Can philanthropy solve one of its biggest problems with...philanthropy?

The US is in a bit of an employment conundrum that continues to be a drag on GDP growth and, by extension, investment returns. Statistically, we are at the point economists call “full employment” and in numerous job markets (including the one right here in the Southern Tier), employers have unfiled openings due to a lack of qualified applicants.

Meanwhile, we all know people that are un/under-employed. Seriously, what is the deal? We hear about all these jobs, yet we see poverty rates stay stubbornly flat (or worse, increase) over time.

Researchers at Goldman Sachs[1] have suggested that the drag on our labor force can be attributed to three dimensions unique to the United States: higher rates of painkiller/opioid abuse and the corresponding middle-aged mortality rate, the Unites States’ high rate of incarceration compared to other countries and the employability-challenges that creates for former inmates, and sluggish retraining systems for people left without the necessary skills for new work when their job goes away due to globalization or automation.

Philanthropy typically talks about these problems as they relate to our grantmaking. We nibble around the edges with grants aimed at tackling these issues on a community-level. We might fund a new roof at a drug treatment facility or half-way house for people leaving prison. When a community college asks for equipment to improve instruction in a nursing program, we are happy to help.

But do we ever really address the massive issues propping up the clearly broken systems? No, we don’t. We admit that.

But what would happen if we really, truly solved these problems? What if a bunch of foundations and other philanthropists focused our energy for a decade or so on the disconnect between skills required by job-creators and the skills missing from job-seekers? What if we eradicated the school-to-prison pipeline and put an end to opioid addiction and gave our community colleges the resources they need to train people in advanced manufacturing and other 21st (or even 22nd!) century jobs?

It is highly likely that these actions would nudge those GDP growth figures up above 3% - maybe all the way into the 4% or 4.5% range. And guess what would grow along with the economy? Our endowments.

With those enhanced returns, we would have more money available to grant. By solving a few key social problems, we would end up creating a climate that would produce the investment returns we need to support all the other essential programs in the arts, environment, education, health care we care about… you name it, we could fund it.

Farewell social problems. Hello economic growth.


[1] If you would like to receive a PDF of the original study, “The Decline of US Participation Rate in Global Perspective” please send me an email at rlh@communityfund.org.

Sometimes, we can do it all.

Lately a lot of chatter on social media has focused on distraction. (Which is pretty ironic considering how distracting social media is to most of us!)

People are saying don't pay attention to that issue, the real problem is over here. Or, while people were busy reacting to that news, this much more important thing happened. For years, we have grown accustomed to the concept that social capital is a finite resource, so if too much is spent in one area, there will not be enough left over for other needs.

What if this way of thinking is just... wrong? 

Sure, there is no unlimited supply of money in the world. Like the really big bag of holiday M&Ms, eventually we can reach the bottom of the treasury.

But it takes more to solve problems than money. It takes ideas. It takes conversations. It takes a bunch of different people considering the problem from every possible point of view. (And, when I'm deep in problem-solving mode, it takes M&Ms.)

Those resources are far more abundant, and with new faces joining the dialogue either on-line or in real-life spaces, our social capital reserves grow deeper by the minute.

What will sap those resources faster than we can replenish them, though, is a constant state of scolding. When someone is new to the community-building world, we risk losing them forever if the first message they hear is "your thing isn't the Really Important Thing, but you can sit over there and wait for us to tell you what matters." 

First of all, what if we never knew about "their thing" because the folks most impacted never had a chance to get involved? What if "their thing" really IS the Really Important Thing? We have to be aware of our blind spots and fallibility, even after years at the table.

What's more likely, though, is that there is never going to be one Really Important Thing. Do you want to live in a society with a working economy, safe neighborhoods, high quality schools, clean water, and robust arts offerings filled with healthy, loved citizens leading dignified lives from cradle to grave? Then get to work on your Really Important Thing and support (in every way you reasonably can) the people around you working on theirs.

(Don't forget to bring the M&Ms. To me. Please.)

 

 

 

Welcome, 2017! We are so happy to see you.

The staff and volunteers of the Community Foundation tend to be a pretty good-natured, optimistic group. It seems like that kind of person is naturally drawn to our line of work.

But every five years, we really turn up the volume as we celebrate an anniversary, so get ready for some all-caps.

WE ARE TURNING 45 THIS YEAR!

For anyone who has been following us on social media since 2012, you may recall our 40 Grants in 40 Weeks surprise grantmaking program. That was when Sara Palmer and I (along with help from the board of directors and community) surprised a different grant recipient weekly with a $1,000 award. Each unexpected grant award moment was caught on video and shared with all of you via social media and through a partnership with WETM-TV.

(Here is a link to all those videos in case you missed them the first time around, or if you just want to remember Sara’s changing hairstyles or my embarrassing jazz hands.)

For fans of 40 Grants in 2012, we promise that 2017 WILL NOT DISAPPOINT.

We have some brand-new 45th anniversary tricks up our sleeves. If you don’t follow us on Facebook or Instagram yet, this is a great time to make that happen. Keep an eye on our blog, too!

Lastly, flip ahead to NOVEMBER 14 and write 45th ANNIVERSARY GALA on your new Community Foundation calendar.* Our year-long celebration will culminate with a dinner event at the Corning Museum of Glass honoring trend-setting local donors, a very special non-profit partner, and four-and-a-half-decades of forward-looking, community-building, quality-of-life-enhancing philanthropy. You will want to be there.

I’m going to sign off now, before I give away any of our big plans months ahead of schedule. All that is left to say (for now) is 45 IS THE NEW 40!

*You may have read this and wondered, “What calendar?” Our annual report/calendar is mailed to donors who gave $50 or more, non-profit organizations in our four-county area, and professional financial advisors. If you would like one, please send a quick email to Katie  with your mailing address, and we will send one to you right away. It is a beautiful piece featuring local poets and photography. Plus, it is free!

National Philanthropy Day

Something is celebrated officially each day. For instance, if you are a Parks and Recreation fan, you might want to join Ben Wyatt in spirit for National Calzone Day every November 1, or to skip the shower and take a soak instead on National Bathtub Party Day on December 5.

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But around the Community Foundation, we look forward to November 15 - National Philanthropy Day - the most. The timing, right between Halloween (AKA candy-philanthropy-night) and Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to gratitude, is perfect. Before the hustle of December hits, and after everyone has settled into the school year routine. It isn't even that cold yet in the Finger Lakes.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan* proclaimed November 15th to be a day dedicated to celebrating giving, volunteering, and other charitable engagement, communities across the globe have paused to reflect on all the good works they accomplish together.

As professional philanthropists, we plan to make our celebration more personal this year. Sara wrote letters to share with people she loves, Katie crafted some surprises for people doing great things, and I am donating stuffed animals to the Sexual Assault Resource Center for their comfort kits.

Please join us in celebrating in your own way this year too! Food pantries are looking for help with holiday baskets. Your favorite museum would love for you to give the gift of membership or visit their shop to find the perfect present. And nothing makes the loving staff at cancer treatment centers or domestic violence shelters smile quite like a quick note and a check - no matter what the amount - telling them you care about their work.

Afterward, please take a moment to tell us about what you did! Comment on this post, tag us on Facebook, or reach out to Penny Lane, Philanthro-cat, on Instagram or at pennylane@communityfund.org.

It would be an honor to share your National Philanthropy Day story! Keep an eye out for lots of Community Foundation posts from November 15 through December 31. We love watching all of you care for each other and our community... every day of the year.

*I can't wait to tell my favorite aunt, a staunch Republican with a heart of gold, that her beloved President Reagan started this whole thing. That will be my ultimate act of kindness for the day!

Can a Community Foundation be too generous?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Interestingly, generous isn’t a word you hear often in conversations about philanthropy. Measurable? Sure. Return on investment? Yep. But we shy away from the concept of generosity.

After 14 years in the field, I think I understand why. We want to ensure our donors and the community see our commitment to only funding the most efficient, well researched, and most importantly, effective programs. Our focus on metrics and accountability is crucial to the profession and quality grantmaking.

But once that has been established, why not acknowledge the fact that philanthropy is fundamentally generosity in action?

If plans, proposals, ideas, models, case studies, and data are philanthropy’s oxygen, then generosity is its carbon dioxide. We take all of that critical analysis and synthesize it into an exact dollar amount and funding strategy. What happens next – the grant, scholarship, or donation – is an expression of trust in and respect for the recipient of the funding. That’s a pretty generous thing to do.

As a community foundation, we provide a place for generous people to make arrangements to continue giving money away forever. Every year, we set up more funds and see more people come through our doors with great ideas and plans.

So, no, I don’t believe thoughtful philanthropists can be too generous. As long as we continue to be deliberate as we breathe in, we should be grateful we’ve been gifted with the opportunity to be part of our generous community that only gets stronger when we breathe out.

Seneca Falls

On September 16, a group of local volunteers, donors, and activists jumped on a bus to head to the site of one of the most subversive, divisive, and dangerous events ever staged. Daring as that might sound, we weren’t tackling a controversial issue like abortion or capital punishment. We didn’t spend the day at a political rally. No, we went straight to the beginning of the story. The Community Foundation took a field trip to Seneca Falls, NY.

It’s hard to imagine somewhere as sleepy and quaint as the Finger Lakes could hold such an exalted place in American history. Yet before these hills were known for growing reisling grapes, they were famous for growing truly radical thinkers. It was here that the movements for both women’s suffrage and the abolishment of slavery were nurtured and eventually launched onto the national stage.

The central event that really put Seneca Falls on the map was the first Women’s Rights Convention organized by Elizabeth Caty Stanton and her remarkable group of friends on July 19-20, 1848. Together, women’s rights leaders, abolitionists, and other 19th century freethinkers gathered to declare that all people must be treated as equals – regardless race or gender.

I probably don’t need to tell you that these concepts weren’t exactly welcomed by the rest of society, which is proven by the fact that women weren’t granted to the right to vote nationally until 1920 – fully 72 years later. (You can accuse the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement of a lot of things, but don’t dare call them impatient.)

No matter how much of the story you already know, I’d like to encourage you to take time to visit Seneca Falls to immerse yourself in this powerful, and excruciatingly relevant, historical narrative. Visitors are often delighted to find two terrific organizations eager to welcome and teach you all about Seneca Falls and the never-ending struggle for equality.

Women’s Rights National Historical Park

National Women’s Hall of Fame

This is a day-trip that every Finger Lakes resident should make a priority. We are lucky to have these places in our backyard, and without our support and attention, these sacred spaces could someday be forgotten.

We focus much of our work on the philanthropic legacy of our region and how that translates into grants and scholarships, but the Finger Lakes has a spectacular legacy of ideas combined with passionate people and friendships that turned these ideas into movements. Part of our work is making sure their work continues, and the least we can do is take the time to remember them.

Vague-Blogging is the Worst

Are you familiar with the term “vague-booking”? It refers to those frustrating social media posts that allude to something great or terrible happening in a person’s life but offer no details. Usually the writer is trying to get people to ask “what’s wrong” or “tell me more,” as they are looking for attention.

Well, buckle up, because I am about to annoy the world by “vague-blogging!”

The Community Foundation is in the earliest stages of planning a pilot philanthropic project, and we are looking for young adults who grew up in the area we serve that would like to move back. 

Right now, that’s all I can tell you. I’m sorry! I know I’m being the worst.

But if you know someone that fits the description, can you let them know that Randi at the Community Foundation would like a chance to chat with them for a couple of minutes?

Feel free to pass along my email address

A few months from now, I will be able to explain what we have cooking, and I’m pretty sure you are going to like it. In the meantime, thanks for your help AND patience!

Ta ta for now!

A Peek Behind the Curtain

You may have noticed a bunch of acronyms appearing in community development conversations lately, like URI (Upstate Revitalization Initiative), PRI (Poverty Reduction Initiative), and DSRIP (Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment.) These programs are pumping a lot of money into the Southern Tier to jump-start economic growth in an area that has been struggling for decades.

To those not intimately familiar with the levels of state and local government involved, I can imagine the whole thing seems like a mystery. One day you open the newspaper (or more likely, Facebook) and see a headline reading “Elmira receives $1 million to fight poverty” or “$55 million heading to St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell.” Though it looks like these things just happen, the truth is far more complicated. And dare I say… interesting?

I had the pleasure this week of seeing one of these decision-making processes from the front row.

A few months ago, the Governor invited communities to apply for another one of those pesky three-letter-programs: DRI. This one stands for Downtown Revitalization Iniative. The winning city will receive $10 million for projects to bring a struggling downtown back to life.

The DRI Team! Left to right: Jennifer Miller, Randi Hewit, Dan Mandell, Andrea Ogunwumi, and James Gensel

The DRI Team!
Left to right: Jennifer Miller, Randi Hewit, Dan Mandell, Andrea Ogunwumi, and James Gensel

Elmira’s team of planning professionals (ranging from city community development staffers to civil engineers) sprang to life and created a plan called Refresh Elmira. In addition to identifying 19 properties ready for mixed-use redevelopment, they built improved wi-fi, streetscapes, parking garage experiences, and a well-planned walkable corridor linking Elmira College to the river into a thoughtful strategy intended to serve the already 8000+ downtown residents and 1000 more on the way.

It took at least a dozen people nearly 100 hours to put this plan on paper. That’s the kind of work that is never celebrated. Some crazy number of meetings, emails, and google docs later, Elmira was invited to the final step of the selection process: a seven minute presentation of the plan.

It turns out several of the people that would make the most sense to present this work were not allowed to do so according to the rules of the competition. So the team needed to find someone knowledgeable enough about the various pieces of the plan to understand the details, but independent enough not to represent a huge conflict-of-interest.

With the clock ticking, the team reached out to the person they deemed most likely to ask a group of strangers for millions of dollars without hesitation: me. In a day that felt almost like I was starring in a legal thriller, I had to shrink hundreds of hours of planning into seven minutes – with only 24 hours until it was go-time. Thanks to that same team of planners, I had a great PowerPoint deck to cue me as I rehearsed (over and over again) my talk down to a crisp 6 minutes and 48 seconds. 

We were allowed four experts in the room to answer questions for no more than ten minutes following the presentation, so the five of us met at City Hall before travelling together to Binghamton University. The conversation flowed as we drove, sometimes diving deep into the plan, and other times changing the subject to give our minds a rest. We arrived an hour and 15 minutes early to make sure we had time to check the slides on the big screen, and for me to get comfortable with the sound system and podium before the committee arrived, at which time we were sent to a holding room down the hall.

For an hour we waited for our chance to make our pitch. We snacked a little and considered all the possible questions that could come from the folks about to vote on our plan’s fate. I went quiet as I mentally ran through those seven minutes over and over again.

Then it was time. We were brought into the room. Everything was exactly as we had prepared: the slides looked great, the microphone was positioned exactly to my height, and the podium was at the angle I needed to see my audience and the screen simultaneously. With every hair in place and freshly applied lipstick, I walked to the front of the room in my favorite heels and go-to “I mean business” black dress to convince this group of people that Elmira is the best possible place to invest $10 million in downtown revitalization.

I won’t bore you with the details of the next 17 minutes, but we all feel like it went really well. Afterward, there were lots of hugs and high fives in the hallway. We giggled with the rush of adrenaline that follows every great public speaking moment and is every bit as intoxicating as a runners’ high.

Perhaps you are wondering if we won the $10 million? So are we! We won’t know until the Governor’s office makes an announcement sometime in the next week or two. But the next time you see a headline along the lines of “Elmira secures funding for downtown revitalization,” you’ll have a better idea of what happened along the way. I can assure you the-story-behind-the-story is filled with a lot of sweat and laughter-induced-tears (no blood, fortunately!) 

Wish Elmira’s downtown luck!