Working Through the Community
I wanted to respond to the issue of foundations and their role as conveners of community planning meetings. I don't believe I was very clear in my last message. I do think that an important distinction can be made between the limited act of convening a meeting and actually "running the show". When I went off on my rant about program officers having the resources to convene these types of forums - I never intended that to mean that it would be advisable for them to develop their own agendas and govern the proceedings (running the show). I don't think it wise to expect foundation staff to do this, especially with the type of forum we are discussing here. Apart from the basic power asymmetry mentioned by Andy below, there are some very practical reasons why it doesn't make sense. For example, funders often lack the localized knowledge and experience necessary to hold their own in a discussion oriented toward concrete, sustainable change in a specific community.
Having said that, I think it makes a lot of sense for foundations to convene meetings. We all recognize that large foundations have a tremendous amount of influence. Indeed, Prue Brown has made this point on countless occasions. I remember him saying this as far back as 1992 at a conference called Building Strong Communities, sponsored by the Casey Foundation. There are lots of roles that foundations can play in influencing social change. They can help get issues on the national policy agenda (what I think we are doing here), they can support institutions that become advocates for change, test new change strategies and develop new knowledge that informs the change process, develop the infrastructure and leadership in a field to accelerate its development, attempt to influence public attitudes, and inform the policymaking process. The fact that many have not effectively done so in the past should not preclude our expectation that it be done in the future.
Prue Brown's paper along with Andy's comments speak to the character of the relationship between a funder and the community group(s) seeking support. Again, I don't question the fact that this type of relationship can be very asymmetric. My point is that convening a meeting, where people with diverse interests and perspectives, representing a variety of constituencies come together, needn't be subject to this dynamic. I believe that it is possible for foundations to convene community forums where the program officers are not seated at the head of the room, running the discussion, and effectively blocking progress because everybody in the room is treating the affair like a bidder's conference.
Setting aside the fairly narrow issue of how you run the meeting, I think that a foundation taking the lead at convening this type of meeting makes sense politically. Think of it this way. What other institutions in this society have the power and influence to convene a single meeting comprised of grass roots leadership, local government officials, and national experts? Maybe I lack imagination, but when I do this exercise, I end up with a pretty short list.