From the Good Ideas File: People’s Liberty turns community philanthropy inside out

One of the big questions underpinning the Local Economy Revolution book and a lot of other current thinking about urban and community revitalization might be summed up like this:

We have been doing X for Y years.

We can point to some improvements, but fundamentally, the problems that we started doing X to fix…haven’t been fixed.  They’re still there.

So apparently X doesn’t fully work.

What the heck do we do next?


There is some good innovative work coming out of Living Cities, a collaborative of a number of national philanthropies that has been trying to reframe and address these issues (you can check out an interview that I did with the executive director of Living Cities for EngagingCities here).  And there’s lots of smaller local organizations that are definitely trying something new.  But there’s not a lot of them that I know of who are completely rethinking how a philanthropy can make an impact on tough challenges — and placing Little Bets to figure out how to make that work.

People’s Liberty is a new initiative in Cincinnati, Ohio, that is just getting off the ground thanks to two local foundations, the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation and  The Johnson Foundation.  This recent article from ImageMedia publication Soapbox does a great job of outlining the plan of action [full disclosure: I’ve know Eric Avner, Haile’s Vice President and Senior Manager for Community Development for well over a decade (ouch… sorry Eric.).  And I’ve had the pleasure of applauding a long stream of his great ideas and excellent initiatives.]

From the start, the vision for People’s Liberty was pretty clear:

People’s Liberty will be occupying a store front here, in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine / Findlay Market area.  From

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? ….

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.

Here’s how that works:

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). [….]

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.

“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.

I think this one’s going to be a blast to watch unfold.  And I think one day we’ll be looking back at it as a whole new way to answer that question at the top.  Stay tuned to People’s Liberty.


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