What have we learned about place-based investments?

By Simran Noor, Center for Social Inclusion

In September, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and Neighborhood Funders Group convened 100 local, regional, and national funders for Towards a More Resilient Place: Promising Practices in Place-Based Philanthropy. Here, Raquel Gutierrez of Vitalyst Health Foundation reflects on where the culture in foundations needs to evolve to match developments in the field. 

Eight years ago, I worked for a foundation that heavily invests in my hometown, which allowed me to see firsthand the impacts of place-based investments. I was reminded of that work when I recently had the opportunity to attend the Towards a More Resilient Place: Promising Practices in Place-Based Philanthropy convening organized by Neighborhood Funders Group and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. It was heartening to see the collective hope and call to integrate decades of hard-learned lessons into today’s practice of philanthropy, with the intent to address the reality of privilege and arms-length distance embedded in the institution of philanthropy. But my time in Aspen also left me reliving lessons I learned in my past work and seeing glaring examples that continue to surface from brilliant, thoughtful social justice-oriented funders across the country. Conversations in Aspen left me thinking, “Is learning real if not applied?”

While these learnings depend on a number of factors including level, size, and scale of investment; relationships in place; and the reality of constantly changing social, political, and economic trends; they can be distilled into key considerations that could change the relationship philanthropy has with place-based investing. Among these lessons:

Listen first and allow communities to determine their own needs. Privilege comes in many forms. For philanthropy, in particular, privilege can come in the form of knowledge and ways of knowing. Believing or creating processes that implicitly position the academic knowledge held by foundation staff as superior to the lived experience of grantees, partners, and residents is one way place-based investing can miss the mark. Shifting power and creating methods for sustainable investment does not only mean engaging those who are most impacted to share their stories in participatory processes; it means resourcing them to co-design every element of process creation. This requires a different intentionality around listening, a potential shift in the ways initial investments are made, and a clear redefining of foundation funding priorities to match local, self-determined needs.

Develop strategies responsive to what you’ve learned. While listening is a first step, it is often not enough. Truly changing outcomes requires focused strategy. Many neighborhoods ripe for place-based investments have experienced decades of disinvestment and dismantling by every public and private institution. That does not only impact the infrastructure of those communities—it impacts the very souls of the people residing in the place. When funders enter communities that have experienced such disinvestment and lead with dollars, they often create a competitive dynamic that strains relationships between nonprofits and ultimately benefits no one. Place-based funders have a responsibility to understand local needs and support development of strategic approaches that take into account the current ecosystem of nonprofits, intermediaries, and public and private institutions, as well as the current power dynamics and inequitable resource distribution at play. Place-based strategies must use new and innovative ways to disrupt these (often racialized) power dynamics in order to foster an environment for intersectional, multi-issue approaches that address the root causes of deeply embedded challenges, including poverty and lack of access to opportunity for communities of color.

Reimagine what “success” looks like. Fundamentally, these shifts require philanthropy to reimagine success in place-based work. Could success potentially mean a self-sustaining future state without philanthropy’s presence? What are the mechanisms to create philanthropic accountability to the most impacted communities and potential grantees before investments are made? Answering these questions requires reimagining asset-based human and social investment in the residents who will be in a place long after philanthropic investments end. Capacity building and popular education approaches, for example, allow residents to develop the same technical and academic acumen held by decision makers and power brokers in the local context. Foundations would then also need to become comfortable and confident in residents’ future decisions, particularly stances that may differ with their own institutional preferences.  This process of authentic decision-making and shifting power could be a true success metric.

While by no means comprehensive in nature, if the lessons noted above and the many others that surfaced during the Towards a More Resilient Placeconvening are adopted, they have the ability to shift the nature of place-based philanthropy. Social justice-oriented funders who shared their experiences showed us how important and effective these lessons are, and they should continue to advocate for these lessons in future place-based philanthropic investments.