A Wave Is Rising

Community foundations are seeing growing activity in building community wealth.
Posted by: 
Marjorie Kelly

Crossposted from Stanford Social Innovation Review

You can feel the toe of the tsunami,” said one person in the circle. “There’s a great wave rising, and you can feel the power of it, even though it’s just beginning.” The time was mid-December 2014, and I was seated with 20 others in a circle at a San Francisco gathering of community foundations wanting to learn more about impact investing as a tool for building community wealth. Someone else shared a new report on Millennials, and how they are seeking jobs and investments with meaning. There in the room, we could feel the power of something profoundly new arising.

I myself had been feeling that power for awhile, in the wave of response to a report I’d just released with my colleagues at The Democracy Collaborative, “A New Anchor Mission for a New Century: Community Foundations Deploying All Resources To Build Community Wealth.” No sooner had we released it in mid-November than community foundations began coming out of the woodwork to respond to it. One leader told us he’d mentioned it at a White House gathering. A variety of others wanted 20, 30, 50 copies. Still another wrote to tell us how the report was helping him make the case to his board that their foundation should be doing more of this kind of activity. Over and over I heard from people how numerous friends had sent them the report. “I have three on my desk, sent to me by three different people,” one foundation officer told me with a laugh.

Something profound is indeed stirring among community foundations. Feeling hints of this is what led my co-author Violeta Duncan and I to pull together our report, which identifies a list of an “Innovative 30” pioneering community foundations. They are all taking up parts of what we see as an emerging anchor mission: calling on all resources—grantmaking, convening, investing, political clout, and more—to help communities develop local assets and create economic prosperity. Because community foundations are naturally rooted in geographic community, with many communities experiencing economic suffering, they seem naturally drawn to this mission of building community wealth. The aim is to create the inclusive economies that can help knit together our divided society. This is a tall order and a long haul, but community foundations are important players; they can be solid, steady leaders and partners in this work.

The wave is rising all around us. We can see it, for example, in Cincinnati. The kind of protests currently erupting across the nation in the wake of police killings of black men occurred in Cincinnati more than a decade ago. In 2001, there were riots after the shooting of an unarmed black youth, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, by police. The tragic shooting and the angry response put the issue of racial inequity on the table—but to actually begin to undo these deep-seated disparities required both resources and a long-term commitment to the local community. The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF), one of the 30 innovative foundations we profiled in the original report, joined a task force of community leaders aiming to develop responses to the unrest. Out of that work came the funders collaborative Better Together Cincinnati, convened by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, to pool the resources of 15 foundations and corporations—a story GCF CEO Kathryn Merchant told in a recent post.

Finding that a lack of wealth in the African-American community was a contributing factor to instability, the collaborative funded the launch of Cincinnati’s Minority Business Accelerator. GCF helped the accelerator establish a $2 million revolving loan fund and contributed $500,000 of patient capital. Since 2003, these efforts have created nearly 2,000 jobs.

In still another example, the Denver Foundation is helping drive the development of an urban agriculture program called Re:Vision. The program is helping 300 low-income families in primarily Latino immigrant communities come closer to food security by planting backyard gardens to grow their own food and establishing the Westwood Food Cooperative, where they can sell surplus produce for extra income. At the same time, the foundation is working to develop a comprehensive anchor institution strategy for building community wealth, leveraging the resources of the Anschutz medical center in nearby Aurora, where suburban poverty is on the rise.

There are dozens of other examples. Among them:

A groundswell of movement toward new economic thinking and responsible investing is underway among community foundations. The community foundations our report profiles are in the vanguard, but in theCommunity Foundation Circle I attended in the Bay Area (sponsored by RSF Social Finance and theBusiness Alliance for Local Living Economies), there was a clear sense that this is the wave of the future.

While passion for impact investing and community economic development work among community foundations is rising, we still need to sort out the “how.” There are many pathways to building community wealth, and we are still creating those pathways. As poet Antonio Machado wrote, “We make the road by walking.” Among the “Innovative 30” Violeta and I profiled, I’ve heard others express that sentiment slightly differently— one participant in the San Francisco circle said, “We ourselves are the tsunami.”