Place-Based Philanthropy: Investing in Community Change

Families engaged in philanthropy may view their giving through a variety of lenses. Some pay particular attention to the family’s legacy of giving, some focus on a particular issue or cause, and many choose to limit their grantmaking to a specific city, state or region. A growing number of family foundations have taken this commitment to geographic location to another level, and made the strategic decision to engage in place-based philanthropy, dedicating the majority of their giving and personal involvement in a specific community.

My family’s foundation, the Jacobs Family Foundation, started out like most family foundations, giving grants in a variety of areas that interested us. Politically and philosophically, our family couldn’t have been more diverse. Finding an issue or approach we could all support was challenging. The first focus that we found that appealed to the entire board was micro-finance. Initially, this approach unified our divergent views of the world and satisfied both the liberals and conservatives on our board in helping poor people with a “hand up, not a hand out” approach to economic independence.

Over time, we identified two factors we felt needed to change for our philanthropy to be effective. First, we felt that the only way to truly help families and individuals in need was to change the systems that work against them on a daily basis. For instance, if you want to provide jobs for people, you also have to take into account the vital importance of access to transportation, housing, healthcare, childcare and so much more.

This concept of interconnected systems was brought home to us when the Food 4 Less grocery chain began training community residents for a soon-to-open supermarket. One day, a trainee of the program, who had also been involved in our foundation’s programs, called in to say he wouldn’t be able to make it to work. He said that he owned only one pair of black pants (part of the Food 4 Less uniform), that they were dirty and that he had to take them to the Laundromat to wash them. We realized then that there was so much more involved in changing people’s lives than merely providing them with a decent paying job.Resident investors in Market Creek Plaza celebrated the third consecutive year of receiving a full return on their investment. Approximately half of the 415 investors chose to reinvest their dividends in future community development work.

The second factor was that in order for us to work more comprehensively, we had to narrow our geographic focus to a specific area in our city. We wanted to try working on everything at once: economic development, community development and all of the social issues that affect low-income neighborhoods. We also liked the idea that we could be closely and personally involved in the work, and so in 1997 we moved our foundation to the Diamond Neighborhoods in Southeastern San Diego, a long-time disinvested urban area of the city.

A long-term commitment

We quickly realized that we were making both a financial commitment to this neighborhood as well as a long-term time commitment. While our foundation has always had a plan to sunset, our feeling was that we would stay in the Diamond neighborhoods until we went out of business. We were committing to putting all of our assets into this one grand experiment and risking it all.

After 13 years, what have we learned? We’ve learned that trust takes time. Developers in the Diamond neighborhoods had often disappointed residents. From their initial perspectives of us, that’s exactly what we looked like – developers. (Hardly anyone knew what a foundation was.) What we heard over and over was the saying that there are a lot of groundbreakings but not a lot of ribbon-cuttings. In other words, developers often promise improvements, but few actually follow through on those promises. So, when we moved into the neighborhood, there was a lot of suspicion about our intentions. Slowly, as we invited residents to join our work, trust began to build.

JFF Board Member Norm Hapke, San Diego 4th District City Councilman Tony Young, and JFF Board Member Valerie Jacobs cut the ribbon on a newly restored section of Chollas Creek, a waterway that runs through The Village at Market Creek.
We also learned how important it is to listen. Philanthropists often assume we know the answers to problems in low-income communities. As an example, it seemed natural to us that poor neighborhoods are always in need of child care facilities, so we started the process of planning a center for neighborhood children. But when we called a community meeting to hear what community members thought of our idea, nearly 100 concerned child care providers showed up and told us that there was no shortage of child care, and what was really needed was provider support through education and training. We responded by changing our strategy to help existing local child care providers with grant writing, licensing requirements, child development, and nutrition classes.

What we want most from our commitment to community development is sustainable change. We believe we can best accomplish real change through resident participation in decision-making, planning, and implementation of our work. Training as we go, community leaders are emerging and leading the work of transforming their own neighborhoods. As one resident put it: “I remember waiting for someone to come in and make changes, but I didn’t realize that I was waiting for myself.”

What drew us to invest our time and money in one community? Mostly it was our desire to witness change first-hand and to work with residents to change their community instead of deciding for them what needed to be done. We have worked hard to build trust within this community and we can see the results of that work on a daily basis. Change takes time and we will continue to invest as much as it takes.

To learn more about the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, please visit: