaboratives

According to the panelists, networks that are most likely to attract funding have:

  • Genuine and productive relationships amongst members
  • Members that can clearly articulate the benefit of the network to their own work and the collective impact they’re trying to achieve
  • A bias toward action (the clear, interim steps toward longer-term goals)
  • Processes for learning and effectively sharing that learning with funders and other community leaders

Donnell noted that community foundations are particularly interested in a network’s role in increasing civic engagement and making community problem-solving processes more inclusive.

The panel advised that when approaching donors and funders, networks focus first on the ends – the outcomes for people or communities that excite people, even touch their hearts.  Tessa made the analogy that the outcomes are the movie we want to see and the network’s work is the “making of the movie” bonus feature that makes the story great.  That said, Warren and Tom warned that networks be careful to talk about evaluation and results in terms of “contribution” to solving a problem not “attribution” to a solution.  Even the best networks (or funders) can’t control everything in complex systems.

I’ll continue my “network funder camp” experience this fall at the Growing Social Impact in a Networked World conference.  I’ll share more of what I learn then.

What do you think foundations want to see in networks?

Networks Part Two

Another take on networks delivering community results came by way of Bill Traynor, Executive Director of Lawrence CommunityWorks.  Bill conducted a webinar this week for Grassroots Grantmakers on Network-Centric Organizing.  Bill is a long-time community development practitioner and I received some of my first training on neighborhood planning from him at a Tufts University summer program in the early 1990s.

Bill shared these lessons, amongst others, on the webinar:

  • Community is not the network of relationships but the value and functionality that comes from those relationships
  • Traditional community improvement work tends to, in Bill’s words, “fetishize structure and form, and emphasize institution building to the detriment of building a connected environment.”  Neighborhood residents, nonprofits, and grantmakers aid and abet the problem.
  • Neighborhood networks need to be less structured with low thresholds for participation – “flexible environments filled with ambitious, creative people who are working on their stuff and engaged in public life”
  • Lawrence CommunityWorks has built a more network-centric organization and program structure through: constantly building person-to-person connections, fostering open architecture of groups and a club-like membership structure, and offering activities that are “value propositions” instead of services.
  • Donors and funders should be more patient and flexible when supporting networks and focus more on growing forms of connectivity instead of growing specific organizational structures.  The development of successful neighborhood networks takes time, needs room to experiment, and is rarely linear.

Bill’s ideas were similar to the works I cited in my last post – networks that create real community results rely on:  durable, trusting relationships, a clear value proposition for the participants, and someone purposefully connecting people and ideas.

If you want to see and listen to Bill’s presentation (and you really should want to), Grassroots Grantmakers posted it for free public access at http://www.grassrootsgrantmakers.org/page11842.cfm.  In addition, Bill blogs about these ideas and more at http://valueofplace.wordpress.com/.

And, let me know what you think about Bill’s ideas.