Since the Make It Your Own grant period officially ended in 2009, grantees have been working in their communities to implement their projects. But did they finish? And what did they learn? Equally important, what did the Case Foundation learn from this entire process?
To find out, the Foundation commissioned Peter Levine, Ph.D., director of the Center for Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, to design and issue an academically rigorous survey and review the data the Foundation had been collecting at every phase of this process. Peter Deitz of Social Actions helped design and conduct the technology component of the evaluation, and Cynthia Gibson, Ph.D., the author of Citizens at the Center, weaved it all together and examined how grantees progressed with the approach.
Of specific interest to the Case Foundation was whether the MIYO process, grants, and other benefits to the applicants had positive effects and, especially, had helped to support high-quality citizen-centered work that would not have occurred without the MIYO initiative. The data collected in this evaluation has also had the additional benefit of providing an unprecedented picture of citizen-centered efforts occurring in America—information that had previously been difficult to obtain and that will be of considerable use to the field.
Data for the evaluation include all 4,641 original applications; peer reviewers’ ratings of those applications; surveys (including both short-answer and open-ended questions) completed by approximately 477 of the applicants; observations at an in-person grantees meeting in Baltimore, MD; reports by grantees; and interviews of selected applicants and grantees and their community partners. These various forms of evidence were combined into one rich dataset so that investigators could determine relationships among different variables.
The Make It Your Own Grants
- Two years after the grants were awarded, 80 percent of grantees were still highly engaged with their projects and said that they planned to continue to build on them, indicating that the MIYO was able to provide a solid foundation for this work.
- More than half the MIYO grantees had achieved concrete and significant outcomes at the two-year mark, among them:
- Replication of the citizen-centered model used in Dunn County, Wisconsin in other communities across the country and Canada (Dunn County Community Visioning).
- Passage of a charter amendment mandating a citizen participation initiative in New Orleans and that the city may subsidize; there will also be a chapter on citizen participation included in the master plan for the city (Citizen Participation).
- Public recognition and “100 percent support” from the police department in one New York City community for a project to convene police officers and community citizens; it started slowly but now, some of the project’s most committed participants are NYPD officers (Conversations for Change).
- Statewide participation in an online community-building project in Vermont, which now has 20,000 users and more than 100,000 postings—accomplishments that were recently featured in Yankee magazine (Front Porch Forum).
- Presentations to Philadelphia’s Department of Health and Human Services about the approach being used by a youth-led initiative that works with young people in the juvenile justice system to reintegrate into their communities. It has also just created a similar effort focused on young people in the foster care system (Juveniles 4 Justice).
- The creation of four committees—one of which is now part of local government—and requests to partner with other community organizations in convening residents to identify and take action in addressing environmental problems in several Florida neighborhoods. Recently, Good Magazine and a local college of art and design partnered with one committee to run a campaign to encourage students to design new solutions to the community’s water problems (Summit for Environmental Action).
- Expansion of an effort to recruit young people from Chicago’s southwest side to address community issues using social media and hip hop music. In its first year, the effort reached 400 community residents who took part in the project’s activities. The first class of young leaders also agreed to assume leadership in raising funds needed to financially sustain the project (Leaders of the New School).
- Raising money for and building a community pavilion and holding public conversations that led to the establishment of a new organization to “boost up the scale”of green activities in nine towns in Massachusetts. That network persuaded seven town governments in the region to join together to be certified by the State of Massachusetts as a “green community”—a designation that allows the community to compete for a portion of a pool of state money for renewable energy projects (Hands Across North Quabbin).
- In northwest Washington, hundreds of residents, health and community group leaders, government officials, and businesses held several convenings that led to the creation of an action plan addressing a health issue citizens identified as important: improving supports and service provision for children and youth with special health care needs [CYSHCN]. This has led to a new organization—Taking Action for CYSHCN—which now has four action groups, a development team, and a coordinating council that continue to use the citizen-centered approach in all its efforts (Making Health Our Own).
- While the stories that stem from the Make It Your Own projects are inspirational, so are the numbers. From the Top 20 projects…
- More than 800 community meetings were held with over 5,500 participants.
- More than 1,500 action projects took place with more than 3,300 participants.
- Nearly 20,000 individuals were engaged in some aspect of the projects.
- Over 600 collaborative partners were involved.
- Within two years of grant awards,three projects had ended or been forced to close, due largely to the inability of the original leaders to continue serving in that capacity. Also, the Foundation was unable to locate one of the Top 20 projects.
- Other challenges faced by MIYO grantees at the end of two years were county and local budget cuts (which grantees also viewed as opportunities to spur support for their efforts in the community); keeping people interested in the projects; language barriers; and funding (although this was not one that precluded them from moving forward).
- At the end of the one-year grant period, 13 out of 20 grantees (65%) considered themselves at an “advanced” level of citizen-centered work, compared to 11 grantees (or 55%) at the interim stage.
- The grant award enabled winners to conduct public meetings which otherwise may have not occurred. Winning a MIYO award allowed organizations to conduct public meetings that would otherwise have been too expensive or difficult. These meetings attracted diverse groups of people in communities where having opportunities to connect with fellow residents were relatively rare. Most grantees indicated that the meetings were quite productive, suggesting they have the potential to serve as a foundation for ongoing work in these communities after the grant period ends.
- People who participated in MIYO projects believed this participation would increase their civic engagement in the future. MIYO winners were more likely to report that the people they had recruited to participate in their community-based projects said this participation had increased their interest in “doing more” for their communities, now and in the future.
- Even though only 20 projects received funding, a majority of the 4,641 MIYO applicants moved their projects forward. Of those, 28 percent started what was proposed , eight (8) percent completed what was proposed, and 19 percent went beyond what was proposed. Only 18 percent of all applicants reported that they hadn’t done anything.
- Applicants generally liked the grant process, especially learning about the concept and having the chance to describe what they planned to do in that area. Among applicants, the highest-rated aspects of the grant program were learning more about the citizen-centered engagement approach and being given the opportunity to flesh out their projects in more detail via the online application form. Nearly half the applicants (46%) said that what they’d heard and learned about the citizen-centered process was very helpful to the work they did or are doing on their projects. For some of these applicants, the concept was completely new; for others, it “filled gaps” in their knowledge and was “exciting because it completely fits” with what they were already doing.
- The overall applicant pool was not especially strong in terms of its reflection of “citizen-centered” efforts as defined by Citizens at the Center. Despite the Foundation’s efforts to include definitions of this concept in all its materials—including grant guidelines, website announcements, and the applications themselves—applicants tended to interpret the phrase as synonymous with community service, volunteering, and/or “effective or fair delivery of services to citizens,” rather than with community problem-solving that involves citizens.
- The MIYO winners, however, did reflect the citizen-centered concept, suggesting that using a combination of both experts and external reviewers at the final stages of the effort to score and assess proposals was effective in surfacing projects that best illustrated the concept.
The Make It Your Own Citizen-Centered Philanthropy Process
- The public voting process was the least popular aspect of the process. Many applicants felt it was “unfair” and/or “overly time consuming.” Some applicants felt it was biased in favor of projects in large cities or was a “popularity contest” for “projects that were able to mobilize supporters to vote for them.”
- Still, respondents believed the public voting helped expose voters to the concept and practice of citizen-centered approaches, due to the Foundation’s extensive efforts to publicize the initiative. During the voting portion of the process, the Foundation’s website received approximately 45,000 unique visits to the online ballot, with more than 60,000 votes cast by 15,232 individuals (each individual was required to vote for four projects).
- MIYO winners embodied the citizen-centered approach that the Foundation stipulated at the beginning of this process. While this may seem obvious, it wasn’t necessarily a result that was anticipated at the onset of the process, given the nuances of the citizen-centered concept, the difficulty many applicants had with understanding it, the use of nearly 100 external reviewers who were not professional grantmakers; and the Foundation’s decision to “let go” of most control in these decisions. The result, however, underscores how criteria and guidelines developed by people outside a Foundation can be as strategic and rigorous as those created by people associated with administering the program.
The Technology and Tools
- Applicants welcomed the opportunity to learn about and experiment with online tools the Foundation offered such as the fundraising widgets, but didn’t experience immediate success with them. Only 33 of the Top 100 finalists received a donation through their respective widget in addition to the $100 that the Foundation provided to jump start their online fundraising effort. The most successful finalist used their widget to raise a total of $1,219 from 23 donors—well below the $10,000 that each of the Top 20 projects received from the Foundation.
- Grantees did not feel that the various opportunities provided to them by the Foundation, including widgets and social media trainings, were really optional. As one grantee noted, s/he felt that they had to post a video once that opportunity was offered. This was largely due to grantees’ fears of disappointing funders because “they are gods,” as one said.
- Still, 35 percent of the MIYO winners and 20 percent of the non-winners said the fundraising widget and other online tools were somewhat or very helpful in ways other than raising funds. Although the Case Foundation did not provide online tools for project management (e.g., recruiting volunteers, discussions, etc.), many MIYO applicants used the online tools for these tasks and/or sought them out, suggesting their exposure to these then-new concepts were helpful in encouraging deeper experimentation with other online resources, particularly among winners.
- Survey respondents and interviewees said “not having enough time” was the primary reason they didn’t make more use of the technology tools. Respondents were almost unanimous in viewing technology as more, not less, time-consuming.
- Email and simple web pages were still the most effective and used methods for applicants and winners to engage with their supporters. Many applicants continued to rely on more traditional forms of technology-driven outreach such as websites and emails as the primary ways in which they communicated with participants in their projects.
- Since the grant period ended, the majority of MIYO grantees continue to use the Internet to advance their projects. Although this use still consists largely of emails and web pages as indicated above, nearly three-quarters of survey respondents indicated they had used technology to communicate with their supporters since the MIYO Awards.
The citizen-centered concept is difficult to explain, even with “real life” examples. This suggests the need for more marketing and communications strategies that are sharper and more resonant not only with those already working in this area, but also with a broader public.
It takes money to help organize and hold public meetings, which are at the core of community-based citizen-centered work ...
… but it doesn’t take a lot of money. The MIYO grant awards were relatively small, which allowed grantees to hold at least one public meeting that helped lay a foundation for future efforts. With several of these kinds of small grants sustained over a longer time period, it’s highly likely that this work could gain the traction it needs to become embedded in communities.
Small grants can also help lay a foundation for sustained work in communities. An analysis of MIYO winners’ progress one year after the grant period ended found that 80 percent of them had not only continued their efforts, but had taken steps to build on them by acquiring additional funding or partners and/or replicating their efforts in other communities.
The online tools the Foundation provided didn’t help grantees as much as it anticipated. Most of the grantees didn’t use the technology tools provided by the Foundation. Although grantees were interested in the widgets, for example, they found them almost completely unsuccessful in helping to raise money for their projects.
Online tools (including widgets) and technology overall need to be developed carefully and with an eye toward grantees’ capacity for understanding and using them. Results indicate that despite the numerous training opportunities and help resources provided, without adequate incentives, and time to absorb these new skills, most people will tend to rely on what they know—in this case, emails and websites.
The technology-related results should be considered in context. The MIYO process occurred at a time when social networking was still relatively nascent. If the MIYO process were launched today—when social networks have become more essential to individuals and organizations—these results would probably be different, given that applicants would be more likely to have networks in place and “ready to respond” when they posted a widget or fundraising appeal.
The process needs to be simplified. The MIYO process was extremely complex with several steps, trainings, protocols, and requirements, all in a very short timeframe. This left many applicants feeling overburdened and at times frustrated.
Online voting should be fair and simple. Voters should be required to pick more than one winner, and incentives need to be provided to encourage voters to think more about all the projects, rather than to play favorites. It also helps to randomize the order in which candidates appear on the lists, as well as to use the same tone and amount of space to showcase them. Overall, the fewer clicks, the better.
The process must include both real people and experts. While external reviewers and public voters were instrumental to this process, so were the leaders and experts the Foundation used to help decide on the Top 20 (from the Top 100 that was selected by external reviewers) that would be put forward for the final vote. Their insights, experience, and knowledge were essential to bring rigor and depth to the process, as well as shape it in ways that would help the overall field.
Participatory philanthropy has gained traction. Although the Case Foundation can’t take credit for inventing this concept, there are clear indicators that the efforts it undertook to design and publicize the MIYO program, the publication of Citizens at the Center, and the online voting process helped push it forward within the larger philanthropic community. Since 2006 when the Foundation began work on this issue, the number of philanthropic institutions, corporations, community groups, and other organizations using an online, participatory approach to philanthropy.
There are marked differences, however, in how institutions employ participatory philanthropy. Some institutions prepare a slate of candidates and ask the public to vote on who should win. Others involve the grant-seeking public in preparing that slate and even the criteria on which applicants should be assessed. Still others retain the right to decide which groups, if any, should be disqualified. That has led to discussions about what, exactly, participatory philanthropy means and how/when it can be used most effectively in meeting funding goals.