Is the Value of Place Declining in Philanthropy?

Colorado mountain skyline

All of us walk around with default lenses through which we view the world. The lenses are created through our experiences and relationships, the communities and cultures in which we’re raised, and more. When we’re at our best, we’re able to separate when those default lenses provide helpful perspectives and when they limit our thinking.

One of my primary default lenses is the importance of place. Until I went to college, my family and most of my cousins lived in the same county in Indiana. My parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all active volunteers in local civic groups. The first 19 years of my professional career were focused on improving places, first through the State of Indiana’s community economic development department and then through the Central Indiana Community Foundation. The majority of the donors I worked with at the foundation focused on giving back to their hometown(s). And so far, most of my consulting clients have been focused on place.

The philanthropic sector is filled with associations focused on improving place – Grassroots Grantmakers, Neighborhood Funders Group, Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Project for Public Spaces’ Funders Forum, and many more. And associations focused on issues such as education, arts, and the environment talk about much of their work through the lens of local communities.

This philanthropic focus on place – and on hometown – is likely declining.

One window into this decline comes from the new 2015 Trends Study* by the National Center for Family Philanthropy and Urban Institute. This statistically valid survey showed that 66% of family foundations currently focus their grantmaking on geographic locations. Their mental lenses are more about place than issue. However, younger foundations are less focused on place than older ones. Only 40% of foundations formed since 2010 focus their grantmaking on place, compared to 78% of foundations formed before 1970. This difference is magnified by the fact that almost 70% of family foundations launched in the 1990s and 2000s.

Bar chart of family foundation focus areas


The survey didn’t ask the reason for focus on place versus issue. NCFP and the Urban Institute wrote in their report:

Possibly younger family philanthropists are less tied to place than are their older peers because they have grown up in a more interrelated and global economy. At least for now, issues seem to capture their attention and philanthropic support more than does a place-based approach.

And the authors posed two questions for ongoing consideration:

Is the move toward funding issues solely a result of newer foundation motivation and behavior? As families move beyond the first couple of generations, will family dispersion—combined with a need to find common ground—lead to even more issue-based giving among older foundations?

Earlier this year, Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation posed a related challenge to the community foundation field in 21st-Century Community Foundations:

The shifting definition of what community means is creating a profound identity crisis for place-based institutions including community foundations.

He credits the shift in the meaning of community to two trends:  the increased mobility of Americans (more of us are living in more locations over our lifetimes), and the increased use of technology to maintain vibrant, non-geographic communities based on nationality, ethnicity, gender, and interests and issues.

The Monitor Institute issued a similar challenge in 2014 in its Shift Happens report for community foundations, a report that is equally useful to family and private foundations. In addition to the trends Carson cited, the Monitor Institute noted the potential impact on philanthropy of:

  • The new majority – by 2043, whites will no longer be the majority in the U.S. The philanthropic practices of immigrants and people of color are seen in the increased number of racial/ethnic identity-based funds and the growth of remittances sent back to home countries.
  • Millennials – the largest generation in U.S. history currently focuses its giving more on causes than organizations, and that giving often channels through crowdfunding platforms, instead of through nonprofit online donation pages, and to recipients that aren’t charitable organizations.

The three reports all provide evidence of decreased philanthropic focus on place over time. But I wonder if that shift is more about a decreased focus on a shared sense of hometown within a family or group.

Opinions ahead…

Even as I attempt to set aside my own default lens, my sense is that place is an important part of most people’s identities. People express a passion for place through efforts to “buy local” or support neighborhood businesses through crowdfunding campaigns. They participate in corporate volunteer days at a local park or community center or volunteer through their congregation at a local shelter or food bank. They advocate to their friends to join them in supporting the local music scene or local food movement. Place can be a compelling cause, even if it isn’t a primary driver of a family’s charitable giving.

And, younger generations might be delaying their philanthropic connection to place. Perhaps they’ll be more likely to give and grant in a community in which they’ve raised their kids, built their own business, or enjoyed an active retirement. When I worked for the Roy A. Hunt Foundation, its fourth generation of trustees were ages 21 through mid-30s. Only two members of that generation lived in the founder’s and foundation’s hometown of Pittsburgh and few had settled down for the long run in any community. Perhaps in another 10 or 20 years, their patterns of giving will combine issues and places.

I’m now living in my third metro area after leaving the county in which I was raised. (The picture at the top is the view from my current place in Colorado). Along the way, a portion of my own philanthropy has shifted to each new geography, driven by the importance of place in my own values. The NCFP and other reports give me the sense that I may be more of an outlier in my giving as time goes on.

How about you? Are you seeing trends in giving and grantmaking that are focusing less on place?


* Full disclosure:  I served on the advisory committee for the NCFP 2015 Trends Report.

2 thoughts on “Is the Value of Place Declining in Philanthropy?

  1. Thanks for this article! As someone who has worked in community and with a community foundation for a number of years, your article raises a few more nuanced and potentially fundamental questions regarding the multiple lenses and biases that we all see, think and esentially act through in our lives. Personally and professionally, I have never had the luxury of separating out or not counting the impact that race and racism (be it manifested in its systemic, institutional, personally mediated and/or internalized forms individually or in several combinations) plays in the ways the I see, think and act or are seen, thought of and acted upon by others. In my opinion, dismissing the impacts that race and racism have in these studies esentially makes the studies flawed by design, unintentionally, but effectively. Conducting studies of trends in most fields, but especially when examining philanthropy, given that most (if not all) philanthropic efforts are designed to have some impact on improving society, significantly focused on populations that have been historically marginalized, without having an analysis on race minimally, and ideally a framework that includes the impacts of racism, is equivalent to trying to conduct a study examining the life cycle of the Alaskan king crab without taking into account that it’s natural habitat is water. That being said, some more nuanced and fundamental questions in philanthropic studies should also include the perspectives of not only the donors, but also the people their philanthropy is said or aims to impact. Esentially, when you speak of place in philanthropy, you’re talking about the lives of people in those places. And even when you speak of mobility you have to look at reasons for mobility. On the surface, one could assume that the increase in mobility of people who reside in cities in the United States is a good and healthy thing for people – layering in the notions of “opportunity and prosperity for all” – a narrative and lens through which many people see, think and act in “America.” But when perspectives of race and racism are included in this examination you see that mobility is forced upon some, namely people of color who have low incomes and few to no financial assets. That is known as displacement, not mobility. Assumptions about access to technology and how tech is used come into play as well. I could go on, but my primary point is let’s start including an analysis of the impacts of racism in philanthropic studies and efforts, so that instead of spending time and resources telling inaccurate empirical stories with our research, we use our research to inform ways that real impacts can be made with philanthropic resources to not only address inequities, but to also build the healthy, thriving communities and society we all want for our children and their children and so on.

  2. Bomani,

    Thanks for your feedback. The concept of place, and the quality of place, is definitely intertwined with the quality of its residents’ lives. And that quality of place can be damaged subtlety or quite visibly by inequity. My experience, perhaps also yours, is that some attempts at place-based philanthropy do a good job paying attention to equitable processes and results. Other attempts, not so much.

Comments are closed.