Unusual Suspects: Two Big Funders Move Off the Beaten Path to Boost Community Development

photo: debra millet/shutterstock

photo: debra millet/shutterstock

When the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Rockefeller Foundation announced their partnership to advance economic mobility through the Communities Thrive Challenge earlier this year, the big news was that a member of philanthropy’s old guard was teaming up with one of the top new giving outfits emerging from Silicon Valley.

Now, the two funders have picked the grantees. The biggest takeaway from the 10 grantees, which will get $1 million apiece, is the geographic diversity Rockefeller and CZI managed to achieve with this challenge.

The 10 community nonprofits chosen hail from nine states and Puerto Rico. Sure, a couple grants went to organizations in cities that typically show up on these lists, like New York and Philadelphia. But nonprofits based in Montana, West Virginia and the Appalachian region in North Carolina also made the cut. Several of the grantees work with rural communities.

Related: Old and New: What's Interesting About the Partnership Between Rockefeller and Chan Zuckerberg

Though there are many regional and local foundations doing good, strategic work outside of major cities, big coastal funders tend to focus their work on the cities where they live and work.

Part of it is scale. With more people in a smaller area, urban grantmaking allows funders to support work that reaches a lot of people. Part of it is infrastructure. Bigger nonprofits with the staff and funding to amplify their stories, apply for grants and reach foundations tend to be based in cities.

Part of it is just unintentional biases. Foundations tend to be started and staffed by people who grew up and live in metropolitan areas. The foundations where they work are often based in a few major urban hubs, like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the Bay Area or a handful of other cities. It’s easier to fund what they see and know from their own lives.

Those habits are hard to break. When major coastal funders, especially ones with the size and clout of CZI and Rockefeller, make big investments in community-led work in regions outside the norm, it’s worth taking note.

Getting to such a diverse roster started out with the application process, said Rachel Korberg, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

“We also invested very intentionally in attracting applicants from a wide range of geographies across the U.S.—we held community events in places from Anchorage, Alaska, to Jackson, Mississippi,” she said.  “And through the peer review process, we ensured that every applicant had an equal voice in reviewing other applications. As a result, we attracted applications from all U.S. states and four of the five U.S. territories.”

The challenge received more than 1,800 applications for the 10 slots. Each application was reviewed and scored by five other applicants, an unusual step, and yet another sign that funders are doing more to listen to front-line voices as they engage in grantmaking to advance equity.

From there, the applications were winnowed down to a list of 80, which was then considered by a panel of experts from academia, policy, business, philanthropy and community development. Those experts picked 20 finalists, which representatives from CZI and Rockefeller visited in person.

The funders considered each applicant’s impact, potential for growth, involvement in the community, and leadership. Geographic diversity wasn’t among the criteria evaluators considered, Korberg said. But with such a diverse applicant pool, it turns out it didn’t need to be.

The 10 grantees selected represent a wide swath of the United States and its territories. The grantees include Benefits Data Trust in Philadelphia, BronxConnect in New York City, CASA in Langley Park, Maryland, Coalfield Development Corporation in Wayne, West Virginia, Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Industrial Commons in Morgantown, North Carolina, MoFi in Missoula, Montana, Onward Financial in Kansas City, Missouri, Project QUEST, Inc. in San Antonio, Texas, and the South Carolina Community Loan Fund in Charleston.

The grantees work in a range of areas, but a few general trends did emerge. Several grantees work to increase access to loans and credit, either for individuals, entrepreneurs or small businesses. Onward Financial in Kansas City runs an app and website that allows users to set saving goals and learn about managing their finances. After three months, people can qualify for responsible loans that act as alternatives to payday loans or cash advances.

MoFi in Montana and the South Carolina Loan Fund both support small businesses in their regions with access to capital and other resources. MoFi works with small businesses and entrepreneurs historically cut off from capital throughout the northern Rockies. The community loan fund in South Carolina offers loans and technical assistance to organizations that work to strengthen social and economic well-being in communities throughout the state.

Other grantees focus on worker training and placement, usually with a regional twist. In West Virginia, the Coalfield Development Corporation trains, mentors and places workers in fields like real estate development, solar energy, sustainable construction, mineland reclamation, woodworking and agriculture. The hope is to diversify local economies that have relied almost entirely on coal in the past.

In San Antonio, Project QUEST works with students who face structural barriers when it comes to getting to college. The organization helps those kids through the admissions process, supports them through graduation, and provides job placement within the first few months after graduation.

CASA in Maryland also includes worker training and placement, among several other services, including health education, citizenship and legal aid, and financial, language and literacy education. CASA specializes in working with immigrants. The nonprofit also does community organizing and civic engagement.

Perhaps one of the most interesting organizations on the list of grantees is Industrial Commons, based in western North Carolina. With an emphasis on diversity, the organization is intent on rebuilding a labor movement in the South. Workers’ rights and the labor movement more generally are typically ignored by philanthropists, even those interested in boosting economic mobility. It’s interesting to see the inclusion of an organization working in this area.

The final trend worth expanding on here is the inclusion of organizations focused on rural communities. For reasons mentioned above, it’s unusual to see this kind of work coming from national funders based in big coastal cities. Allen Smart, the project director of Campbell University’s Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis, sees their inclusion as a hopeful sign.

“It’s an important signal to rural communities and their local and regional supporters that two of the most prominent national funders recognize that important lessons can be learned from rural organizations with a track record of developing scalable approaches to help low-income people move ahead,” Smart said. “The effort was intentional about getting applications from rural communities and seeing them through a very rigorous selection process. We hope round No. 2 can include an even greater number of innovative rural efforts"

It’s worth noting that CZI and Rockefeller are not the only big funders showing interest in engaging in rural communities. Smart received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to publish a report on the state of rural philanthropy. The foundation has partnered with regional foundations leading work in rural communities in the past, as well.

There’s a long way to go before rural communities receive the same funding from big national foundations as cities do. However, philanthropies are showing a growing awareness of their historic blind spots when it comes to rural work. And that is half the battle.