How Place-Based Funders Build Better Community Partnerships

Debby Bielak and Marion Michieka

It was late 2007, the eve of the Great Recession. With the foreclosure crisis already leaching the life out of many neighborhoods across Detroit, the Kresge Foundation launched an ambitious effort to help re-stitch the city’s physical and economic fabric, primarily by creating a vehicle — Detroit Neighborhood Forum (DNF) — for local and national funders to respond to the city’s myriad challenges.

DNF came to life as a series of monthly breakfasts comprised of Detroit-focused funders, bankers, and public officials, who partnered to invest in a wide array of community-based initiatives, such as neighborhood-led efforts to renovate and resell vacant houses. To be sure, the investments did not reverse the devastating impact of mass foreclosures throughout Detroit. However, as Kresge’s Wendy Lewis Jackson put it in an essay for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, DNF’s cross-sector collaborations “[tapped] the creative energy of residents, particularly at a time when it was easy for them to lose confidence in speedy neighborhood recovery.”

The strategy makes a lot of sense. To amplify their capacity to accomplish what matters most to communities — especially those comprised of the BIPOC populations that have been historically disadvantaged — most of the place-based funders we know understand the need to work with a diverse array of stakeholders across their regions, especially community members, to achieve something that would likely be impossible to realize on their own. But it’s often easier said than done.

When place-based funders from 12 regions across the country formed a learning group in 2020, chronicled in this five-part series, they shared practical, tactical steps to grapple with a range of thorny questions. When they turned to engaging stakeholders, the funders focused on three core challenges to building community partnerships.

First: How can a funder begin to make the case for collective action?

More than a few of the place-based funders in the learning group use the same tool — data — to inspire public and private power brokers to come together to support communities as they work to advance their priorities. Specifically, they harness data that tell a story — a story that has the resonance to unite different players around a common cause.

Case in point: In 2014, a Harvard/UC Berkeley study produced a data point that shook the city of Charlotte, North Carolina: Charlotte ranked dead last in economic mobility among the 50 largest U.S. cities. Such a glaring waste of human potential pushed one place-based funder, Foundation For The Carolinas (FFTC), to help mobilize the creation of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Task Force, comprised of 20 diverse community members.

Using census and other data, the task force produced heat maps showing how the region was deeply segregated not only by race, but also by wealth and poverty, with lower-opportunity neighborhoods, dominated by people of color, concentrated around the county’s core. With the maps offering stark evidence of how segregation’s impact “is foundational to everything else,” as the task force’s report put it, the coalition opted to focus on upstream changes to socio-economic systems and structures, rather than take programmatic steps to address downstream symptoms.

One outcome: members of the task force highlighted the finding that children enrolled in high quality preschool programs typically earn around $2,000 more per month as adults than those not enrolled. That telling piece of data helped encourage Mecklenberg County to invest $9 million for free pre-K education, while the private sector pitched in $6 million to help build a diverse pre-K workforce. In this way, data helped identify promising opportunities for impact, even as it also made the case that real progress was impossible without first confronting segregation’s pernicious effect on multiple generations of Charlotte’s Black citizens.

Second: How can we ensure that when funders and other stakeholders come together, community members contribute to the decision-making?

A common cause — in this case, the urgent need to confront the pandemic’s outsize impact on their region’s Black and Latinx communities — pushed another place-based funder, The Chicago Community Trust (the Trust), to also help create a cross-sector coalition for change.

That coalition, We Rise Together: For an Equitable & Just Recovery, was born in part out of memories of the cataclysmic impact of the Great Recession, when rebuilding initiatives in Chicago shut out great swaths of Black and Latinx families. Realizing that efforts to recover from the pandemic’s devastation could once again deny those same families an equal opportunity to move forward, We Rise Together united partners from philanthropy, business, and the communities themselves. To date, the coalition has raised $39 million.

From the outset, the Trust understood that if its cross-sector partnership failed to find a way to tap into the real-world expertise of community members, We Rise Together would never truly live up to its name. Of course, “engage the community” is the default starting point for most social-change nonprofits. But that imperative can be challenging for funders, who often have at least one degree of separation (i.e., their grantees) between themselves and the communities they serve.

The Trust addressed the conundrum head-on, by ensuring that Black and Latinx communities are fully represented on the coalition’s steering committee. Specifically, one-third of the committee is comprised of community members, with business and philanthropy each getting one-third representation as well. In that way, community leaders can directly engage business leaders and funders on those issues they believe matter most, such as closing the racial/ethnic wealth gap — and so begin the hard-but-rewarding work of finding common ground.

“[There are] possible pitfalls with bringing disparate groups to the table,” acknowledged Andrea Sáenz, the Trust’s chief operating officer. “But we believe the effort will pay off.”

Third: How can we connect front-line nonprofits with other funders?

All of the place-based funders that participated in the 2020 learning group recognize that to accelerate social progress, it helps to connect grassroots groups and frontline nonprofits with public, private, and social-sector leaders. Many of the funders make those connections by investing their social capital on behalf of nonprofits. When one funder introduces a grantee to another funder, ripples of impact often ensue.

Such was the case in late 2018, when Atlanta’s Kendeda Fund connected ProGeorgia, a nonpartisan, voter-advocacy network, with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Atlanta Civic Site. Kendeda’s Tené Traylor, the organization’s fund advisor, had already provided ProGeorgia with a multi-year general operating grant. But with the 2020 election looming, and a promising but new executive director (ED), Tamieka Atkins, leading ProGeorgia, Traylor made an extra effort to help set her grantee up for success.

“I knew it was going to be difficult for [Atkins] to get to local donors,” said Traylor. And so she approached the Casey Foundation’s leadership and made a pitch for ProGeorgia’s new ED, calling Atkins “a leader with vision.” After doing some due diligence, the Casey Foundation joined Kendeda in co-funding ProGeorgia. “From there, Tamieka’s work just took off,” Traylor recalled.

When they build bridges across stakeholders, place-based funders increase the odds that they will accomplish more — especially when the most impacted communities are at the forefront of those conversations.

Debby Bielak is a partner in The Bridgespan Group’s San Francisco office. Marion Michieka is a senior associate consultant in the same office.

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