In 2014, a five-person team came together around a small yellow table on the 11th floor of a downtown office building to explore the role philanthropy could play in developing the next generation of community leaders.
That initial group, which consisted of Eric Avner, Amy Goodwin, Megan Trischler, Kate Creason, and Jake Hodesh, began studying civic hubs around the world looking for inspiration and ideas. Their varied backgrounds — two family foundation leaders, one architect, one designer, and one entrepreneur — gave them a vast and varied network of people to consult.
Nine months of research, connections, and ideas led to the launch of People’s Liberty in August of 2014, which not only gave grants to people with creative business ideas but also offered support beyond just cutting the check.
The first opportunity — two $100,000 Haile Fellowships — were announced on their opening day at 1805 Elm Street. It drew 400 people to the building, which at the time, was still under construction, transforming into the carefully crafted location that would be welcoming and spark imagination. The open, inviting, 8,000-square-foot space space was renovated to reflect the history of the building while embracing modern touches. This location became the hub of activity for grantors, grantees, and community members, leading to the first of five lessons learned over the course of their tenure.
“I think we’ve learned a lot in just the five years of doing People’s Liberty, of what success really looks like,” says Megan Trischler, program director. “Of course, we want bold, innovative, game-changing ideas, and I think we’ve seen some of that come out of People’s Liberty, we’ve seen some wonderful things take off, and at the same time, we’ve seen ideas that are ok ideas, but the person behind them, it’s changed their life. It’s changed their trajectory. I think all of it’s good. We’ll take all of it.”
Innovation must be disruptive.
The takeaway: five lessons
Space Matters/Space Doesn’t Matter: In People’s Liberty’s Five Years, Five Lessons report, it’s stated that “physical space has the profound ability to impact our human experience — for better or worse.”
Their physical space, located across from Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine, was chosen to show people that they intended to be part of the community. And the community responded: Grantees, community partners, and visiting groups all used the building for creative work and meetings and events of all sizes. In five years, more than 600 events welcomed nearly 48,000 people, creating and strengthening relationships throughout the city.
But while the physical space was a starting point, community development doesn’t happen in one place. So while they created the venue to host as much of the work as possible, the passionate brought in by people is what will spread through the city.
Money Matters/Money Doesn’t Matter: As the community development arm of the Haile Foundation, People’s Liberty sought to do something different. Foundations regularly grant funds to organizations, but in this case, they were investing in Greater Cincinnati by giving the funds directly to individuals.
Money motivated residents with bold visions and implementable ideas to pursue their passions now that previously out-of-reach costs were covered.
People’s Liberty, however, offered more than just checks. The staff worked with each grantee to help with connections, mentoring, and design.
“It turns out that in the vast majority of cases, the funding wasn’t cited as the primary benefit of participation in People’s Liberty,” states the report. “Grantees may have been initially motivated by the funding, but ultimately, grantees placed far greater value on the legitimacy, the permission, the connectivity, and the camaraderie that came with being a member of the People’s Liberty family.”
Change Matters/Stability Matters: From the start, People’s Liberty was designed as a five-year experiment, which meant that consistent re-evaluation was necessary for success. At the same time, consistency was important as well. Although the organization embraced change, the faces and spaces supporting it stayed the same, which allowed them to maintain a sense of stability for the community.
You Have the Power/We Have the Power: As part of the five-year experiment, People’s Liberty knew that empowering a new civic culture meant giving over much of the power to the grantees. At the same time, there is a hierarchy between grantors and grantees that can’t be eliminated entirely. The goal was to at least minimize the power dynamics of philanthropy and use their power for good and the betterment of the community.
Set the Bar High/Don’t Bar the Door: Although there was a drive for excellence, the folks at People’s Liberty soon learned that it was more important to help people start and finish a project than it was to force unattainable aspirations upon them. The core team’s network of civic designers, social innovators, and creative placemakers sometimes made them forget how hard it can be to get a community project off the ground. But that same network garnered them national recognition for creativity and a group of innovators who were able to impact the community far beyond their initial dreams.
“We'll be watching over the coming years to see if members of the People’s Liberty family run for public office, start businesses, run nonprofits, serve on boards, or lead their neighborhood organizations,” states the report. “Now that would be really powerful."