Grassroots organizations emerged as heroes during first the Covid pandemic and then during the
civic upheaval triggered by the murder of George Floyd and the election of two Democratic
Senators from Georgia.
Now, the word is that the grassroots are the magic ingredient to solving community violence.
Funders want to partner with them.
This is fantastic.
This is tough to pull off.
In our work as consultants to funders, nonprofits, and grassroots, we watch grassroots leaders
navigate the unfamiliar territory of funders. We watch foundation staff try to build relationships.
THIS IS WHAT WE THINK
Show respect for the insights and connections of grassroots leaders.
Grassroot leaders are the source of critical information about important players, particularly the
non-traditional ones. They know who sets the decision-making table. They know who needs to
be kept in the loop and part of meetings with political, civic, religious, and philanthropic leaders.
I don’t want nobody nobody sent. Grassroots leaders open doors. They can invite you to private
meetings. They know local history.
Be intentional in sharing power.
Funders begin the dance with more power because they have the money. This can cause deep
resentment, thus sabotaging any connections, unless foundation staff takes action to share power.
There are simple steps. Begin with naming the power each side brings to the table. Build
consensus around goals for change. Draft a common narrative. Commit to a certain length of
time for the group. Create equal roles of leadership.
Every meeting should level the playing field. Begin with introductions. Schedule meetings to
alternate between grassroots and establishment sites. Build in “feedback time.”
The tougher challenges are more elusive. Can we work together for the greater good? Create a
safe environment to have an honest, open, transparent conversation? Be open to the engagement
process that may take multiple conversations?
Know that partnering with people who follow different rules makes everyone uneasy.
To begin with, rules around accountability are different.
A grassroots leader is accountable to the people of the community where he or she works and
often lives. Successful leaders seek action from public institutions like City Hall and the police.
They are not afraid to call out the hypocrisy of public figures.
In contrast, funders are responsible to a Board of Directors who function as stewards of its
mission and finances. This Board of Directors rarely wants to jeopardize the foundation’s
connections to powerful civic and political leaders.
Decision-making cultures differ. Funders like it clean. The wisdom of well-established protocols
guides the work. They appreciate polite discord and well-organized discussions. Foundations
rarely have a sense of urgency and may wait months to make funding decisions.
To funders, grassroots can look messy. Websites go up and down. Board governance policies
and audits are missing. Grassroots leaders are close to the community and are compelled to move
quickly with a loud voice when the moment calls for action.
One way to bridge differences is to prepare for joint meetings with pre-meeting coaching and
post-meeting debriefings. Who is going to be there? Why were they invited? What is on the
formal agenda? Does anything need to be prepared ahead of time? And afterwards, what really
happened? Who accomplished what? What was the significance?
Listen with mind wide open. Ask questions. Seek to clarify when a statement is confusing.
Read the room. Pay attention to body language, tones, facial expressions, side conversations, and
level of attentiveness.
Say aloud that systemic racism makes an enormous difference.
One of the consequences of the United States history of systemic racism is that Black,
Indigenous, and Latino/a leaders rarely have wealthy donors or an endowment. Managing day to
day operations on a shoestring budget is stressful.
Well established funders acknowledge this history. However, from our experience, some of these
leaders are quick to take offense when challenged.
Start by examining the lens by which you view and value others who have had different lived
Many foundations are engaging outside professionals to guide them through their own Diversity,
Equity, and Inclusion assessments. Good assessments almost always make people feel
uncomfortable. Be ready for it.
There are perfectly good reasons for being suspicious.
Grassroots leaders feel betrayed when funders hold out the promise of resources and then give the money to trusted white led organizations. They complain that funders micro-manage the process rather than freeing up those closest to the problems to implement the right strategies and that they are rarely willing to invest in administration and overhead.
Funders point to bad experiences when investing in grassroots prematurely.
Funders take a huge step forward in building trust when they simplify grantmaking and provide
funding upfront. Most grassroots operate with a bare infrastructure, so they have neither
specialized grant-writers nor money to invest in starting-up a project. Make it easy.
Grassroots need the invitation to be honest about things going wrong. Problems happen. But no
funder wants to be surprised.
Both grassroots and funders bank trust when they reach out to each other to ask for opinions on
certain approaches, on specific problems that might be controversial. This is not about getting
permission; this is about tapping into wisdom.
Commit for the long-haul.
Changing the game- because that is why trying to build a more equitable partnership is- takes
time and people get discouraged. So, start conversations early about what success looks like.
Set expectations with Boards, staff, and community leaders.
Quietly build individual relationships, staff to staff, leader to leader. The personal is powerful.
One way to begin the work is to seek out a grassroots leader who will give you feedback as you move forward on this journey.
We have learned that foundations who truly respect grassroots organizations- what they say, who they know, how they operate- are most effective at moving change forward. This is a journey worth taking.
— Roberta Rakove, Suzanne Strassberger, and Debra Wesley.