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Understanding Place-Based Philanthropy

Philanthropist's Field Guide
Understanding Place-Based Philanthropy

Place-based philanthropy describes an approach that targets a specific location—be it a neighborhood, municipality, or even multiple counties—upon which to focus charitable resources and make a transformative impact. It goes beyond supporting a community foundation or funding unrelated efforts in a contained space. 

By directing philanthropic assets to a particular geographic region and coordinating local partners, you can leverage your financial capital, social networks, and expertise to: 

  • break down the complexities and tackle root cause(s) of an issue

  • identify a comprehensive—perhaps even cross-sector—approach to tackling those issues

  • generate lasting, transformative change within the chosen community

bird's eye view of a city's skyscraper buildings


Philanthropy’s value in place-based social change programs is its staying power, ability to convene, and the capacity to leverage resources and relationships to sustain the momentum with the end-goal in mind. And when this is accomplished with humility and in true partnership with communities, the positive result has the potential to affect change for generations to come.

Is a place-based approach right for your philanthropy? 

Place-based philanthropy is an excellent option for philanthropists interested in creating systems change and supporting collective impact efforts in an area where they have deep ties and connections. If you have a deep connection to a particular community and are willing to commit to a multi-year engagement, a place-based approach might be the best option for your charitable objectives. Since this method requires long-term, active engagement with local stakeholders, you should plan to live in, work with, or otherwise spend a significant portion of the year within your target community.

What are the key ingredients to successful place-based philanthropy?

A successful place-based philanthropy strategy requires:

  • Laser focus on systems change. For a problem as complex as poverty, for example, addressing it at the local level may be the best bet for creating transformative change. Understanding the particular context and focusing on the specific needs of the community can help you deploy a targeted, flexible, and comprehensive set of approaches to the problem at hand. The result is often a win-win combination of community-anchored systems change.

  • Deep listening and partnership. A place-based approach allows philanthropists to create more easily the conditions for meaningful listening and engagement with communities. Time and again, social change experts stress the necessity of community participation, buy-in, and trust for a philanthropic effort to be successful. Demonstrating a long-term commitment to an area is one way to build that trust and partner with communities.

  • Experimentation, learning, and innovation. Donors, together with the community, can innovate and experiment with bold solutions. Indeed, philanthropy’s role is to be innovative, make mistakes, and to adapt and evolve. Compared to other funders such as governments and private investors, philanthropists are not hampered by performance or investment return criteria. Therefore, philanthropists can provide funding that is catalytic, risk-taking, and patient, but not permanent.

How can you begin engaging in place-based philanthropy? 

If you have existing ties to a community and can play a role in coordinating stakeholders and funding programs that augment social progress in that area, you are poised to contribute to a place-based philanthropic strategy. Connect with other funders in proximity and determine how you can best deploy your resources to amplify impact. Other groups to consult include religious leaders, local officials, direct service providers, and relevant community groups. 

While financial assistance is always in need, there are other worthy contributions to consider. Your time, labor, or expertise can often be as valuable as monetary support in the pursuit of community-based objectives. (See our “Consider Your Philanthropy Holistically” article for deeper insight on this.) Additionally, you can provide technical assistance and collaborate with key stakeholders and organizations to advance causes within your community of focus.

How can you scale impact with your place-based philanthropy?

By definition, place-based philanthropy focuses on specific communities. Interventions applied locally, under a place-based philanthropy approach, are tailored to the community and, therefore, might not be as effective in different settings. For that reason, philanthropists should have a deep understanding of the context of a program’s success before attempting to scale it elsewhere. In addition, you should ensure that the organizations and communities implementing a promising program have sufficient infrastructure to execute activities at scale.

Case Study: Buhl Foundation and One Northside (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Founded in 1928, the Buhl Foundation is Pittsburgh’s first multipurpose philanthropy. For nearly a decade, the foundation supported city-wide efforts in education, youth development, human services, and economic and community development. Beginning in 2013, the foundation has chosen to prioritize its grantmaking to a subset of Pittsburgh called Northside. Concentrating its focus at this multi-neighborhood level enhances the foundation’s ability to make a noticeable difference in those residents’ lives, and it has also mobilized a grassroots movement, called One Northside, for the community to further support long-term, sustainable change for the area. One notable area of impact includes its HOPE Diversion Program, a pilot initiative working to divert young, low-level victimless crime offenders out of the criminal justice system; in late 2019, 94 percent of the program participants had not re-offended. 

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