Can place-based grantmaking help turn the tide of inequality?

By Dennis Quirin and Steve Patrick

Today we see many local communities – urban, suburban and rural - swamped by historic disinvestment and the growing tide of economic and social inequality in our country. Place-based grantmaking can play an important role in turning this tide,
but not without addressing the core structural barriers that have produced and propelled it. In local communities, addressing the lived experiences of people who are marginalized by racism, poverty, immigration status, gender discrimination, homophobia and disability will require many funders to retool their approaches to understanding and solving systemic community problems.

Fortunately, in recent years there has been renewed interested in deeper community investment among many national and regional foundations. The pendulum has begun to swing back to place-based grantmaking – and the opportunity exists for the field to learn from the challenges of the past, as well as from promising practice.

Last fall a group of over 100 funders and field leaders met at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, CO for Towards a Better Place, Promising Practices in Place-Based Grantmaking . Place-based grantmaking is not new; in fact you can argue that it’s the oldest form of grantmaking. The recent resurgence of interest in place-based grantmaking, especially on the part of larger funders, presents an opportunity for historically marginalized communities. There isn’t one way to approach place-based grantmaking, nor is there a robust field of practice to support it. Yet all who gathered agreed that this is an opportunity that we can ill afford to get wrong.

When the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and Neighborhood Funders Group organized the conference last September, our intent was to start a national conversation that would be relevant for a wide range of funders who design strategic place-based initiatives, as well as funders based in the communities where they fund. While these two broad categories of funders often have very different approaches, we believe that there is an important conversation that is relevant to both groups of funders. That shared conversation centers on the practice or craft of place-based grantmaking, which served as the guiding theme for our conference.

To help share the rich discussions and learnings from the conference, the NFG and the Aspen Forum have just released a conference report and resource guide for place-based grantmakers. Some of the key lessons shared at the conference include:

  • Make the shift from being a grantmaker to a changemaker and co-learner. To be a changemaker, program officers must be co-learners with those doing work on the ground rather than “coming with the answers.
  • Keep equity at the center. Place-based investors have to bring an equity lens to the work. They must ask critical questions about who holds the power in communities? Who is being served? Who is at the table and who needs to be?
  • Resource community engagement and collaboration. It is not enough to just provide project grants. The foundation must also deploy resources to ensure that residents are deeply involved in the process.
  • Make a long-term commitment. Staying a long time allows you to gain greater perspective on the place, learn what the community wants, and avoid making incorrect assumptions. And long-term commitment makes deep collaboration possible.
  • Coordinate multiple funders working in the same place. Funder alignment and coordination can significantly ease burdens on community groups, for example by developing common learning metrics. Coordinating funder efforts also creates the potential to multiply the impacts of their investments in the same place.
  • Co-invest in good work that is already happening or emerging from community partners. Don’t force collaborations or initiatives. Rather than coming with the issues, figure out with the community what would make a big impact and build on what is ripe there.
  • Leverage the foundation’s name and status to increase visibility and access of partners on the ground.  Foundations engaged in place-based work can do much more than just funding – for example developing relationships, positioning community partners in a way that is influential and engaging in policy advocacy.
  • Learn as you go and be open to different pathways to success. Often in place-based work, the outcomes that have been most successful were unplanned and unforeseen. They arose from long-term relationship building and the development of new leadership that didn’t exist in the beginning.

The problems facing marginalized communities today are weighty and complex, and no conference will solve them. But the beginning conversations at Towards a Better Place lifted up some important lessons from place-based grantmaking that can help funders rethink their strategies and practices. The Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and NFG will continue providing opportunities for funders to engage with peers on these questions. We invite more funders to join our learning community and help develop the kinds of partnerships in places that can better position communities to address the root causes of inequality.

Dennis Quirin is the President of Neighborhood Funders Group. Steve Patrick is the Executive Director of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions.