Rethinking Philanthropy: People's Liberty invests in people, place

When Eric Avner helped launch Cincinnati’s Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation in 2009, he and his cohorts had one goal in mind: enhancing the quality of life for residents in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky through the funds provided by a brand-new independent family foundation.
And although those enhancements can be seen everywhere you turn, from LumenoCity to the streetcar to Smale Riverfront Park, five years later Avner—the foundation’s community development manager—found himself yearning for a way to have a more systemic impact on the city. He quickly came to the conclusion that in order to do that, he would have to move beyond his high-rise office and literally immerse his team in the heart of the community. “If Ralph had known we were doing community development from the 11th floor of a downtown office building, I fully believe his head would have spun around and exploded,” Avner says.
He decided he wanted to create an outpost for the community development arm of the Haile Foundation, and the first step toward that goal was securing space in a neighborhood where the foundation felt it could—and should—have a significant impact. So they rented space from 3CDC in the four-story Globe Furniture building across from Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine, which sits at the heart of Cincinnati’s downtown renaissance. The next step was deciding what exactly they’d do there.
Avner assembled a staff that would embark on an exploratory quest to inform the mission of the organization they planned to launch within that building: a civic laboratory.
He hired two designers, Megan Deal and Kate Creason, who had been successful with similar civic lab initiatives in other mid-sized cities. From New York to New Orleans to San Francisco, the duo spent 12 weeks visiting 11 cities, looking at more than 30 labs of social and cultural innovation. Their conclusion: Most labs were struggling for resources; very few were philanthropy-bred or led; and the most successful ones were rooted in "place." So Avner threw down the gauntlet: What if they created a lab that was resourced right and invested directly in people?
Giving power to the people
In late July, Avner and Amy Goodwin, CEO of The Johnson Foundation, launched People’s Liberty (named after the Hailes’ first bank), a philanthropic lab that brings together civic-minded talent to address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati. Deal, Creason and Jake Hodesh round out the founding team.
A joint collaboration between the Haile Foundation and The Johnson Foundation, the lab is fueled by three main tenets: Innovation must be disruptive. The future of a city is determined by who gets involved. Philanthropy is more than cutting checks. Those tenets have informed a trio of official programs, including events that engage the community, creative residency for early-career talent and grants that will be awarded directly to individuals.
With an annual grantmaking budget of just over $1 million, People’s Liberty will give out three types of grants: 16 Project Grants of up to $10,000 for a period of roughly six months, three Globe Grants for interactive installations to transform the People’s Liberty storefront, and two Haile Fellowships of $100,000 each (similar to McArthur Genius Grants).
Investing in big ideas, not big organizations
People’s Liberty is hoping that the $100,000 Haile Fellowships will be a game-changer in the civic philanthropy arena, and indeed they’re already drawing national attention. In addition to the impressive pool of funds that will allow recipients to pursue their civic ideas full-time, the two grantees will receive 12 months of co-working space at People’s Liberty, and support with design, marketing and outreach. The grants will be awarded to individuals who have identified a major local challenge and have an ambitious plan for addressing it. Over the course of the year, they will be required to exhibit, talk, publish and host events that showcase their solutions and inspire actions in others.
“Foundations traditionally award funding to institutions, but we intend to demonstrate that granting directly to people can have an equal or greater return on investment. Innovation starts with an individual idea, not an institution,” says Hodesh, People’s Liberty’s vice-president of operations.
“The goal is to get the next group of people who have stuck their toe in the water of civic engagement to take the leap,” Avner adds.
Applicants must live within a 50-mile radius of People’s Liberty—no exceptions. “Cincinnati is a thriving city with great assets. But like any city this size, there are still many significant challenges and untapped opportunities. …,” Hodesh says. “We want to give local talent a leg up. People’s Liberty will directly invest in emerging and existing civic leaders who have great ideas to advance our city.”
The team has identified case studies of the types of projects they aim to support. “Local visionary Tamara Harkavy identified a local challenge and created an opportunity; she wanted to connect underserved youth with creative employment opportunities,” Hodesh says. “Over the past 18 years, she has built an exemplary program and a model for other cities. Hundreds of youth have been able to pursue their dream jobs. Cincinnati is more beautiful and creative because someone invested in Tamara’s initial idea: ArtWorks.”
People’s Liberty program director Kate Creason cites another model project she and Deal discovered on their information-gathering trip. “Conflict Kitchen is a temporary pop-up restaurant in Pittsburgh. It started as a tiny take-out window that served food from countries in conflict. An initial $10,000 investment allowed the model to be tested,” she says. “Now the kitchen is a wildly successful social enterprise; to date, 54,000 people have visited Conflict Kitchen. It has driven economic development for a blighted neighborhood and showcased Pittsburgh to an international audience. We hope to fund provocative ideas such as this one.”
The application period will kick off August 22 with a public open house at The Globe building from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Dubbed #WWYD100K (What Would You Do With 100K?), it’s intended to spark community engagement and officially announce the Haile Fellowships (click here to RSVP). Prospective applicants will have an opportunity to meet with the People’s Liberty staff to discuss their projects and applications throughout September. Applications must be submitted via People’s Liberty’s website by October 13, and the selection of fellows will be made by a panel composed of community and civic leaders. The Fellowship recipients will be announced November 14.
Rooting ideas in “place”
People’s Liberty will officially move into The Globe building in February 2015, and the lab will occupy the second and third floors, which will become prime space for creativity, collaboration and innovation. Providing co-working space for both the People’s Liberty team and its grantees is vital to the success of the initiative. “Co-work space enables diverse individuals and organizations to connect, giving them a chance to work together, share knowledge and develop systemic solutions to issues they are trying to address,” Hodesh says.
Other plans include building out 3,000 square feet of office space on the fourth floor that will be rented out by 3CDC; designing a rooftop deck to help staffers and grantees get a little fresh air and connect with the surrounding landscape; and creating a first-floor storefront that will feature installations by recipients of the foundation’s Globe Grants.
Avner and his team have intentionally designed People’s Liberty as a five-year experiment—2015-2020—to create a sense of urgency. “If someone has a great idea, now is the time to act on that idea,” Avner says.
At the end of five years, the Haile Foundation will take stock of People's Liberty’s accomplishments and think about what's next. “Perhaps we've been incredibly successful and want move it to another neighborhood. Perhaps we keep it open but open People's Liberty branches in multiple neighborhoods. Perhaps we close it all down and embark on something entirely different,” Avner says. What they don’t want to do is to create another long-term, indefinite and infinite organization.

“Every day I talk with someone with a great civic or community idea, but I've been puzzled why so few of those ideas proceeded from talk to implementation. Sometimes money is a real barrier, sometimes connections with mentors or partners are needed, and sometimes the person just needs a kick in the pants … err, I mean, some positive encouragement,” Avner says. “To get more people engaged in ‘civic doing,’ we wanted to remove as many of the barriers to implementation as possible as quickly as possible. I think People's Liberty can start to do that. But we'll only be one part of the city's civic infrastructure. Our success will rely on finding and empowering those individuals with great ideas and those who have the courage to try to implement those ideas. As we have labeled this a ‘philanthropic lab,’ we will be sharing our learnings with other funders locally and nationally, and partnering with other funders so that philanthropy better understands how to invest in place by investing in people. It's a bold experiment, and others around the country are already watching with interest. We think Cincinnati is up for the challenge.”
Check back with Soapbox to find out more about plans for The Globe building, People’s Liberty’s various grant programs and the recipients of the first two Haile Fellowships. Note: The Haile Foundation is a Soapbox underwriter.
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Read more articles by Sarah Whitman.

Sarah Whitman is a freelance writer/editor with an emphasis on design and creativity. She served as Managing Editor of Soapbox Media from 2012 to 2014.