The Chronicle of Philanthropy: "Community Funds Ask People From Diverse Walks of Life for Priorities"

Cecilia Clarke, president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, is sitting on $60-million in assets ready to be distributed throughout the borough.

But before she spends any money, she’s going to seek advice from her neighbors.

While the scores of nonprofits that previously got support wait nervously to see whether they will continue to get aid, the organization kicked off 2014 with a series of meetings with people throughout the city to determine new giving priorities.

The Brooklyn Community Foundation is holding a series of public meetings to determine its new giving priorities. Cecilia Clarke, its leader, wants to hear from residents: “I don’t mean CEOs, and I don’t mean elected officials.”

Ms. Clarke makes clear that she’s not reaching out simply to people with fancy titles. She wants to get ideas from artists, business owners, educators, parents, the unemployed—anyone with a desire to get involved.

Community Funds Ask Local People to Set Giving Priorities 2

Jason Andrew

The Brooklyn Community Foundation is holding a series of public meetings to determine its new giving priorities. Cecilia Clarke, its leader, wants to hear from residents: “I don’t mean CEOs, and I don’t mean elected officials.”


Citizens’ Viewpoints

Ms. Clarke’s effort to let local people help set the grant-making agenda follows the example of an increasing number of community foundations.

Rather than using what she calls an “archaic” approach of putting a foundation’s staff in charge of picking worthy projects to support, Ms. Clarke says, community funds should serve as neutral parties that direct grants to the causes residents believe are most important.

Cities as disparate as Denver, Dubuque, and New Orleans are now running their grant making this way. Behind the approach is a desire to get people from different walks of life and ideologies together to shape priorities for their communities—and ideally spur more donations as a result.

“When your citizens are engaged in the work you do, they’re more likely to become donors,” says Nancy Van Milligen, president of Iowa’s Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.

No Longer Top-Down

Dubuque’s efforts are a big change from the way many community foundations operate and a sign of a philosophical split among such organizations as they seek to serve their cities and regions, raise money, and satisfy 21st-century donors’ growing appetite for impact.

Traditionally, community foundations have maintained in-house experts who identify grant priorities and measure success, giving affluent donors a sense that their gifts are making a difference.

But in recent years, a new movement has emerged, as some community funds have sought to make grant making more open and less top-down.

Some community-fund leaders remain skeptical of the effort to shift decision making. Foundations that try to figure out a city’s needs simply by asking residents for ideas, as the Brooklyn Community Foundation is doing, will probably have a tough time figuring out who has the most credible ideas, says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation and leader of a movement to redefine community funds by getting more involved in government decision making.

The key to serving a community and staying accountable to donors, he says, is not to be solely a “convener” but to develop a cadre of research experts within the foundation and create change by taking stands on issues.

In recent years, for instance, the Boston fund used its data and political influence to help push successfully for a state law that expanded charter schools in the state.

“Our data has been very important to our credibility,” Mr. Grogan says.

Gaining Credibility

But in Dubuque, the community foundation has found itself gaining credibility with donors by seeking guidance at the grass roots.

For instance, it got $1.3-million from Dick Schmid, a local businessman, and his family after he read a newspaper story about Envision 2010, a campaign the group led to gather ideas for improving life in the Iowa city, with residents helping to narrow the list to 10 projects.

Many of the ideas had been kicking around for years, says Ms. Van Milligen. But before Envision 2010, she says, there wasn’t “the horsepower to bring them to fruition.”

The Schmid family’s 2005 donation created an endowment for one of the 10 finalists, a community health center.

Mr. Schmid says the process of getting residents to offer ideas made him confident the gift would truly benefit the city. In 2013, he also gave what he calls a “high six-figure” gift to renovate a building in the city’s warehouse district, an area that city residents said should be redeveloped.

“They’ve all been vetted,” he says of the Envision 2010 projects. “They’ve passed the sniff test as things that can help the community.”

Voices of the Poor

For some community funds, the effort to involve local residents is an attempt to regain credibility among members of the community who often felt ignored in the past.

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Greater New Orleans Foundation has worked to get more ideas from the city’s low-income residents, a change from a more top-down approach it took before the disaster.

“I don’t want to create things that we think people need,” says Joann Ricci, the foundation’s vice president for organizational effectiveness. “I want to create things that people in the community tell me are necessary.”

The foundation is now undertaking two efforts to support solutions that bubble up from hard-hit neighborhoods. Stand Up for Our Children, a project supported by a $1.5-million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, seeks to get more parents to advocate for policies that will help youngsters.

The community foundation is also collaborating with the Kresge Foundation to groom longtime residents in poor neighborhoods for leadership positions at human-service groups.

Through Stand Up for Our Children, the community foundation made a grant to the local Planned Parenthood that let it hire LeAndra Shipps.

At Planned Parenthood, Ms. Shipps works as a doula, an assistant to expectant and new mothers. But she also now attends monthly meetings at the foundation’s offices, reminding nonprofit leaders of the challenges faced by parents who are poor or facing racism. Ms. Shipps knows about such struggles firsthand: She was briefly homeless years ago and is African-American.

Too often, says Ms. Shipps, charity leaders and grant makers would miss that bigger picture as they discussed the roles they would play in Stand Up for Our Children.

“The conversation would never really be about parents, ever,” she says. “It was about models and theories and plans and evaluations.”

Income Gap

In Brooklyn, the continuing conversations about giving priorities have drawn people from different backgrounds.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of people have flocked there, transforming pockets of the borough into a high-rent cultural center, dotted with luxury condos and hip restaurants. Yet nearly one in four Brooklyn residents is poor, according to data compiled in 2012 by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

Today, the borough is riven by a wide income gap: While households in the Brownsville neighborhood make a yearly median income of barely $26,000, families in Park Slope make a median of nearly $90,000 annually.

The borough’s changing demographics poses a dilemma for philanthropic leaders like Ms. Clarke, who’s been on the job since September. Guessing residents’ needs in a city of 2.6 million would be “foolhardy,” she says. Some might say more low-cost housing. Some want better transportation options. Others favor supporting local food pantries or subsidizing art studios.

To figure out what people really want, the foundation says it will hold conversations with local residents through June.

Trying to Keep Up

Although the number of community funds getting residents involved in setting grant-making priorities has gained momentum in recent years, the roots of the approach extend back to the 1990s.

When Peter Pennekamp, now emeritus executive director of Northern California’s Humboldt Area Foundation, started work there in 1993, community foundations were struggling with the rise of donor-advised funds and the entry of investment companies, such as Fidelity Investments, into philanthropy.

The result, he says, was an obsession to keep up among community funds with increasing assets.

“All people talked about was how to get in the pockets of donors,” he says.

He decided instead that his foundation could achieve more if it asked people about their concerns rather than simply trying to pry money out of their wallets.

His group also worked to help people find common ground on local issues that were divisive, working as a mediator in conflicts among local forestry companies, environmentalists, and American Indians.

Mr. Pennekamp credits the strategy with helping to spur development and rescuing the local economy. But, he acknowledges, it was difficult for the foundation to measure progress, at least in the short term.

Grant makers can often enumerate how many people have directly benefited from a charitable gift, he says, but it’s harder to measure in data the effect of bringing together people with widely different views.

Also, he notes, the strategy may not lead to a community’s tackling its most urgent or serious problems but instead focusing on “what people are willing to work on.”

Some community foundations known for their leadership in reshaping the role of community funds in the 21st century are also seeking more feedback about their grant making from citizens.

Upon taking the helm a decade ago at the Cleveland Foundation, Ronald Richard pressed his staff members to become actively involved in policy matters. He directed Helen Williams, who leads the fund’s education grant making, to push the teachers union and buttonhole state lawmakers to help overhaul education in the city.

“You need to fix the school system,” he says he told Ms. Williams, “not wait around for grant requests.”

Neighborhood Grants

But the foundation also gives residents a say in some of its philanthropic decisions. Through its Neighborhood Connections program, the foundation has been awarding $5,000 grants to projects that residents choose. The grants have totaled $5-million, a small share of the $217-million that the foundation gave over all in that period.

With $2-billion in assets, compared with the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s $60-million, the Cleveland Foundation can both serve as a muscular advocate and get community involvement, says Mr. Richard. “We’re big enough that we can do lots of things.”