For local foundations, the question of how to improve the city is one that pervades every board meeting, strategic planning session and departmental reorganization. Should the foundation invest in poverty alleviation or education? The arts or affordable housing? Specific issues aside, these foundations rarely reconsider how they are making grants. They give money to non-profit organizations and to get the outcomes they want, the foundations increasingly seek more involvement in grantees’ work. But what if the agents of local innovation aren’t organizations, but smart individuals with good ideas? And what if foundations were collaborators, almost co-workers, rather than funders?
In an attempt to rethink the traditional foundation model, the Johnson Foundation and the Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile Jr. / U.S. Bank Foundation, both based in Cincinnati, jointly formed a new outfit called People’s Liberty: “a philanthropic lab that brings together civic-minded talent to address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati.” The project, which will launch in January and last for five years, is named after the Hailes’ first bank (Peoples Liberty, no apostrophe) and will be based in a renovated four-story building near Findlay Market and include a street-level storefront. With an annual grantmaking budget of just over $1 million, People’s Liberty will give out three types of grants: Haile Fellowships of $100,000 each to two recipients, 16 project grants of up to $10,000 for a period of roughly six months, and three Globe Grants for installations in the People’s Liberty storefront.
The high level of support for the Haile Fellowships may bring to mind another well-funded fellowship program: the MacArthur “genius grants” given to more than 20 people each year. But the program may actually have more in common with the new trend in philanthropic circles to engage with the renaissance happening in their downtowns and with the public writ large. As just one example, the Kresge Foundation, headquartered in suburban Troy, Michigan, has opened an outpost on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. It’s also one of a group of funders supporting the Detroit Revitalization Fellows, which places mid-career professionals at non-profits and businesses dedicated to transforming the city.
One distinguishing factor for People’s Liberty is that it’s not just giving out money, but inviting grantees into its collaborative space. All the grantees and grantors will be housed in the same building, and its storefront gallery will be open to the public, mixing up the traditional roles and relationships between the foundation and the public. According to Jake Hodesh, operations director, offering grantees “a place to hang their hat and be official” was seen as critical to helping those individuals succeed and develop a camaraderie with other grantees at the same time. This focus on a shared space came after Cincinnati designers Megan Deal and Kate Creason studied 30 such innovative spaces around the country, including Next City’s Storefront for Urban Innovation. Deal and Creason are now program directors for People’s Liberty.
All of the funding is intended to support Cincinnati’s home-grown talent, rather than import talented outsiders (read: Theaster Gates, Candy Chang) to generate new ideas for the city. In order to fund individuals directly, People’s Liberty had to plow through IRS paperwork, but Hodesh says it was “worth it.” He adds, “We want to invest directly in people, and we want to nurture, invest and retain those people.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.