August 27, 2009

Wanting More from Place-Based Philanthropy

Someone asked me recently to define the term "place-based funder". More and more, I am using that term to describe the group of funders who make up Grassroots Grantmakers, and have begun to describe the range of approaches a funder can use to connect directly with the people who live in a place - grassroots grantmaking - as an essential ingredient of place-based funding. I welcomed this question.

And then after the fact, I checked out what other people had to say. Before I share what I think, here's what I found:
  • The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation uses community foundations as the standard, but considers other funders that are geographically oriented and have a place-based focus similar to a community foundation to be place-based funders.
  • In a paper commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Backer, Miller and Bleeg of the Human Interaction Research Institute describe place-based philanthropy as a philanthropic strategy that focuses on a particular community or neighborhood; their paper includes six principles for place-based philanthropy developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:
(1) focus on a pressing social need,
(2) involve residents in philanthropic strategy,
(3) take a results orientation within a theory of change,
(4) use data to set priorities and evaluate results,
(5) use the Foundation’s convening ability and other strategies to promote community collaboration, and
(6) use the Foundation’s unique standing in the community to leverage political, human, and
financial capital to support good outcomes.
  • James Murdoch, in his paper "The Place-Based Strategic Philanthropy Model", draws a comparison between traditional philanthropy and place-based philanthropy, describing place-based philanthropy as a type of strategic philanthropy. Murdoch lists characteristics of effective place-based philanthropy, including the need for a multi-dimensional (vs. single issue) approach.
I like all of these. But I want more.....and my clumsy definition of place-based funding was an attempt to both describe the basic bottom-line of geographic focus with the loftier goal of using place in all of its dimensions as an organizing framework.

Here's what I said: "A place-based funder has an intimate tie to a particular place that you can find on a map, and is focusing their work in that place with the people who live there and the organizations and institutions that are highly invested in that place. A place-base funder uses a wide-angle, multi-faceted lens in work that is about community resilience and vitality. They may work on one problem or issue at a time, but do so with respect for local history and culture, a commitment to identifying and mobilizing local assets, and an interest in building local capacity to weather the next storm."

I was making this attempt because I want to distinguish between funders who use geography to "limit" or "define" (we only give grants to organizations that serve this area....) and those like the Raymond John Wean Foundation (where we will gather for our upcoming "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers" - yes, that's a plug, but this is exactly why we will be there) who are deeply focused on "place".

While it's true that community foundations, family foundations and other funders (local governments, United Ways?) are associated with geographies, I suspect that many do not identify with their geographies in the same way. Isn't it true that some think of their geographies as service areas for the organizations that are eligible to receive their grants, where others think of their geographies as multi-dimensional systems, within which non-profits are just one moving piece? When it gets down to what people do versus what they say, isn't there a range of functional definitions out there for "place-based funder"?

I know you can say that more and better services result in a better community. And I know that you can say that a permanent institution that serves as a vehicle for local philanthropy results in a better community. Both of these statements are true, but they're not enough for me.

I want to know how a community is functioning, what draws people there and compels them to invest their time and passion to make the community better. I want to know what is holding the community (and the people who live there) back, what is making it vulnerable, what is pushing people to the edge and making them feel like strangers in their own community. I want to know why some communities are places where people are quick to act, and some communities are places where people wait for someone else to fix what is broken. I want to know about the community's infrastructure - the skeleton formed by local policies, local relationships, and local culture that enables a community to deal with the little things and the big things. I want questions like these to be the basis for a place-based funder's work, with "place" in all of its dimensions on the table.

The "more" that I want is a clearer distinction between using place as a delimiter and using place as an organizing principle. But that's not all.

I want more recognition that you can't be a hands-off funder in a place-based world. I want to see that you are seeking relationships with the people in your place as active citizens rather than passive players or problems to be fixed through professionalized services. Somewhere in your bag of tricks, I want to see work that builds meaningful relationships with people who are traditionally not at the strategy table, and I want to see grants that reach beyond the professional grantseekers and go all the way to the block level. Somewhere in your strategy for change, I want to see that you're clear that you can't be place-based without having the people who live in that place squarely in the middle of that picture.

What about you? What is your definition of place-based philanthropy? What more do you want?

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