Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has amplified the unique role philanthropy can play in addressing issues at the local level, community foundations and other place-based funders were developing their civic leadership through a variety of efforts to organize and support their communities. According to 2019 research by CF Leads, 98% of community foundations surveyed said they intend to deepen and expand their community leadership efforts in the next few years. The Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative reports US community foundation efforts to help those impacted by COVID-19 in 2020 have mobilized more than $1 billion to support on-the-ground efforts by nonprofits. The Center for Effective Philanthropy finds nearly all of the community foundations surveyed in 2020 indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted them to listen differently and work more collaboratively to meet the needs of those in the community.
One such community-driven approach is referred to as “inclusive growth,” which aims to foster economic development by addressing inequities and broadly raising the economic prospects and well-being of a community. A February 2021 article The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) wrote for The Foundation Review highlights the strategy and leadership of Massachusetts’ Essex County Community Foundation in fostering inclusive economic growth across Essex County’s diverse population. Similarly, in nearby Chelsea, Massachusetts, Chelsea 2021 – a new initiative of the Boston Foundation – is building a donor and community collaborative to support inclusive economic recovery during and after the pandemic. While these efforts approach community and coalition-building differently – with ECCF initially focused on the economic sector and Chelsea 2021 focused on donor and community engagement – both illustrate the powerful, varied roles that community foundations in particular can play in organizing, supporting, and catalyzing inclusive growth. These roles capitalize on the strengths of community foundations as local leaders, convenors, and connectors.
Collaborating to Support Inclusive Growth in Essex County
Located in northeastern Massachusetts, Essex County is home to 790,000 residents in 34 cities and towns, including early industrial cities like Lawrence and Lynn, and coastal communities like Gloucester and Salem. The county has many strengths, but also many challenges, including 11% of residents living in poverty, 40% earning less than a living wage, large immigrant populations with limited English, and some of the highest COVID-19 community rates in the state.
In 2016, Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) forged a cross-sector coalition of business, community, and civic leaders to identify the county’s greatest challenges and develop a strategy for action. ECCF and its partners identified income inequality as the county’s most pressing issue and launched a multi-year systems philanthropy strategy to stimulate inclusive growth by fostering local innovation, job growth, workforce development, and opportunity. Through this strategy, ECCF serves as funder, coalition leader, staff, and/or infrastructure support for a wide range of economic initiatives, including a Small Business Resiliency and Venture Fund, vocational-technical workforce training (in partnership with General Electric Foundation), financial coaching and literacy training, Credit for Prior Learning, an arts initiative (in partnership with the Barr Foundation), and a North Shore Blue Economy effort that aims to reinvent struggling local industries. With this strategy, ECCF is working to reduce income inequality by fostering local innovation, job growth, workforce development and job opportunity. ECCF’s roles in these programs include partial funder, coalition leader, staffing and infrastructure support. During the COVID-19 pandemic, ECCF has doubled down on community relief efforts to help reinforce an equitable and inclusive economic recovery.
ECCF’s work illustrates how the unique relationship-building and convening power of community foundations can help identify community needs and goals, and martial a coordinated, long-term response to issues and crises. Since 2016, ECCF has successfully attracted more than $20 million in outside, non-ECCF investment. ECCF regularly connects with municipal leaders and state policymakers to attract additional public sector investment and resources.
According to Stratton Lloyd, ECCF’s COO and Vice President for Community Leadership, “Collaborating to support inclusive growth in the region has become who we are. The community looks to us [for this leadership role] and expects it. Increasingly, it’s what makes us relevant as a community foundation.”
Amplifying Community Voices in Chelsea
Ten miles south of Essex County, the city of Chelsea has garnered recent attention as the Massachusetts municipality hardest hit by COVID-19 (one in five Chelsea residents test positive for COVID-19). With a total population of 40,000, where 67 percent is Latinx, Chelsea is home to many immigrants and frontline, essential workers. Many Chelsea residents, small businesses, and nonprofits are experiencing economic devastation resulting from the pandemic. Eviction rates are rising, and food bank queues in Chelsea extend for blocks.
But as a small city with a strong nonprofit infrastructure, Chelsea is an ideal community in which to pilot community-informed, donor-engaged grantmaking. Chelsea 2021 is a collaborative between the city of Chelsea and donors who seek to provide support to community-led improvement and change amongst its residents. Launched with $150,000 in seed funding from the Boston Foundation (TBF) COVID-19 Response Fund, TBF believes Chelsea 2021 can be a model for similar efforts to spur inclusive growth in other communities. TBF is seeking additional investments ($25,000-$100,000) from donors in the Greater Boston area who will commit to a community-driven process facilitated by the Foundation for setting priorities and reviewing and vetting grant investments. Like ECCF in Essex County, the Chelsea 2021 collaborative is creating a cross-sector coalition of local donors, nonprofit organizations, and business, civic, and community leaders to identify the city’s greatest challenges and develop a strategy for action. The collaborative aims to distribute at least $500,000 in general operating support grants to aligned nonprofit efforts, all while keeping community voices at the center of the process and keeping donors engaged in learning about community-driven solutions.
Using the Pandemic as a Teachable Moment for Investment in Inclusive Growth
Community data on the impact of COVID-19 in Chelsea and Essex County continues to lay bare the unequal suffering based on income and race. As the pandemic surges on, community-driven initiatives that center community voices and redistribute power in the hands of community members aim to change people’s perceptions by elevating investor and public awareness of inequity, highlighting the lived experience and missed opportunities inequity creates in the region’s economy, disrupting people’s level of comfort with inequity, and creating new mindsets. Both the Essex County Community Foundation and the Boston Foundation see the pandemic as a teachable moment for community awareness about equity and for investment in inclusive growth.
Place-based efforts like Chelsea 2021 and in Essex County are lifting-up more equitable, inclusive strategies that build local economies to better support area residents. If you have insights into the role of community foundations and other funders in catalyzing equitable economic growth or would like to share your foundation’s work with TPI and our blog community, we’d love to hear from you!
Thanks to Stratton Lloyd (Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President for Community Leadership, Essex County Community Foundation), and Kate Guedj (Senior Vice President, the Boston Foundation) for their thoughtful contributions and review.