It’s the most charitable time of the year. Known as National Giving Month in the United States, nearly one-third of American donations occur in December. Historically, most philanthropy has focused on providing goods and services to people in need, but more recent efforts have aimed to target communities’ holistic needs—providing resources and infrastructure to address local social and economic issues. This kind of giving—known as place-based philanthropy—often relies on close coordination with local organizations and residents who best know the most pressing needs and the strategies to address them.

NYU Steinhardt professor Beth Weitzman has evaluated a range of philanthropic programs designed to meet people's health, social service, housing, and educational needs. Most recently, she and co-authors from NYU Steinhardt, NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and two New York-based foundations published Exploring Flexibility in Philanthropic Funding for Place-Based Efforts to Improve Community Health: Reflections on a New York State Multisite Initiative, discussing their findings from an evaluation of the $22 million Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative.  The initiative, a six-year effort in nine geographically and demographically diverse communities across New York State, aimed to facilitate healthy living through environmental and policy changes that enhance access to nourishing, affordable food and effective spaces for physical activity. The initiative was a collaborative effort between the New York Health Foundation’s Healthy Neighborhoods Fund Initiative and The New York Community Trust’s South Bronx Healthy and Livable Neighborhoods initiative.

In her report, Weitzman and her co-authors evaluated unique successes and pitfalls that offered valuable lessons for future place-based philanthropy.

Local vs Foundation Priorities

When governmental or philanthropic organizations fund a prescribed model for making change in a community, local needs, strengths, and experiences might not be sufficiently considered. The Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative was designed to build on local knowledge to enhance the likelihood of success, even as the funders had specific goals. Ongoing and respectful communication proved key to balancing these perspectives. 

Opportunity: “In the Near Westside neighborhood of Syracuse, New York, residents underscored the importance of public safety; they saw crime as a key barrier to physical activity. Public safety efforts were supported by the Initiative to encourage park use. Philanthropists listened to the community to significant benefit for all.”

two senior women doing yoga in the park

Credit: Getty Images/FG Trade

Pitfall: “In contrast, East Harlem also focused on needed public safety measures. Locals proposed better street lighting and signage, but these changes were not well-tied to the goal of increased physical activity. In this case, the local and foundation priorities were not aligned.”

Staffing

In place-based efforts, local leadership is responsible for setting priorities and engaging with partners, and identifying community-based organizations that serve a “quarterback” function of implementing locally-developed solutions. Such skilled convenors are hard to find and to maintain—turnover in the local collaborating organizations, including key staffers, was frequent, but in several sites, the funders were able to “kick start” the process by identifying an organization with deep local knowledge and existing collaborative relations. 

Opportunity: “In East Harlem’s Health Department neighborhood center and in Clinton County’s Health Department, the Initiative found leaders with the longevity and experience to quickly commence, and then continue moving the work forward. Both sites engaged local partners with mini-grants to improve the food and exercise environments.”

Pitfall: “Even when good convenors are identified, it can be difficult to maintain the work over time. In Niagara Falls, much of the early work benefited from its resident-led approach. But, while these individuals had a great knowledge of and commitment to their communities, their lives took them in other directions to the Initiative’s detriment. Without organizational infrastructure, much effort went into merely sustaining the working group of volunteers while activities to encourage physical activity and healthful eating remained small in scale. The resident-led approach became even harder to maintain once Covid restrictions were put in place.

Community Trust 

In order to work effectively in convening community stakeholders, an organization must be seen as trustworthy and respected by other organizations and residents. 

Opportunity: “While, in general, local leaders are well-positioned to build community trust, facilitate collaboration, and surface residents’ needs, trust does not necessarily require that the lead organization be situated in the target community. In Hunts Point, the effort was spearheaded by an organization that was headquartered outside of the community but it had built a well of trust through prior years of engagement and service delivery within it. This allowed it to be an effective convenor. Working with their existing partners and building off their ongoing organizational relations, this convenor catalyzed a resident-led advocacy and lobbying effort to improve the local physical activity environment through improved sidewalk lighting and other enhancements”

Pitfall: “Community trust in individuals doesn’t mean that the community has trust in the individual’s organization. On the Lower East Side, well-regarded staffers could not overcome the distrust of the convening organization, which was in turmoil due to simmering neighborhood tensions related to urban renewal efforts and gentrification.  In Claremont, local history also came with a fair bit of baggage, which also impeded trust.”