Convening Community Change Efforts - Lessons for Funders

Submitted by Liz Weaver on February 27, 2013 - 8:25am
Starting right can lead to success

Across the Vibrant Communities, many funding partners have stepped up to the plate as conveners of community change efforts to reduce poverty.  Typically, these include community foundations, United Ways, and municipal governments.  There are many advantages to having an important community player as convener of the community change effort - they can bring others to the table, they are stable organizations with good reputations and they often have the resources that can help support the initiatives through the early stages of development.  

GEO Partners has recently published a Briefing Paper for grantmakers and their role in convening social change called Great Power, Great Responsibility.  They recognize that convening takes a particular set of skills, values and resources and that there can be some risk involved to the funder/grantmaker is the community change effort is not successful. 

The briefing paper is broken down into three sections:  starting off strong, bringing the right people to the table at the right time, and implementing smartly.  Keys to starting off strong include:

  • Make sure the goals and purpose for convening are clear
  • figure out what role you will play
  • think of progress incrementally
  • be sensitive to the big picture of context and timing

These are wise recommendations.  Too often organizations dive into community change without understanding the landscape and community conditions and without determining upfront how they hope to both contribute to and benefit from the community change effort.  It is also important, as we have learned from Collective Impact, to establish the boundaries for the change effort and for the grantmaker. 

Bringing the right people to the table at the right time recommends that conveners go beyond the usual suspects to get a better understanding of both the complexity of the problem and also the capacity of the community to respond.  Embedded in this is embracing diversity and using convening as an opportunity to build capacity within the community. 

The final part of the briefing paper tackles strategies to implement convening smartly.  This includes the use of skilled facilitators to support the process and providing appropriate resources to ensure success,

In the early stages of development the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction (HRPR), the conveners reflected on their Leadership and Lessons (we have attached this paper below.  The HRPR was co-convenved by the Hamilton Community Foundation and the City of Hamilton and had a prominent business leader as the chair of the Roundtable.  There were many challenges facing this leadership team including skepticism that a city could move the needle on a complex issue like poverty.  Through their collective aspiration to have the issue of poverty owned by the whole community, they were able to get widespready buy in and move forward significant change. 

GEO partners, in developing this briefing paper, has provided some useful guidelines for the role of funder/grantmaker as convener.  It is a challenging role with risk embedded in the role including both reputational risk and the risk of failing at something that is vexing the community.  But, that being said, it is also a critical role that funders/grantmakers can play in trying to move the needle on vexing community problems. 

Jay Connor in his Working Differently blog weighs in with a fifth key for funders interested in convening social change efforts to consider - their role as grantmakers in contributing to and leading the social change agenda.  Read his full blog here -

Your thoughts and comments are welcome as we invite you to join this interesting discussion. 



The delicate role of Funders

Liz, great post on the Lessons for Funders.  When we wrote our book, "Community Visions, Community Solutions" in 2003, we titled our chapter on this subject: The Power Delimma.  The four recommendations you cite from Geo Partners are key.  We would add a fifth: their grants can set the agenda for how issues will be addressed within a community.  The requirements that funders attach to their grants can have a significant effect on the way grantees address a problem. We gave an example of how two funders, tackling the same problem with different requirements, elicited very different -- nearly opposite -- responses from their respective communities.  With nearly as divergent results in solving the problem being addressed.

Bringing them all to the table

Good point Jay - it really speaks to having different funders around the same community planning table so that they can share in developing the common agenda (aspiration) and also determine how their funding can align with the community aspiration and change efforts. 

There has been the development of funders tables in Canada but they often exist separately from the community change efforts happening in communities.  Your comment and your insight in Community Visions, Community Solutions speaks to better integration between funders and community change efforts.  It's interesting to see how much this book was on the mark in 2003 and how it still resonates today with the focus on collective impact and communty change. 

Be intentional about Funder Engagement

Again, bang on Liz.  Our Working Differently experience in achieving community outcomes has almost always found funders collegial and intrigued, but also reticent to fully engage (certainly as a group). More often we see one or two funders around the table and that "checks the box" for funder participation. It would be like in an effort to improve early chldhood outcomes to be engaged with just a couple of the broad diversity of early childhood centers or schools in a community.

Where we have seen the most success is where there is clear intentionality on engaging the funder community as there is in engageing any other sector of the community.  Communities often find that they have as many misperceptions about funder roles and motivations as they do about any "new" partner.  As with any community collaborative engagement, you are not gonna get all of any sector from the beginning, but that doesn't mean you don't constantly evaluate yourselves on your outcomes of increasing funder participation over time.

The two cross-currents or "Traps" you are risking by not being intentional in broader funder engagement are: (1) an ownership risk (which I'll talk more about in a future blog) but for purposes here the risk simply stated is that the engagement of a single funder could give the impression that that one funder "owns the process" which we've seen as having on-going negative ramifications to engagement across your community; and (2) the narrowing of funding requirements, that I touched on in my first comment, which affect results.