It was Thanksgiving Day and I was flying to South Africa for an international gathering organized by the Global Fund for Community Foundations. It was my first trip to Africa and my first chance to meet some of the esteemed colleagues that make up the cohort of determined, dedicated, highly experienced, and creative people who lead community foundations and support community-driven development around the world.
Some of the participants are directors of large, well-known community foundations. Others run small organizations with one or two staff members. Hailing from various countries in the Middle East, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, the participants represented an incredible diversity of grassroots organizations from a wide swath of the globe, all of whom have different models but all of whom share some core beliefs.
All believe in the power of small grants and building equal partnerships with communities, and all believe that communities should drive their own development.
Working at the grassroots with a grassroots organization, especially in the Global South, can conjure the “every man (woman) is an island” feeling. Yet when we start exchanging stories, we rediscover our common experiences. With the support of the Community Foundation for South Sinai (mo’assessa) Bedouin women and young people found the courage to challenge cultural norms during the Egyptian revolution and organize community meetings to educate each other about democratic participation. In Vietnam, the LIN Center for Community Development provided funding for women with hearing impairments to protect themselves against domestic violence and for local groups to organize a soccer tournament for low-income children.
The stories remind us why we’ve chosen to work on the small scale, at the personal level, in the time frame that works for communities, not the global economy or the international funding machine. We’ve made this choice because we see that getting to know community partners and allowing them to know us teaches us how to make our support as effective as possible. It also enriches us because maintaining a relationship with the people we work with keeps us in the human sphere, not the systemic, bureaucratic sphere where it’s so much easier to lose sight of what change means in people’s lives.
Yet, for as rewarding and effective as the work is, we all know the pitfalls and dangers: too little visibility among large development players who impose an agenda that often works against communities; too much work for too few people with too small budgets; lack of tools that can help us communicate with those outside the field about what’s working and why.
In our work with communities in Ecuador, Amazon Partnerships Foundation experienced both the rewards and the pitfalls. The long plane ride from South Africa to the U.S. gave me the chance to reflect on how grateful I am that we are a part of this outstanding cohort. I thought about how many thousands of other APF’s there are out there, scrappy but dedicated, succeeding and failing but making a difference.
They want to connect to others, partly to break out of the myopia that inevitably occurs when you have too many fires to fight, and partly to raise the collective voice so that “development work” is not relegated to a wonky corner of public conversation but becomes an exploration of the human experience, regardless of who you are or where you live.
The gathering with our colleagues was a fitting transition into Amazon Partnerships’ next phase: the launch of our new blog and online resources for people to share and contribute to globally. We know first hand how important it is to support small community-based organizations and community foundations–those groups that truly represent the communities in which they work and who are challenging the dominant paradigm of top-down development.
And that brings me back to gratitude. As I witnessed in South Africa, sharing information and stories with the goal of continuing to understand what does and doesn’t work is powerful. We’ve benefitted enormously from these kinds of exchanges and now we want to help pay it forward.
The more we share and explore, the more we can help build a sense of unity and common purpose among people who care not just about what is being done to improve the well-being of people and the planet, but how.
What is more important? Process or products and outcomes. This is a question I’m frequently asked by people who are curious about citizen sector investing, with the expectation that I’m going to say process – and the assumption that in the small grants world, there can’t be much “there there” when it comes to tangible products or outcomes.
Here’s how I think about this question:
Ultimately, the product or ultimate outcome that we are looking for in the big thinking on small grants world of citizen sector investing is vibrant, resilient and just communities. But on the way to that destination – because of the process part of the equation – there’s another outcome. It’s people who see themselves and their neighbors through different eyes – as powerful, resourceful, and joyful. And people who know how to get things done, have experience initiating and acting, and are confident that most if not all of what they need is already right in the room – especially when the room is full of people just like them. It’s a stronger citizen sector with people who see themselves as powerful – not because they are told that they are powerful, but because they have experienced themselves as powerful.
And here’s what comes to mind when I think about the change in how people see themselves – changing their personal narratives – as an outcome:
I remember feeling initially horrified when a young woman from a community I was visiting stood up and said to the group of funders in the room, “I am an outcome”. She was standing with a nonprofit staff member who was beaming with pride – pride that I interpreted as pride in her agency’s ability to successfully fix this young woman. I couldn’t imagine embracing the idea that I am an outcome – that I went into an agency’s door broken and came out fixed because of the skilled mechanics inside, like a bum car that went into the shop and came out working.
But as I thought about this more, I realized that I – yes me, personally – am an outcome – the type of outcome that is sometimes invisible in the funding world but is absolutely essential to the community outcome that we’re really after. How I think of myself has been profoundly changed by the experiences that I have had others in my community through the years. I have discovered personal gifts that I never suspected were there and were only revealed when I was in relationship with other people who valued what I had to offer and was in a situation that required me to give and grow that gift. Yes, required. Possibly because I was the one in the room with a missing piece of a bigger puzzle, and that doing something I cared about meant that I needed to move to the edge of my comfort zone and do something that I didn’t think I could do. The imagining, planning, organizing and leading up to the product part – what some would describe as the process part – was where a lot of the growth happened for me, with the importance of the product – the cleaned up park, the community event, the neighborhood newspaper, the success at the City Council meeting – as fuel the reward at the end.
I have also been changed because I have seen people reveal amazing gifts that I never suspected were there because I was not aware of the judgements about who they were or what they could do that were clouding my vision. Again, more learning about myself as I was learning more about others.
And, I have been changed by the joy that has helped manage the growing pains of becoming who I am supposed to be – joy that was only there because I was in relationship with others.
I don’t think of myself as a confident person, perhaps because confident, to me, comes close to cocky. But I know – only because of my experiences with my neighbors – that I have something to offer in spite of my flaws, that I don’t have to have all of the answers, and that any moment might be the moment when I will discover something thrilling about the people around me. I know how to get something going and how to join in when something is already going – and, using my grassroots grantmaking jargon, see myself as an active citizen and someone who has power that is magnified when I connect with others who share the space that I call community.
As I think more about the young woman who announced herself as an outcome, I can say “yes – you go girl!” instead of “oh no”. Even though she might have gone in one door to have something fixed, she came out with something else – a fire inside that ignited her courage to be in that room with us and stand up to proclaim that she is powerful in words that she thought we would appreciate and understand – “I am an outcome”. She was on another path but we ended in at a similar destination.
So when you ask me about product or process, let me ask you:
- Are we starting from the same place, with the shared belief that the ultimate product that we are after is community vibrancy, resiliency and justice?
- How do you think about yourself as an outcome? And what experiences (or processes) along the way have been really important for shaping how you think about yourself?
- If you’re a funder, are you thinking about the learning by doing part of what you are funding as product-generating, or looking for what you consider to be shorter routes to your desired end?
- If you are investing in fixing people doors, how are you also looking out for changing people’s narrative opportunities that may also be inside those doors but are hidden away – just because people think that you’re not interested in that type of product?
And, as always, I welcome your comments both on and offline. Weigh in here or connect with me directly via email.
This blog was first published on Janis’ blog, Big Thinking on Small Grants