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Supporting Community Entrepreneurship: What’s Money Got to do With It?

This past week I had the opportunity to attend a meeting in Detroit sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation called “Building Networks for Change”, #BNFC13. The meeting explored a number of important themes that included community organizing, advocacy and racial justice. I was excited that one of the site visit was to the Detroit Community Connections Grant Program, a program we have written about in earlier blogs as an innovative approach to leadership development…one worthy of our attention. The Detroit Community Connections Grant Program is administered by Prevention Network and funded by an innovative funding arrangement between The Skillman Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The opportunity to see this program up close only strengthened my conviction and understanding of the unique value of their approach. Social entrepreneurship as a concept has been popularized in the past couple of decades by programs like Ashoka and Echoing Green that focus on young people with new ideas for producing social innovation that are supported to launch programs or projects that often become non-profit organizations. As I visited the Detroit Community Connections Grant Program, I found myself thinking about the idea of community entrepreneurs, people deeply rooted in their communities with neighbors, networks and constituents who are ready to be part of change. 


The notion that people closest to a problem are the ones who are most likely to come up with effective solutions is not new, but we are still young in our learning about what works. In the past, we have profiled Lawrence Community Works for their gains with a neighborhood network strategy. We have also profiled the Leadership in Action Program for a leadership strategy that contributes to school readiness through skills building and processes that create commitment and alignment among a broad group of stakeholders. I would like to add into the mix, the importance of dollars, i.e. getting financial resources into the hands of community innovators, after a compelling presentation by grantee recipients of the Community Connections Grant Program. 

The Detroit Community Connections Grant Program, recruits a panels of people from the community who are provided some basic training and then preside over requests from members of their community who submit proposals for small grants of $500 - $5,000 to support innovative grassroots and youth focused projects.  We were hosted by Clave, a cultural center that had received a grant to help support a community art gallery and cultural center in Southwest Detroit. We also heard a number of inspiring stories from other grant recipients. For example, one grantee particularly interested in community enterprise started a bike repair business and was training young people in bike repair while another grantee started a fathering class for young men called Young Fathers Standing. One young mother Kim, could not find good after school options for her children and realized her neighbors had similar issues so she started caring for them in her own home. She applied for a grant to expand her work to offer more options for more kids. One young artist started an organization called Young Nation that has a sign business and an art project referred to as The Alley for young street artists. 

Each of these Community Connections grantees talked about how they had been able to fill gaps in their community with these very modest grants that in some cases enabled them to leverage additional resources. The afterschool program run by Kim expanded from 20 to over 100 kids. These projects have a more sustainable impact because they were ideas that came out of the community, and with community support. The grantees themselves are invited to gatherings to learn from and support each other and have become their own network in Southwest Detroit.

When the Community Connection’s grantees who spoke with us were asked if they thought of themselves as leaders, they smiled humbly and talked about their passion for the work they were doing with others to make their community better for everyone. They have all involved others from their community in taking action to make sure that their kids and neighbors’ kids have good options or that young people could earn money painting signs. Lisa Leverette, the Executive Director of the Community Connections Grant Program, emphasized the point that people were getting a lot done with very little resources. Most of the folks we heard from would not have been able to get traditional funding streams and yet for community entrepreneurs, these very small grants have made a big difference in the community.

When we talk about supporting leadership we can’t forget that support does not just mean skills. Support means getting resources, yes money, to people who have plenty of skills already, plenty of passion and lots of ideas about how to make things better. The Community Connections Grant Program works on many levels as a leadership development program. It supports the leadership of the community panel that reviews, vets and provides feedback on every proposal; the community entrepreneur who takes the initiative to craft their idea into a proposal; and the people who join together to bring these new solutions and innovations to life.


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