The term “grassroots” is said a lot in philanthropy, but when we use it to describe certain nonprofit organizations, what does it really mean? The focus of a recent Program Team discussion at PFS, our collective feeling is that—while highly diverse in infrastructure, mission, and impact—when we say grassroots, we’re usually referring to organizations where local people work together to find solutions to issues in their community. Grassroots often also implies a degree of community organizing, for example, mobilizing residents, engaging with policymakers and elected officials, or aligning with other community-based partners such as schools, faith-based organizations, healthcare providers, and more.
From a foundation point of view, grassroots organizations can be some of the most creative, attuned, and responsive players in a community. At the same time, funders may be presented with certain challenges in funding grassroots organizations because they tend not to look, function, or communicate quite like larger, more established peers in the nonprofit sector. They may have fewer resources and less organizational hierarchy—sometimes volunteer-dependent with few, if any, paid staff—operating with small budgets and significant demand for their programs and services. Some may be new, in a pilot phase, or fiscally-sponsored, and they may have very little, if any, foundation support.
For some funders, this can translate into a degree of risk when considering an investment in a grassroots organization. Yet their potential for impact can also be magnified, since grassroots nonprofits are grounded in local participation to address the unique needs of the community.
In my former role as CEO of the Latino Community Foundation from 2007 to 2014, I led an equity process whereby we dug into the question of funding smaller, “grassroots organizations” and ultimately, we reinvented our grantmaking strategy. As a funder, we were dedicated to supporting community solutions and improving outcomes for the Latino community, particularly children and families. In my first round of grantmaking it became clear that smaller organizations, which often need more support, had fewer funders. In speaking with the leaders of several organizations, we learned that that they routinely receive the smallest share of philanthropic dollars from foundations. Driven by a shared commitment to operationalize equity and be highly responsive to community needs, we made the decision to invert the equation: providing larger grants to smaller organizations and smaller grants to large organizations that have broader, more established bases of support.
Making this shift successfully required that we, as a foundation, had the internal resources and capacity to identify and understand the smaller organizations that were having an outsized impact on the populations we sought to support. Our grants were also smaller than many foundations—typically $10,000 to $25,000—and we saw firsthand that these amounts had greater meaning for smaller organizations; so, while we were motivated to help grassroots organizations grow and thrive, simultaneously, we hoped that our grants would be consequential.
In one such investment, we made a $25,000 grant to The Latina Center in Richmond, which originated in 2000 out of Executive Director Miriam Wong’s own living room as a peer support program for Latina women. Heavily volunteer-driven, The Latina Center embodies the qualities of a grassroots organization and has leveraged the dedication of its founder and the trust of its community to provide a powerful array of services while empowering individuals as leaders in the Richmond community. Back in 2008, they were able to leverage the $25,000 we provided from the Latino Community Foundation and approach Chevron (headquartered in their backyard) to secure an additional $50,000 grant, propelling their growth and credibility with other supporters.
Today, The Latina Center continues to improve the quality of life and health for residents, and receives support from dozens of other foundation, corporate, government, and individual donors. Among them is the Morris Stulsaft Foundation, a PFS client that has been dedicated to the well-being of Bay Area children and youth since 1953.
What I learned from funding The Latina Center and other grassroots organizations is that we may need to adapt our thinking and approaches to maximize the impact we’re all aiming to achieve. This can mean adjusting the due diligence process—knowing it may look different and could be challenging, as these organizations may not track and share the kinds of information foundations routinely request. It may require different skills and language abilities, ensuring for example that program staff can speak the language(s) used in the target communities. Often, it requires a bit of risk tolerance and the willingness to give a large grant that represents a higher proportion of the grantee’s operating budget, in order to propel them forward.
Here at PFS, supporting grassroots organizations, especially those that are smaller, can provide opportunities for foundation staff to engage more deeply. That may mean advocating not only for project support, but also for operating grants that allow for flexibility to strengthen capacity and impact. Being more hands-on and bringing foundation board members actively into the due diligence process can be especially helpful and an important educational experience for all involved. Ultimately, together, we hope to maximize the impact of these philanthropic investments and ignite the potential of these essential players in the nonprofit ecology.