Going Local: The Power of Place-Based Philanthropy



Going Local: The Power of Place-Based Philanthropy

Sokol Shtylla
Sokol Shtylla
Director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy
Hilary McConnaughey
Hilary McConnaughey
Associate Director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy

For philanthropists seeking transformative, lasting progress, engaging at home is an ideal entry point. After all, connections to people and the place run deep, and the calling to tackle stubborn local challenges can be strong. In recent years, place-based giving has gained traction because, when done right, philanthropists can be the motivating force needed to galvanize coalitions, provide capital, and mobilize the resources required for systemic change. 

Place-based social change efforts are anchored in three key assets: people, place, and available resources. To be truly effective, however, place-based philanthropy must be genuinely embedded within the communities in which philanthropists are seeking to engage. And that means fostering relationships with those who have directly experienced the challenges at hand, as well as with local “anchor” institutions that already know and serve these communities.

This depth of commitment is what differentiates place-based philanthropy and increases its potential for impacting the most effective social change. There are three key ingredients to successful place-based philanthropic strategies.    

  1. 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 change. Purpose Built Communities was built on and has refined a model of place-based philanthropy that brings together all the compounding intersections—housing, education, health, criminal justice, and more—and provides a framework to address them holistically. This kind of comprehensive approach should also be flexible so it can tailor to the specific context and needs of a particular community. The result is often a win-win combination of community-anchored systems change. 

  2. Deep listening and partnership. A place-based approach allows philanthropists to more easily create 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 in order 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. For this reason, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced that it would fund its priority geographies for at least a generation. Kellogg established offices in the regions it serves and hired local staff, further exhibiting a determination to involve community members to transform structural barriers in the area collaboratively. Acting with humility and deferring to those with lived experience are crucial to the success of any place-based initiative. 

  3. Experimentation, learning, and innovation. Donors, together with the community, can innovate and experiment with bold solutions. Indeed, philanthropy’s role is to be innovative and make mistakes, to adapt and evolve. Robin Hood and a cohort of philanthropic partners have embraced this approach with Mobility Labs. This four-year initiative is specifically designed to pilot new poverty-fighting ideas across nine demographically and geographically diverse local communities to identify solutions that can be replicated more broadly. When interventions show signs of success, there is an opportunity for other funders, such as government agencies, to support the sustainability of these programs. Even when initiatives do not achieve the intended results, funders can learn from these attempts and iterate for future endeavorsThus, philanthropists provide funding that is catalytic, risk-taking, and patient, but not permanent.

Systemic change takes time, and in fact, the very thought of it can be overwhelming. This is where place-based approaches offer the potential for transformative change. Philanthropy’s value in this process 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 all done with humility and in true partnership with communities, the positive result has the potential to affect change for generations to come. 

For more content, watch The Power of Place-Based Philanthropy, a panel at the Milken Institute 2019 Global Conference.  

Published November 14, 2019