Table for Two: Moving Ideas Into Action

September 12, 2019 by On the Table NLN

Through On the Table, we know that residents come together, discuss challenges and opportunities in their communities, as well as ideas for how to make the place that they live better. But… what comes next? For many Foundations, the answer has been action grants – cash awards ranging in size to help move ideas from the table into action. In this “Table for Two” feature, we sit down with Kelli Parker (KP), director of grants and community partnerships at the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley and Adam Feralio (AF), project manager at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. They share more about why their Foundations decided to fund these ideas – and how it has impacted their On the Table initiative.

What prompted you to implement an awards program coming out of On the Table conversations?

KP: In year one, we really wanted to place a strong emphasis on the act of coming together and the potential for new connections and relationships. However, we had seen action grants successfully implemented in other cities and we knew after year one that the ideas were out there. Even without the action grants, we saw individuals and groups put ideas to action as a result of their On the Table conversations. After hearing from the community that there was a desire for another year of On the Table conversations, we knew we would be doing Action Grants. We felt that for many, the only thing standing between them and implementation of their idea were the resources, which we had. And though the grants were small investments, we knew they could help people in our community make a big impact.

AF: For the past two years, we have held a convening of On the Table MKE hosts to foster more connectivity and gather feedback about the initiative. At the first of these convenings, hosts shared that they wanted more tools to move their conversations from ideas into tangible action. In Milwaukee, there’s also a strong desire to move beyond just talking about community issues. We responded to this by implementing our “Ideas to Action” funding opportunity. 

How did it work?

AF: We required that projects feature a new idea generated during an On the Table MKE discussion. Applicants had approximately three weeks from the day of On the Table MKE to submit their application. An advisory committee of community members and our Foundation’s donors and staff determined which  projects would receive funding. Awards ranged from $500 to $2,500. Recipients had a four month period with some flexibility to complete their projects. Following the completion of their project, they submitted a short written or video report and a final project budget. 

KP: We took a slightly different approach. Our second On the Table was held in late October of 2018, which happened to coincide with two other grantmaking programs that our Foundation was facilitating. Additionally, we believed having the data from the survey could be important both for applicants and our committee when investing the limited dollars we had available. For those reasons, we opted to launch the Action Grants after the holidays, at the same time we shared the survey data. Organizations and individuals could apply for grants of up to $2,000 and we had up to $20,000 available to award. We received several applications and were able to fund 12 projects. The projects were required to be short-term, so recipients have from late April until September 30 to implement their projects.

Were you worried at all about people participating in On the Table only for the money? 

KP: Based on our conversations with other communities, we put a lot of thought into this particular question when planning our Action Grants for 2018. Ultimately, we decided to announce them after On the Table and at the same time we shared the survey data back to the community.

AF: For us, this wasn’t as much of a concern. If there’s anything we’ve learned from our On the Table MKE effort, it’s that our community is incredibly passionate about working toward positive change. With or without the money, people are going to be at the table pursuing what they feel is necessary for our community. Providing funding is one way we can support them.

KP: For 2019, we do plan to have Action Grants and we will begin accepting applications immediately following the close of the survey period. While we will share with those that inquire that we plan to host Action Grants again this year, the marketing campaign won’t begin until after On the Table. It is possible that some may participate just to be eligible to apply for an Action Grant; however, that is likely to be the exception and at the end of the day they are still participating in civic conversation, which is what we hope for.

How was the application different than your typical grant application at the Foundation?

AF: We streamlined the application in terms of length and questions asked, as well as put the application directly on our On the Table MKE website. We also opened up the funding opportunity to individuals in 2018. Having the option to submit a video report at the conclusion of the project was also a departure from our typical process. 

KP: Same here – the primary difference in this grant application was that individuals were eligible to apply. We felt that it was important in order to reinforce the message that it takes ALL us of to create the community we want to live in, and that one person can have an impact. And because we wanted individuals to feel encouraged to apply, we made the application very simple and asked for minimal information on the application form itself. The primary component of the application was a short video in which the applicant explained their project, how it came from their On the Table conversation and why they thought it was important for their community. The video component was successful in other cities and this was the first time we included it in any of our applications. In the end, we felt that it was successful and lowered the barrier for those wanting to apply without being intimated by a “grant application.” 

What was one stand-out winner from your awards?

KP: One particularly unique grant was to Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministry, Inc. for a community interfaith Iftar. Iftar is the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan. Members of two local mosques, Masjid al-Jannah and Masjid an-Nur, hosted the community interfaith Iftar for approximately 75 civic & religious leaders. Attendees worshipped together, shared the fast-breaking feast, and then had the opportunity for discussion. This event allowed people from a variety of faith traditions the opportunity to meet Muslim neighbors face-to-face in a way that aimed to increase interfaith understanding and cooperation.

AF: There were so many great projects, but one that really resonated with us was a bus tour coordinated by Carmen Schools of Science and Technology. (Photo above.) Carmen has schools spread across four campuses in Milwaukee – students at its north side campus are predominantly African American. Students at its south side campuses are predominantly Latino. Milwaukee remains one of the most racially and economically segregated metropolitan areas in the United States. Building on their initial On the Table MKE conversation, the tour served as a rare opportunity to connect African American and Hispanic youth living in segregated parts of the city, break down stereotypes and foster friendships.

What is one thing you would recommend to people thinking about implementing an action grants program coming out of their On the Table conversations?

AF: Implementing action grants or emphasizing action more generally has the potential to make subtle effects by framing these conversations as more of a means to an end versus a valuable end itself. Participants may also move more quickly through parts of the conversation that focus on personal reflection or grappling with root causes and systems in order to get to discussion about immediate next steps and actions they can take, individually or collectively. With this in mind, it’s important that the messaging and discussion materials for your community’s On the Table help balance the emphasis on action. 

KP: Have fun with it! Lower the barriers to entry as far as you can while still gathering useful information for your grants committee. Videos worked really well for us; you may come up with something even better. (And we’ll be watching!)

A variety of materials – applications, scoring forms, winners and more – are available by logging to the National Learning Network and searching for “Action Awards.”

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