Nonprofit Leaders Talk Place-Based Philanthropy

Written by: Ben Barge

Date: January 06, 2016

On December 15, NCRP hosted “PIMBY: Philanthropy in My Back Yard.” The webinar explored how the grantmakers that invest in the places we call home can be better partners to folks on the ground and help make our communities a better place to live for everyone – especially those whose priorities and voices have been suppressed or cast aside.

The discussion, moderated by NCRP Project Associate Caitlin Duffy (@DuffyinDC), featured:

For her day job at Detroit LISC, Tahirih works with residents to transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy, economically vibrant communities. Laura and her team at Springboard for the Arts engage artists from all walks of life to strengthen community development in urban and rural Minnesota. And at the Aspen Forum, Sheri works with collaborations across the country to make sure progress happens community-wide, rather than just for a select few.

Caitlin kick-started the conversation by sharing feedback from NCRP’s latest Philamplify reports on the Kresge Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which rely on anonymous surveys and interviews to deliver honest, unsolicited critiques. In both reports, place-based grantmaking emerged as a significant theme. Kresge, for example, has a strong social justice lens but can do more to embrace nontraditional leaders in Detroit. Knight would do well to rethink its fascination with innovative “shiny bright objects” and explicitly focus on the goals of marginalized populations in its 26 partner communities.

Kresge and Knight are of course not alone in their opportunities for improvement. For place-based funders broadly, both Laura and Tahirih discussed the need for philanthropy to work authentically and patiently with communities on the ground. Tahirih noted that the community needs to define what inclusiveness truly looks like, rather than the funder alone. Involving residents to define their own metrics of success on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, she argued, works better than a “one size fits all” approach.

Similarly, Laura stressed that the relationships built within a community are a more powerful outcome than a single, tangible “product.” The most successful efforts, she said, will tap into the leadership abilities of local people who aren’t necessarily in traditional organizations, an approach that takes time, curiosity, and creativity.

Sheri went on to echo Laura and Tahirih’s call for longer-term funder-community investments. Funder goals, she said, should be aligned with the priorities of local under-served communities and consider unintended negative consequences, such as displacement. To be an honest partner, funders have to acknowledge the power they have and put in the work to build trust.

In Q&A with the audience, all three panelists emphasized that dynamics of race and class must be addressed in order to understand the “local change ecosystem.” Doing so isn’t easy—and it’s tempting to reach out to the same shortlist of leaders rather than engaging the community more fully – but putting those conversations off undermines the potential for real progress. Creating opportunities specifically for marginalized communities improves the potential for equity as well.

It was clear from our audience engagement that discussion around this topic represents only one of many that need to happen in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector – so keep these conversations going with your friends and coworkers, and tell us at NCRP how they go!

Thanks once again to our panelists, and to those who listened in. You can catch the webinar recording and slides on our website. And let us know below, by email at and on social media: How do you think place-based funding should be done to lead to equity? What do you want to see happening in your backyard?

Ben Barge is a field associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.