Citizen philanthropy might change your city
WHEN Brandon Black and his wife were trying to fix up the old twounit house they’d recently bought in Cincinnati, they discovered they needed some help from people who actually knew what they were doing. His old wrestling coach and her father – two baby boomers with construction experience – proved to be invaluable home improvement mentors, who happily guided them through the process.
Black realised that the project was mutually beneficial: He and his wife needed help, and his coach and father-in-law had skills they wanted to share. He also realised there were probably many other people in Cincinnati – both new homeowners and older skilled tradespeople – in the same situation.
“What if there was a way a new homeowner could just borrow somebody’s aunt or uncle and leverage their experience?” Black says.
He saw an opportunity to connect these two groups. Now, thanks to a new and unconventional approach to place-based philanthropy, he has US$100,000 to develop a program in Cincinnati that makes those connections.
Black is a recipient of the Haile Fellowship, a year-long “civic sabbatical” for individuals to develop ideas that can benefit the city and its people. It is a project of People’s Liberty, an experimental “philanthropy lab” set up by the Cincinnati-based Carol Ann & Ralph V Haile Jr/US Bank Foundation.
Instead of handing out grants to urban planning non-profits or community development organisations, People’s Liberty is giving the money directly to regular citizens with good ideas.
Launched a year and a half ago, People’s Liberty has given itself a five-year mission to make more than 100 grants to individuals in the region. Two of the $100,000 fellowships are granted annually; twice a year, eight other individuals are awarded $10,000 grants to develop smaller-scale urban interventions that focus on people, places and ideas.
Current projects include a mobile showroom for musical instruments that will travel around the city, and a model to show how vacant buildings can be used as urban gardens. Three other individuals will be given $15,000 grants to create three-month installations in the storefront gallery of the organisation’s three-storey historic building. The current installation is a “lending library” for toys and games.
The first two year-long fellowships were awarded in 2015. One focused on building affordable small houses, the other developed a platform for local musicians to earn money through licensing. Smaller projects range from practical to playful: Last year’s batch included an open-source app to display bus arrival times and a public space installation featuring 15-foot beanbag chairs.
Eric Avner, CEO of People’s Liberty, says as well as being selected for their potential to make a positive impact on the Cincinnati region, its grantee projects are designed to build up a sorely needed new class of civic leaders.
The impetus, Avner says, was “this recognition that it was the same 10 people we were seeing running for office, and the same 10 people running non-profits, and the same 10 people showing up for any kind of committee ... It was like, I know there’s more than 10 people. So where’s the next 10 people; where’s the next 150 people who are going to be the civic succession plan for this community?”
Though philanthropists regularly make grants to artists, it’s relatively rare to make charitable grants to individuals not associated with an organisation, according to Shena Ashley, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, a Washington DC– based think tank. That’s partly because of complicated tax rules, but also because of the risk of giving thousands of dollars to someone without a track record for completing projects.
“It is more risky in terms of not being able to produce the outcome that was intended,” says Ashley. “But the benefit can be higher, because that person can focus on their passion and on what they actually want to try to produce, rather than trying to sustain an organisation.”
Avner is hoping this will become a model that philanthropists in other cities follow. “It sets up an alternative path for citizen engagement,” he says. “You don’t have to join the big initiative to get something done. You can actually go and do it yourself.” – The Guardian
Cincinnati has created a new program to encourage individuals to benefit the city and its people through idea creation.