What happens when a foundation puts residents in charge of local grantmaking?

Written by: Liane Stegmaier

Date: July 20, 2017

When Brooklyn Community Foundation received the news that we had been selected for NCRP’s Impact Award in the Public Grantmaker category back in the spring of 2015, our team’s immediate response was, “Now?”

We were somewhat stunned because the foundation hadn’t been doing much grantmaking. In fact, we had almost entirely paused our unrestricted grantmaking for more than a year as we sought a new strategy under the leadership of our new President and CEO Cecilia Clarke.

In the months before Cecilia joined the Foundation, our board of directors commissioned a survey of our grantee partners to learn what they liked about their relationship with the foundation and what they thought we could do better.

One response stood out: “I don’t know what the Foundation stands for.”

This feedback, paired with inspiring community engagement work by our peers the in community foundation field, led Cecilia to envision a process whereby we would create a new strategy for the foundation designed by the real experts: Brooklyn residents.

In our mission to serve New York City’s largest – and arguably proudest – borough, we knew that our relatively small institution would be foolish to assume that we could speak for the nearly 3 million people who call Brooklyn’s 70+ neighborhoods home.

Furthermore, we were still a “start-up” as far as community foundations go; at the time we were only in our sixth year as a public grantmaker (following our conversion in 2009 from a 20-year-old private, bank-affiliated foundation). The first-ever community foundation, located in Cleveland, had just turned 100.

So we knew we had a lot to learn, but we also had the ability to be nimble and innovative as we move the foundation forward.

We created the Brooklyn Insights project because the only way we could truly stand for something as Brooklyn’s community foundation was to put the decision about what to stand for in the hands of the people who are closest to the challenges in our communities and thereby are also closest to the solutions for our communities.

Over six months, we engaged more than 1,000 Brooklyn residents in conversations that touched on 30 different sectors and went deep into three unique neighborhoods. Questions ranged from what were specific insights people had about their communities, what were the challenges and what were the opportunities for change. We distilled hundreds of hours of notes, surfacing five primary themes: Youth, Neighborhood Cohesion, Immigrant Communities, Criminal Justice and Racial Justice.

This incredible process not only shaped our current grantmaking and community leadership strategy, it also led to a new vision of a fair and just Brooklyn and a new commitment to doing business differently as a grantmaker.

So while we weren’t yet much of a standout grantmaker in 2015 when we received NCRP’s Impact Award, we were humbly on our way. And it made all the difference to have NCRP’s support at that critical moment.

Today, community voices and impacted communities remain central to our approach, and nothing demonstrates that better than Neighborhood Strength.

We are now in the second year of developing this model for resident-led grantmaking, which we started in the foundation’s neighborhood of Crown Heights. This year, more than 130 residents participated in the process, working together to both share their visions for their community and determine one area for targeted local investment.

This is some of the most exciting work that we do because the process is so open and so determined by residents.

Our new interactive Neighborhood Strength website shares every aspect of this process, including ideas that emerged during our visioning sessions as well as the hard choices made by our resident Advisory Council who ultimately solicited and selected projects for funding.

We’re so proud to be an NCRP Impact Award recipient and hope that the lessons we’ve learned along the way inspire other funders to get closer to their communities and share the power we have with the real experts: Those who are most impacted and those who have the solutions we are looking for.

Liane Stegmaier is director of communications at the Brooklyn Community Foundation