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The Argument for Place-Based Funding

February 1st, 2015

Richard Marker

“Give a person a fish, he/she eats for a day; teach a person to fish, s/he eats for a lifetime.” In my travels around the world, I have yet to come across a culture or tradition that doesn’t have some variation of this adage. I have heard it quoted in China, India, Scandinavia, Spain….

What better way to convey the progression from the customary entry level of philanthropy, compassion, to the next level, that of strategy. Almost every funder goes through these stages and learns, or at least intuits, that there can be a more efficient method with better long term outcomes than that of responding emotionally to an immediate plea for support. Learning how and when to say “no”, how and when to say “yes”, and doing so in a planful proactive way are the basic outlines of what has become known as “strategic grantmaking.”

Strategic grantmaking is most effective in solving a specific problem or choosing among a discreet and finite number of causes or organizations. It is the necessary stage 2 of grantmaking.

To return to our metaphor: it assumes all sort of things: that one lives near a place to fish; that the fish are not mercury laden; that there are still fish in the river; that there are enough fish for all… I am sure colleagues have developed even longer lists of the limits of the fishing metaphor as the solution to larger problems. All of these symbolize the third stage of grantmaking: addressing systemic issues and not just presenting ones. While one can choose the highest quality intervention of those which are presented [e.g., which fishing method is most effective; what time of day is best to fish; what bait catches the most fish, etc.] but if none addresses underlying issues of polluted streams or overfished oceans, your funding/fishing choice, even if it is the best, simply replicates the systemic conditions for continuing hunger.

It is no wonder, then, that so many in our field argue for more overriding accountability for funding. It has become quite common for many newer funders and foundations to go immediately to the “systemic” – articulating that the purpose of their funding is to address underlying causes and not just the symptoms, eradicating and not just treating diseases, bridging sectors, taking data seriously but willing to take big risks…

This point of view has a lot to commend it. After all, millions upon millions of dollars have been spent over many years to address social inequity, environmental degradation, educational inadequacy, and in far too many instances there is little to show for it. Something must surely have been missing. Maybe funders have simply been asking the wrong questions or have had too much faith in legacy agencies and organizations.

Many legacy organizations have yet to get this, and still argue that their’s is only a problem of messaging. And of course, in fairness, it is true that many of them have done and continue to do wonderful things, often with one hand tied behind their resource-poor back. But it is also true that too many are stuck in old methodologies or ways of thinking, and confuse organizational survival with systems thinking. No wonder that “innovation”, “social entrepreneurship”, “impact” all capture funders’ imaginations.

As appealing as these systemic approaches may be, they can overlook real immediate needs or local organization that don’t aspire to change the world. One example: There is simply no doubt that adequate SNAP funding will feed far more people more efficiently than volunteer soup kitchens. We should all be advocating for more humane and responsible public funding. But I am not so naïve to think that we are anywhere close to being able to close all of the pantries and therefore they too need ongoing support.

Or another example: on a comparative basis, very few local community theatre companies or operas or symphonies can match the quality of the famous destination arts companies in our biggest cities. But it doesn’t render them irrelevant or unworthy of support. If one were to give financial backing only to the ones meeting the highest competitive rankings, most of the regional and local arts and cultural enterprises would close, to the detriment of the quality of life in communities everywhere.

Or another: I am quite sure that the vast majority of after school programs are not transformative. Many are undoubtedly pedestrian. But that doesn’t imply that they are not worthy of support, especially at times of unconscionable cutbacks at public schools all over the country.

Now these examples are not an endorsement of mediocrity. Nor are they suggestions that funders should not be concerned with performance and quality. Rather they affirm that, on the ground, there are needs on the local level, the quality of which need not rise to the level of “state of the art.” Indeed local funders are often best suited to determine what needs are indispensable, the absence of which could cause real harm to a community. A national funder may not have the boots on the ground to be able to determine that, especially if they are making non-geographically based competitive grants. That same national funder may be more committed to developing cutting edge responses to a cause or need than solving local problems.

Local communities cannot and should not have to wait for the metrics to wend their way through the funding and political systems to receive services. Commitments to local communities are important all along the way.

Now, let me repeat: this is not an argument for mediocrity. Funders can and should aid and support capacity building, technical assistance, training, access to emerging knowledge of best practice, advocacy, convening, and every other way to make local organizations reach their own optimal potential. All I am suggesting is that that optimal potential need not be, in every case, state of the art – the circumstances, the resources, the demographics, etc. may make that impossible.

There is a place for place-based funders with passionate commitment to their own communities. While not right for all funders, those who have this commitment should not be made to feel that their philanthropy is any less valid or meritorious than those committed to transformative systemic change. I suspect that, just as many who start with compassion funding on the very local level eventually work their way to becoming systemic change agents, similarly, many who start committed to radical and systemic change may well learn that support on the ground matters as well.

We need both.

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