Seeking Connoisseurs of Community
What was the moment your story began?
Spark Grants emerged out of The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation’s Be the Spark movement, launched in 2010 to inspire each other to take action and make our community a more positive, caring place to live. Community engagement, youth voice and youth-adult partnerships were critical components of the movement. In May 2011, the Community Foundation hosted a sold-out Be the Spark event at the Tacoma Dome that drew 15,000 people. Desmond Tutu—Nobel Peace Prize winner, world-renowned activist for human rights and justice and one of the most notable figures from the 20th century—was the keynote speaker. He shared a message that inspired and challenged each of us to see our community—and our role in it—differently.
Following the May 13, 2011 event, One Nation approached the Community Foundation to partner on Be the Spark efforts. One Nation — an initiative of philanthropist George F. Russell Jr. that sunsetted in December 2012 — was a philanthropic collaborative that partnered with community foundations in cities across America. These partnerships created localized civic engagement programs which connected diverse communities to work with common purpose for the common good.
The Community Foundation and One Nation, alongside an advisory committee, set out to explore different approaches to grantmaking. By gathering additional community input, researching grassroots grantmaking models and evaluating our core competencies and internal capacity, we narrowed the strategy to focus on a micro-grants program for individuals and small groups with great ideas on how to improve the Pierce County community.
Spark Grants is all about the power of individuals and small groups to create change, in ways that are meaningful to them and that help improve the community. “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu
How do you do your funding? How it is different from conventional philanthropy?
Spark Grants support grassroots community members. Since its inception, we’ve worked to build community voice into the process, since we see this as critical to the success of all our funding.When we think about funding in this area, the first step is really making sure we have a good group of applicants. We’ve done outreach by identifying grassroots leaders and connectors throughout Pierce County and providing them with tools to spread the word, like advertisements, PR, postcards/posters and personalized outreach to our networks.
To decide who gets funded, we have a volunteer committee comprised of a diverse set of community members that make recommendations. The committee reviews applications, meets the finalists and recommends the final Spark Grants for approval by the Foundation’s Board of Directors. An application connected to a non-profit isn’t excluded from Spark Grants eligibility, but will only move forward provided it is for a new, innovative initiative.
Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism when using this type of funding?
Spark Grants is about trusting the community to know what they need to make change. Because that is a broad idea, people familiar with traditional philanthropy can sometimes struggle with understanding the programmatic outcomes.The funded projects are quite varied. We’ve supported everything from a substance-free Super Bowl party for people recovering from alcohol addiction to an art project which connected residents to different perspectives of Tacoma through pictures and interviews to a community canning program to improve access to healthful foods. Each project is important in helping build social capital.
What we have learned during our first pilot year is people apply for a Spark Grant because they have an idea on how to engage with the community. Our investment legitimizes the project and provides resources for implementation. It is through the implementation that grantees build leadership skills and broaden their connections within the community.
Describe a challenge you feel has the most lessons for other funders, and what those lessons were.
Outreach was initially a challenge because it required knowing where to find grassroots leaders who had the time to carry out a Spark Grants project and who were not seeking funding for an established program or non-profit. We had to cast a wide net which just took quite a bit of time.Another challenge was ensuring we had the right due-diligence processes in place for giving funds to individuals. While we look for grassroots leaders who are not necessarily entrenched in traditional funding networks, it is still necessary to have some kind of assurance that they are trusted within the community.
Spark Grants has also attracted more business-oriented entrepreneurs who want to fund their socially oriented, but nonetheless for-profit start-ups which is outside of the funding criteria.
How does your funding practice affect the overall impact you are able to achieve?
When we work with individuals who have compelling, community-minded ideas, we see growth in leadership and social capital, as well as innovation and learning throughout the grant project. Spark Grant leaders develop networks they didn’t have before and realize resources in the community that they’d either previously overlooked or didn’t have access to because no one knew of their potential as a community organizer. Our support for new ideas through Spark Grants helps spread a culture of engagement which encourages people to take action in response to their own personal passions and the emerging needs in the community. This supports our funding at the organizational level by opening the field for new ideas and new leaders of all different kinds. Our organization strives for a more vibrant community; supporting increased engagement among individuals helps us achieve this impact.
What is the most important insight you gained specifically through funding in this way?
A significant insight we’ve gained from interviews with grant recipients following the completion of their projects is how the Spark Grant provides a meaningful ‘seal of approval’ from the Community Foundation. When a grassroots leader receives a grant, even if it is only $1,500, this signals to the rest of the community that the Community Foundation supports their effort and builds credibility and trust. We’ve seen that with the empowerment of a Spark Grant, grassroots leaders gain experience managing volunteers, coordinating logistics, and forging connections to sustain their projects into the future.Our advice to funders considering a similar strategy would be to trust that the community knows what it needs. Ideas that may not initially sound promising, once elaborated upon, can turn out to show a lot of promise.
What gift has Funding Start-Ups given your organization?
We believe that when people have opportunities to get to know one another and develop relationships, it creates stronger, more connected, neighborhoods and communities. The Spark Grants program is a way to build community capacity at the individual level. As a community foundation, we look at building community capacity at three levels: individuals, organizations and the broader community. Our Spark Grants program is important because it has positioned us to provide multi-dimensional support that is outside of what people think of as traditional approaches to philanthropy.