Skip to main content
Strategic Philanthropy

Place-Based Philanthropy: What’s a board to do?

By August 27, 2020October 13th, 2021No Comments

One core lesson we’re learning in 2020 is that where you live in the US significantly impacts your life and your health. Rural or urban. North or South. City. State. Neighborhood. Each of these factors hugely impacts how an individual has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to it. A person’s location also affects how they are impacted by the long-existing structural racism that has been further brought to light by widespread protests. Invisible lines that delineate geographic and governmental units are often real lines that determine an individual’s life experience and opportunities.

In recent years, many funders have tried to address geographic inequities through place-based approaches to philanthropy. First, what is “place-based philanthropy”? Simply put, it’s philanthropy that typically addresses interconnected issues affecting population outcomes in one defined geography. Using a systems theory lens, the place-based approach acknowledges that a focus on a single issue is far less effective than holistic approaches using a combination of grants, leadership development, and coalition and community building activities.

Funders of all size have embraced place-based work as a way to deepen and sustain their impact on specific communities, frequently incorporating a racial equity lens, participatory grantmaking, or an asset-based approach to work in deep partnership with the community.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore has long championed and offered expertise on place-based philanthropy, and many foundations embrace this approach. For example, the Steans Family Foundation, a small family foundation, focuses its efforts on the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. And the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the largest independent foundations in the US, often works in micro-regions in their key geographies, such as in Haiti where they work on the Central Area and the Southwest Corridor.

Naturally, much of the attention in place-based philanthropy is on the programmatic work of a foundation such as the issues it seeks to address, its partners in the work, and the grants that are made. Less obvious is the importance of how a foundation’s board operates. A board’s leadership in place-based philanthropy is a critical component of effectively having impact in a specific geography. Place-based work is not merely another strategy for a foundation board to craft; a place-based focus can shift the entire way the board thinks about and approaches its work.

To effectively adopt a place-based approach to philanthropy, foundation board members should consider these six lessons we’ve learned in our work with clients:

  1. Build trust in the community. By building strong, trusting relationships across the community, and bridging traditional hierarchical divides, a foundation’s board sets the entire foundation up for success. This can be realized in a lot of way, including reallocating resources away from traditional grants to funding staff who work as “weavers” and build community cohesion.
  2. Include the community on the governing board or advisory board. In many family foundations, the board comprises only family members, many of whom may live and work far away from the geography served by the foundation. By incorporating community members into the board and/or on advisory boards, the foundation can ensure its work is driven by and responsive to local context. For example, the board of the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan includes family members as well as business and civic leaders from the Flint area.
  3. Strive to be flexible. Traditional grant cycles don’t always work well for place-based philanthropy. By building in flexibility to when and how grant proposals are reviewed, a board can lead the foundation in being responsive as things change in the community.
  4. Be willing to take risks. Some foundation boards emphasize risk aversion to such a degree that they stymy their and the foundation’s ability to be innovative. By being open to some risks, boards set up their foundations to be able to try new things, knowing they might not succeed. For example, the Jacobs Family Foundation in San Diego lists risk as one of its core values, saying their work is rooted in “being innovative and daring in our approach and accepting the risk of failure.”
  5. Put the community at the center of the vision and build from there. This could include incorporating participatory grantmaking, in which those impacted by the foundation’s grants are partners in making decisions about where resources are directed. It could also mean hiring leadership and staff that come from and therefore innately understand the community that is impacted by the foundation’s work.
  6. Maintain the long view. Successful place-based boards often allocate a lot of the day-to-day work to staff so that board members’ time can be used to learn, engage with experts, reflect, and focus on the long-term strategic vision.

Adopting a place-based focus isn’t for everyone, but it can certainly be effective in the right situation and help funders deepen and sustain impact in particular communities. Getting your board properly prepared for this shift can be challenging, and we hope these six takeaways provide a helpful starting point.

As always, if you’re a funder with a success story or lessons to share, we’d love to hear from you!