Grassroots grantmaking is a place-based grantmaking approach that focuses on strengthening and connecting resident-led organizations and their leaders in urban neighborhoods and rural communities.
Typically, it is aimed at strengthening the capacity of people who come together to improve their communities through projects and activities that they initiate and manage.
More often than not, funders involved in this type of grantmaking combine modest grants with technical assistance, training, leadership development and convening to enable grantees to become better connected with one another and other resources in the community.
- Address local priorities – helping residents tackle the challenges they define as most important;
- Value civic engagement – helping people practice and grow the habit of active citizenship;
- Build community – helping individuals come together to improve the quality of life where they live.
Why grassroots grantmaking?
Many funders have found that grassroots grantmaking programs are highly cost effective, yielding results that are more significant than the grant dollars would have suggested. Typically, grants support the work of passionate residents – work that is often low-cost in nature and depends on volunteer commitment rather than paid professional help. In addition to projects, there are other important by-products of the grant awards – renewed hope and pride, increased citizen participation and community leadership – and these inevitably spillover to positively impact other quality of life issues.
Grassroots grantmaking can also have significant benefits for the funding organization itself: new relationships and perspectives that inform other program areas, increased credibility as an entity that has deep knowledge and understanding about its community, and opportunities to create new partnerships with donors, local governments, and other philanthropies. Grassroots grantmaking is a strategy that contributes to a funder’s capacity to serve as a community leader, demonstrates its commitment to community accountability, and underscores the funding organization’s unique position in its community.
As a priority strategy for engaging and advancing all voices within a community, for connecting with marginalized segments of the community, and for strengthening community leadership, more and more funders are finding that grassroots grantmaking generates a significant return on their investment.
Core ingredients of an effective grassroots grantmaking program:
Experienced grassroots grantmakers acknowledge that an effective grassroots grantmaking program requires:
- Patient money – a consistent source of money for resident-led community groups and an on-ramp to help emerging groups navigate the foundation’s grantmaking processes;
- Clearly articulated goals that are aligned with the resources available – a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish and what is reasonable with the resources that you are investing. Grassroots grantmaking requires grant money, staff time and resources to support capacity building activities for grantees (training, coaching and other technical assistance). Small grants can make a big impact, but the thoughtful investment in adequate staffing and technical assistance quite often distinguishes good work from remarkable work. More often than not, grantmakers who are disappointed with the results of grassroots grantmaking have lofty goals, high expectations and an unrealistic sense of what can be accomplished with small grants alone.
- High-level institutional commitment to the values of grassroots grantmaking – A program officer who is passionate about grassroots grantmaking is invaluable – but not enough. Effective programs that have staying power are associated with foundations where the senior staff and volunteer leadership are active supporters of the work and demonstrate a willingness to challenge traditional processes to open doors for non-traditional groups, commit the staff time that an engaged form of grantmaking such as grassroots grantmaking requires and seek opportunities to challenge their own thinking and expand the table to make room for new perspectives and voices.
- Possibility thinking – a willingness to think beyond the size of the grant to imagine the possibilities for your community if more residents were engaged, energized and connected to conversations that are so often dominated by professional service providers.
Is there a down-side?
It depends. Grassroots grantmaking programs work best when they are focused on relationship building – building relationships between neighbors, between organizations within the neighborhood, between neighborhood organizations and others across the city and between the funder and the neighborhood. For this reason, such programs often require more day-to-day attention than more traditional grantmaking programs. Yes, the grants may be small, but done right, grassroots grantmaking programs require more staff time. If efficiency – not effectiveness or leverage – is your top priority, grassroots grantmaking may not be for you.
If you are intrigued by the idea of grassroots grantmaking and are wondering where to start, you might begin here:
- At home – learn about what resources are currently available for strengthening and connecting resident-led organizations and their leaders, with an eye to filling in a missing piece (grants, technical assistance or leadership development opportunities, as a good start) or joining with other funders to strengthen the existing system of support for grassroots groups.
- With your colleagues – An ideal way to learn about grassroots grantmaking is to talk with your peers at other foundations and, if possible, to visit their foundations to look at their grassroots grantmaking programs. Grassroots grantmaking lends itself to “kicking the tires” types of site visits – a site visit is often worth much more than 1000 words!
- With one of Grassroots Grantmakers’ topical conference calls – Grassroots Grantmakers regularly hosts “topical conference calls” on issues of interest to grassroots grantmaking practitioners. These 90-minute calls are free and open to all funders, and are a great way for you to quickly gather information and to try out the fit of the grassroots grantmaking concept and approach with your foundation. On these calls, you are welcome to listen in the background or be an active participant – quickly tapping into a storehouse of information from the most experienced grassroots grantmakers in our field.