Refreshing Your Inner Grantmaker

I recently returned from an enlightening trip to Detroit with Forward Cities, a four-city learning collaborative involving more than one hundred professionals from foundations, nonprofits, government, and business. This unusual initiative is being spearheaded by Chris Gergen, CEO of Forward Impact and Denise Byrne, Executive Director of Friends of New Orleans, with support from the Aspen Institute, the Urban Institute, Issue Media Group and many national and regional partners and funders. The two-year collaboration is focused on spurring inclusive entrepreneurship in urban Detroit, New Orleans, Durham, and Cleveland.

Detroit was the second stop on Forward Cities' multi-city tour, following the New Orleans convening held last December. Each city's host council shares its successes and challenges and all cities compare notes based on their own experiences supporting a spectrum of entrepreneurial activities ranging from grass roots to high tech. During our whirlwind days in Detroit, we visited business accelerators, a food market and test kitchen, a tech transfer center, abandoned manufacturing plants, neighborhoods riddled with blight, and neighborhoods where hope resides on every corner.

I have participated in many types of learning collaboratives and one-off trips to other cities, but the richness and impact of this experience is unparalleled.  The intensity of this shared exploration coupled with joint problem solving among dynamic change makers is creating a rich texture of experience that kicks one's sense of purpose from its everyday norm to a significantly higher plain.  At the table in the individual cities and on visits to host cities, the voices are new and chemistry empowering.  Horizons are expanded, problems are viewed from unusual angles, ideas are blended, friendships are forged, and challenges unstuck.  This magic occurs because many people from different cities, backgrounds, and types of organizations come together to listen, share, and most of all, understand. 

We have much work to do to attain the lofty goals of the collaboration, but the energy and creativity spawned along the way are worth all the effort.  What can foundation professionals learn from this experience?  The strength of foundations' grantmaking can be greatly enhanced by generating the kinds of conversations that gather the voices of many and facilitate real dialogue--the kind that generates meaning making, greater self-awareness, and creative solutions. When I look back on this experience in the years to come, I expect I will view it as a watershed moment--a time when old views were cast aside and a completely new way of thinking took up residence. 

It would be pretty easy to get complacent in the grantmaking world, processing cycle upon cycle of grants proposals.  Just as we take care of our own spiritual well-being, we need to attend to our "inner grantmaker."  Every funder needs to have these experiences that literally yank them from their normal work-a-day world and propel them into another dimension that turns the world on its head and allows them to see their goals and strategies in a fresh light.  Indeed, we should demand and seek out these experiences whenever possible!  This is the stuff that keeps us engaged and impactful.  It reminds us why we were drawn to philanthropy in the first place.