Grantmaker’s Toolbox

Funders are always looking for concrete accomplishments from strategies they invest in. Literacy does not take a back seat to any other approach in producing measurable, positive and significant change. Beyond this, however, community literacy’s greatest contribution to low literate people is undoubtedly their ability to spark hope and facilitate poor people’s ability to imagine new possibilities for themselves and their communities.

The ability to read, write, comprehend, compute and problem solve are essential for every individual to succeed. Across the country communities are coming together to explore the benefits of collaboration around the critical issue of low literacy skills. The power of these collaboratives comes from the alignment of civic leadership, the funding community and the networks of service provision working together with a shared vision of 100% literacy through 100% community engagement.

Communities come together because they decide that literacy is essential:

  • for families to promote education and learning within the home
  • for children to succeed in school
  • for people to become employed, self-sufficient and climb a career ladder
  • for people to make informed decisions about civic, environmental and health issues
  • for people to navigate in this new information and technological era
  • for communities to combat the forces of poverty and crime
  • and for employers to grow their businesses

A good community literacy plan transforms not only individuals but whole communities over the years. It weaves and knits relationships that have been fragmented by isolation, politics and funding streams. Once a community embarks on a literacy organizing process power relationships are altered and new voices accountable to the community take places at the decision-making tables.

Following is a summary of key reasons that funders are investing in literacy.

Literacy is the baseline strategy for effective community revitalization.

Some grantmakers start with the premise that literacy is fundamental to revitalizing communities. Their “theory of change” says that no disadvantaged “community” can reach its potential unless its residents or constituents are fully engaged in determining what should be happening, and in leading the necessary change-oriented work to get it done – in short, the people need to be organized, skilled and powerful. In their view, literate residents transform distressed neighborhoods, empowering them to win concrete improvements in key areas like housing, education, jobs and the environment.

Literacy is a solution to the critical issue of poverty.

Some funders see literacy’s value in addressing the issue of poverty. They generally believe in the principle that “those who suffer the problems have the most to offer to its solutions.” They see and appreciate literacy service providers’ work in poor communities – often communities of color, where people of differing races and cultures are brought together in organizations for common struggle.

Literacy can affect change by building the capacity of people and groups working at the grassroots level.

More and more funders are working with literacy groups to build community capacities and to develop, recast or strengthen their grantmaking programs. The strategies of funders investing in literacy for the long term generally include grants to literacy coalitions or intermediaries to assist their grassroots grantees with organizational, leadership and constituency development processes.

Literacy can revitalize our democracy.

A number of funders find literacy a valuable strategy in seeking to help “repair the torn fabric” of our democracy. Literacy coalitions reflect and practice democracy – in their principles, in the way coalitions are structured and operate and in their continuing efforts to foster informed dialogue and build common, participatory efforts in their communities and among their constituents.

Literacy gets the best mileage for grant investments.

Small funders especially realize that, because of size limitations, their dollars can do only so much. They often look for catalytic effects from their grantmaking – resources attracted from other sources, partnerships formed, and leadership developed that can take on important challenges independent of the funders’ support, recognition from the broader public of the importance of the funded efforts, and so on. These funders appreciate how literacy groups inspire and rely on an unusually committed brand of volunteerism to get results, how far they stretch their dollars and how dedicated are their staffs. These funders distinguish literacy groups from other types of community efforts that deliver a service but do not work for change.

Community literacy coalitions are a long-term strategy that makes a significant difference.

Many funders are determined to support community literacy coalitions through thick and thin. They are convinced that the resolution of social problems requires years of sustained efforts to build the necessary community capacities and power to address them. They believe community literacy coalitions are the antidote for “quick-fix” projects or initiatives that do little good.

Be Realistic

Before forming a community literacy coalition grantmaking strategy, it is important to be clear about your foundation’s mandates, resources and limitations. In short, adopt a realistic sense of what might be accomplished with the amount of grant dollars available.

Yes, There are Risks

The confidence funders place in community literacy coalitions, especially fledgling ones, carries an element of risk. Instead of supporting “experts” to solve problems for communities, they are banking on the talents and commitment of ordinary people who have come together to create their community’s literacy plan. However, these funders also appreciate that the failure to build and bank on the communities’ own people and capacities has been a missing link in community change strategies.

Many of these funders recognize that most community groups are not representative of or accountable to their communities – they are not “community-based”as are community literacy coalitions. They appreciate that the task of developing and sustaining community literacy coalitions – where leadership from the community can be nurtured and “authentic” leadership can emerge – is a difficult one.

Community literacy coalitions is seen by some of these funders as the only capacity building strategy out there that prioritizes these essential community-base building and authentic leadership development objectives. As a result, their funding for community literacy is “patient” and long-term.

Funding Opportunities in the Literacy Field

Just as each foundation has many aspects that make it unique, each literacy group has particular needs. Funders new to literacy will need to determine how best to pick and choose among them.

Strategic funding initiatives by members of the philanthropic community could make a significant difference in helping literacy organizations make a real contribution to their communities and field. The list includes items below.

  1. Collaborative Projects. Includes support for collaborative efforts among literacy coalitions, other types of literacy organizations, experts in the field, universities and others similar to those that have contributed greatly to the growth of the community literacy field.
  2. Emerging Coalitions of Interest. Includes coalitions and supportive networks in large urban communities of color; rural communities; regional and statewide networks.
  3. Multiple-Year Core Support for Key National Networks and Major Training Intermediaries. Includes work to enhance the ability of national networks to initiate campaigns that combine local action with the ability to apply pressure at the national level.
  4. Professionalization and Infrastructure Development. Includes work to spur the creation of new entities and strengthen existing ones that can provide research, training and evaluation; facilitate the exchange of ideas, strategies and techniques; and undertake other efforts to strengthen the literacy field.
  5. Small Grants to Local Organizations. Involves strengthening the local work that is the “heart of literacy.” For funders who can’t evaluate each of the local groups in their area, a re-granting partnership with a community literacy coalition training intermediary is recommended.

The literacy field is constantly changing, building on its experiences and tackling emerging issues. Funders will find it challenging and necessary to stay on top of developments to inform their grantmaking and to help ensure that their literacy grantees learn and grow with the times.

Evaluating Grassroots Organizations: Choosing Groups to Fund

I think funders must allow communities to choose their own issues and organizing approach. Anything else is manipulative. It’s especially bad when white outsiders dictate organizing methods to poor people of color who have good reason to feel disenfranchised and discriminated against.

Garland Yates, Annie E. Casey Foundation
“Passive Progressive,” City Limits, November 1998

Whatever rationale, goals and funding strategies new funders choose, the effectiveness of their literacy grantmaking rests on the quality and performance of their grantees. All of the thoughtful ideas and guidance from others can add up to very little if funders’ grant decisions are not very good. This is in part why experienced funders claim there is no substitute for getting into communities and talking with folks, listening and learning before making their decisions. No proposal or advice can tell a funder what a group looks, feels and smells like. Funders can minimize grantmaking mistakes through on-site interactions with literacy groups, their staffs, leaders and constituents.

As one funder said in urging colleagues to conduct site visits before making grants, “even renowned winemakers taste each of their offerings each year to be sure they meet high standards.”

Grantmaking Approach

Major Funding Categories:

  • Community Literacy Coalitions – as an intermediary
  • Literacy service providers – by age category – early childhood, K-12, adult, family, etc.
  • Literacy service providers – by function – health, financial, computer, etc.

Strategic Building Blocks:

  • Focusing on funding base-building organizations; i.e. coalitions, technical assistance groups
  • Funding clusters of organizations that have relationships with each other
  • Funding in a vertically-integrated way; i.e. supporting the training, research and technical assistance groups that are connected to and work with the base-building organizations on collectively held goals

Core Funding Practices:

  • Making fewer and larger grants (grants now range from $40,000 to $500,000)
  • Providing long-term support (80 percent of grantees can expect five or more years of support)
  • Providing general support grants (almost all grants are general support)