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, often in an unpaid volunteer position, who are deeply invested in the well-being of the community. In addition to the projects, there are other important by-products of the grant awards—renewed hope and pride, increased citizen participation, strengthened community leadership from marginalized communities—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, new and deepened knowledge and understanding about its community, and opportunities to create new partnerships with donors, local governments, other philanthropies, and resident groups themselves.
For grassroots resident-driven groups, grassroots grantmaking can be an end to itself. The grants can help a community establish something they’ve always wanted to do but could not do without a new infusion of money. The grants can bring in new resources for a particular initiative the community has been self-funding for a long time. Grassroots grantmaking can also be more: Grassroots grantmaking can be a building block for further things the community wants to undertake. Grassroots grants can boost the confidence grassroots leaders have in themselves as leaders and in their work. The grants can help grassroots group earn more ‘mainstream’ credibility, introducing them into new circles where they might access further resources and support, and/or bring their perspectives into larger or more systemic community change discussions and efforts.
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 joining your peers to strengthen what exists or to start such a program if it doesn’t exist. If you are leading a grassroots group or have an idea for a project in your neighborhood, your investigation into your local area may reveal grants that can help you.
- With your colleagues—Talk directly with people doing grantmaking or running community projects like ones that interest you. Visit them if you can. Grassroots grantmaking lends itself to “kicking the tires” types of site visits—a site visit is often worth much more than a thousand words.
- With Grassroots Grantmakers’ on-line and in-person resources—On our site you’ll find stories of what people are doing in their own neighborhoods and rural communities to make them stronger and what people are doing from philanthropic or government platforms to join them. You’ll find tips and tools to help with this work, access to webinars and other formats to advance learning and dialogue, and the latest information about in-person learning opportunities like our signature On The Ground annual gathering.