Place-Based Philanthropy Is People-Powered

Written by: Laura Zabel

Date: January 27, 2016

Every city has just six artists. Or six community leaders. Or six innovators. I’m kidding … maybe your city has seven. I make this joke because in just about every community I visit, there are about six people that show up on everyone’s list for funding, for recognition, for recommendation. These six artists, leaders and innovators are almost always doing really amazing work, work that is powerful, important and in need of support. They’re at the top of everyone’s list for a reason – but they can’t do everything.

Effective place-based change needs to be rooted in broad and diverse citizen power. Every community needs a steady supply of leaders, artists and innovators with the capacity, agency and skills to have a positive impact – not just a chosen few. To contribute to long-term impact and equity, we need to look beyond, or behind, the usual suspects and leaders. Nonprofits and foundations need to work in a hyper-local way to help build and recognize leadership that is truly from and of the communities we hope to serve. But how should we go about this?

In our work at Springboard for the Arts, we are obsessed with systems and mechanisms that support power and agency of local creative leaders. Our goal is to foster direct relationships and capacity in the communities where we work, and we measure success by the degree to which those relationships can continue without us. (If you want to see more of what our place-based work looks like, this video documentary and toolkit are good examples.)

Here are five lessons we have learned about what works, and what doesn’t, to build leadership and relationship capacity in our communities:

  • Support lots of little projects.

Paradoxically, when it comes to place-based grantmaking, it seems to be harder for many organizations to make small investments, particularly in individuals or small, informal groups. But if you’re trying to encourage new leadership in a community, then there need to be on-ramp experiences that introduce people to each other and provide opportunities for them test out new skills and build relationships. Supporting a lot of small projects instead of (or in addition to) one large project helps build a diversity of expression and strategies. It also takes the pressure off any one group or person to speak for the entire community. You never know what great idea or person will show up at your party if you send out a lot of invitations. Supporting many small projects also provides the opportunity for grantees and grantmakers to learn from each other as they see these small experiments play out.

  • Keep it low-risk.

Another benefit of small project support is that the stakes for each individual project are not so high that they become a barrier to experimentation or new thinking. Often organizations skip this important seed planting, watering and cultivating step and jump directly to trying out large-scale solutions before the community has the necessary relationships, trust and social capital in place to make them work. This is like asking someone to marry you before you go on any dates. Starting with multiple small bets also means that not every project needs to be 100 percent successful or high profile. Keeping projects modest in scale and commitment invites more people to the table to try their hand at helping their neighborhood. If you expect people and organizations to collaborate, it’s critical to provide support for trials so that people can learn how to work together and build relationships organically.

  • Provide simple mechanisms.

Make it easy for people to work together with simple and clear entry points and as few rules and restrictions as possible. If your foundation’s systems are built for very large investments or a high degree of oversight, you may want to work with a trusted intermediary or partner who can administer small, simple investments and ideally provide technical support. Linking training with project support to allow people to try out the skills they’re learning can be an effective combination.

  • Pay attention to language.

What you call the project or capacity-building support matters. Sometimes designating it as “support” instead of a grant, mini-grant or funding helps attract a broader diversity of people, some of whom might be intimidated by or uninterested in a traditional grant program. It also helps create a non-competitive culture for the program. On the other hand, for some communities, being awarded a “grant” carries a certain cachet that can help validate their work and leverage additional support. Although it seems small, it is important to be intentional about the language you use and keep your stakeholders in mind.

  • Evaluate the relationship, not just the project!

This is probably the most important lesson we have learned. An investment in leadership or capacity building is an investment in relationships and process. If you choose to support small projects, the emphasis should be on the quality of the relationships that are formed, not the outcome of the project. For example, if you support artists to design projects with small neighborhood businesses, success means that the relationship continues and grows beyond the project, not only that the mural that is painted.

These five lessons are strategies that have worked well for us, enabling us to reach new leaders that have surprised us (and sometimes themselves) with incredible creativity, wisdom and passion for helping their communities grow and thrive. We’ve also learned that every situation is different. So while not all of these lessons will apply to your community, I do hope they will spark some new thinking to help you tap into and support the most important asset that exists in every place: the people who live in, work in and love that place.

For more information about place-based philanthropy, check out the NCRP webinar I recently participated in: “PIMBY: Philanthropy in my Backyard.”

Laura Zabel is executive director of Springboard for the Arts. Follow @laurazabel on Twitter and join the #PIMBY conversation.

CC image by eflon