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Guest Commentary: A Better Way to Give

How the Philadelphia Foundation's crowdsourcing the award of a $200,000 grant made one charity understand itself better

How the Philadelphia Foundation's crowdsourcing the award of a $200,000 grant made one charity understand itself better

Philanthropy is one of America’s long-standing and beloved traditions. In an idyllic sense, it goes hand in hand with the democratic ideals of this land, championing the welfare of all citizens and distributing private resources for the greater societal good. Of course, like so many traditions—I’m looking at you, Thanksgiving Dinner—philanthropy in practice often times falls short of philanthropy idealized.

One shortcoming of the more institutional dimensions of philanthropy, the grantmaking activities of private foundations, stems from the assumption that professionalized staff and board members are best equipped to assess how and where to distribute funds to have impact in the community. It is rare for foundations—family, corporate, or community-based—to provide a seat at the table for the beneficiaries of any grantmaking process, namely the people who are directly afflicted by the issue or problem being addressed.

VideoWhile the work of foundation decision-makers is both noble and well-intentioned, it can be informed by a perspective wholly different from the one shared by the community members that the program or initiative will engage. A litany of professional degrees and decades of nonprofit experience are valuable tools in the funding toolbox, but of equal value is the input of those from the affected communities. When those most deeply connected to an issue are afforded an active role in addressing that issue, only then can real change be achieved and sustained.

This past year, the Philadelphia Foundation unveiled its Key to Community Grants initiative, a $1 million first-of-its-kind grantmaking effort designed with that principle of community participation in mind. The initiative, launched in January 2019, opted for an open application process that generated hundreds of letters of intent from nonprofit organizations throughout Greater Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Foundation program team applied a set of merit-based criteria to determine which of the applicants would proceed to the next phase of submitting a full proposal. After another layer of review, a small cohort of applicants were invited to present the essence of their respective proposals before a review panel comprised of Philadelphia Foundation staff, representatives from the grants’ co-presenters, and independent experts in the fields of philanthropy and community solutions. That review panel selected 15 finalists, five from each of three categories: Economic Prosperity, The Opportunity Divide and Community & Civic Engagement. This rigorous process leveraged the collective expertise assembled by the Foundation to ensure a strong set of finalists with impactful solutions and the proven ability to execute.

The final stage, however, shifted the power to the hands of the public.

‘[B]ecause we wanted to spread the word about top-tier nonprofit programs and have everyone experience the responsibility and satisfaction of philanthropy,” said Pedro Ramos, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation, “We asked the public to vote among [the] 15 finalists.”

Let that notion—a novel one in philanthropic giving—sink in for a moment. The Philadelphia Foundation, which developed the Key to Community Grants initiative as a means of celebrating its centennial, placed the power to distribute $1 million in funding directly in the hands of the general public. The century-old community foundation did more than give the community a seat: it actively stepped away from the table.

“As the region’s oldest and largest community foundation, finding ways to expand philanthropy and generate support from the public for great organizations and programs is who we are,” Ramos explains. “Connecting with people to change what needs to be fixed now, to support what needs to endure and to improve conditions for the next generation is what we do. In short, our work and our partners are Key to Community.”

Naturally, this bold and innovative foray into the democratization of grantmaking engendered both applause and critique. The critics expressed displeasure that these organizations engaged in important civic work were forced to compete against one another for online votes. Further, the competition may have advantaged organizations with larger networks that could be more readily activated. Others felt that the three-week voting period was too drawn out, forcing nonprofits to focus on bombarding their networks for 18 days at the expense of prioritizing other, more pressing organizational work.

Custom HaloBut for us at Philadelphia Youth Basketball (PYB), the final voting stage was an epiphanic experience. In the quest to get out the vote and win a substantial grant in the Community & Civic Engagement category, we realized how much the democratized final stage played to our strengths. Operating as a decentralized community organization with just over four years of operating experience under our belts, the voting process forced our organizational values of distributive leadership, community participation, and the sharing of power into action. This voting stage was an exercise in grassroots mobilization, base-building, and community empowerment—tactics that fall squarely into our wheelhouse.

Every touchpoint of PYB was activated throughout those 18 days. Our program communities—members of the Middle School Partnership Program, Collegiate Summer Camp Series, and HoopHers—joined in the effort, from family and friends of our student-athletes to faculty and staff at our partner schools. Friends and advocates in the Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church circulated voting information throughout their congregation. Fellow member organizations of the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative (PYSC) distributed voting prompts to their networks via email and social media throughout the campaign. Our summer interns spread the word to their collegiate communities, student groups, and beyond.

In the days and weeks since we were awarded first place in our category, the PYB community has been buzzing about the energy of the campaign. We have received our fair share of congratulatory notes and comments for which we are grateful. In the same thankful breath, however, we remind everyone that we did not achieve success with support from the community. Rather, we achieved success with and through the community—through the advocacy of our volunteers, supporters, and most importantly, of the people and the communities whom our programming is designed to uplift. There is no ‘we’ and ‘them’ regarding Philadelphia Youth Basketball and our community. There is a collective ‘us,’ inclusive of the communities which we serve and without regard to the lines that typically divide people – lines of race and ethnicity, economic circumstance, religion, and neighborhood.

It was inspiring to see the collective level of advocacy and mobilization achieved during the final stage, particularly when asking for a vote rather than money. Taking 30 seconds each day to vote and ask friends, family, colleagues, and strangers to do the same created a bridge for relationship-building: it emboldened existing ones, awakened dormant ones, and sparked new ones. Surely, the $200,000 grant to support the doubling of our program reach and the creation of a leadership immersion for high-potential staff members and partners from the same communities as our young people is of tremendous value. But, the other tangible organization-building benefits are also substantial. We expect to see the benefits of the Key to Community Grants initiative continue to reveal themselves for years to come.

Read MoreWe commend the Philadelphia Foundation and are thankful for their innovative grantmaking. The fresh approach to seek a more democratized grantmaking process resonated throughout our organization. It gave our community an opportunity to engage in the amazing responsibility of philanthropic fundraising and share in the success of those efforts, a powerful shared experience made possible by the nature of the public voting process. If this approach is the next evolution of community grantmaking, giving a greater voice to the communities we serve, then Philadelphia Youth Basketball is excited for what tomorrow brings. Each and every one of us.

Kenny Holdsman is CEO, president and co-founder of Philadelphia Youth Basketball; Pat McGuire is PYB’s marketing & special events manager.

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