Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact


A “pop-up” swimming pool in Philadelphia

People like to say that “good ideas can come from anywhere.” (The phrase generates 11.4m Google results.) They rarely act that way. Philanthropy is an “insider’s game,” the late Rick Cohen once wrote, and surveys have found that most foundations do not accept unsolicited proposals. This is understandable: Foundation executives don’t want to be swamped with lousy ideas, and they may prefer to be strategic about in their grant-making.

But still. In this political moment, when elites are quite rightly distrusted, can’t foundations find a way to open up to ideas that bubble up from below?

Of course they can.

One prominent example: The Knight Foundation, which just announced 33 winners of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge, who will share in about $5m in grants. It’s the third time that Knight has run a Cities Challenge, an open-ended competition which grew out of similar approaches that the foundation took with a News Challenge, which sought ways to improve news and information, and an Arts Challenge, which funds the arts. Over the years, Knight has reviewed well over 35,000 applications.

These challenges had ripple effects, as Knight reported:

Contests make up less than 20 percent of our grant-making, but they changed how we work as a foundation and reshaped our traditional programs.  They helped create a “safe zone” for experimentation that has influenced other areas of our grant making. It’s challenged our routines and entrenched behaviors.

Last week, I spoke with George Abbott, who, as director of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation, oversees the Knight Cities Challenge. Conventional philanthropy, he told me is “pretty much a relationship business,” built on existing ties between foundations and nonprofits. [For an example, see my 2015 post, Round Up the Usual Suspects.]  “The idea behind the challenge,” Abbott said, “was to be as radically open as possible.” This requires taking risks, and accepting failure.

I’ve got a special interest in the Knight Foundation. Its endowment, currently about $2.4bn, is built on the fortunes of the Knight family, who were the founders of what became Knight Ridder Newspapers, a high-quality chain of newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press, the paper where I worked between 1988 to 1996. The foundation’s president, Alberto Ibargüen, was an executive at The Hartford Courant when I was a young reporter there in the early 1980s. Sadly, the Knight newspapers have become mere shadows of their former selves, but, to its credit, the foundation has a vigorous program to try to strengthen journalism. It also invests in the 26 cities, large and small, where Knight once published newspapers.

kcc_colorThe Cities Challenge is now in its third year. Among this year’s winners are The A Place, a one-stop shop for new immigrants to Aberdeen, South Dakota; Atwater Beach, an urban swimming place in Detroit; The Grand Forks Freeway, which will turn bike paths in Grand Forks, ND, into skating paths in winter; and A Dream Deferred: PHL Redlining, an attempt to come to grips with redlining in Philadelphia and promote equitable community development. Those winners were chosen from about 4,500 submissions, which were whittled down to 144 finalists.

By design, the initial application is simple. People are asked three questions — What’s your project? Why in this city now? Who is the team that will execute it? — that they need to answer in 100 words or less.

Even so, the selection process is time-consuming. “Obviously, it’s a big task to read through those applications,” Abbott says. He estimates that he’s reviewed about 10,000 submissions during the three years, and says he can’t read more than about 100 in a sitting.  Knight hires about 50 reviewers who are paid a modest stipend ($1500) to work with Abbott. Each project is read by at least one reviewer who knows the city. Applicants can be individuals, nonprofit groups, government agencies or companies.

See? It’s not that hard to reach out beyond the usual suspects.

Getting comfortable with failure

It is, however, less of a sure thing. “We’re comfortable with a level of risk,” Abbott says. “We’re comfortable with failure, as long as it’s not a complete waste, as long as we learned something.”

Among other things, Knight has learned to pay close attention to an applicant’s ability to execute an idea; some ideas that sounded great foundered for a variety of reasons. One example: A plan to convert a vacant bus station in Lexington, KY, into a market for locally grown food and locally made goods has been on hold because the city had issues acquiring the facility.  “We’ve seen the biggest delays in projects that involve real estate, especially government real estate,” Abbott says. 

unbox-640Other projects pivoted. Unbox Akron, a subscription service that celebrates the Rubber City with a monthly selection of local goods and experiences delivered in a box, failed to win over consumers, but it seeking a new niche as a business-to-business venture that has helped the University of Akron attract students.

Unsurprisingly, leadership matters. “You can have a great idea,” he says, “but if you have the wrong person in charge, its not going to get very far. An average idea in the hands of great person can be transformational.” In two cases, projects never happened because the founders moved out of town.

Many winners delivered on their promise. In Philadelphia, an urban planner named named Benjamin Bryant started a Pop-Up Pool project with a $297,000 grant in 2015. It was intended to enliven dreary public swimming pools by adding custom seating, planters, umbrellas and programming such as games and classes. The effort began with the reluctant cooperation of city officials, but over time it has been embraced the city’s recreation department, which brought the program in-house and renamed it SwimPhilly, according to Abbott.

In Akron, Knight awarded $155,000 to a nonprofit to turning a vacant property into an AirBnB hostel and cultural hub to serve the city’s growing Bhutanese population. (Did you know Akron had a growing Bhutanese population? Me neither.) “There was nowhere for  Bhutanese women to sew together, which is a tradition in that community.” Abbott told me. If you’re headed for Akron, you can book a room at The Exchange House on AirBnB. 

My only quibble with the Knight Cities Challenge is that it hasn’t been subject to an evaluation that might be of use not only to the people at Knight but to others who might want to try a similar approach. Knight did publish a report called Why Contests Improve Philanthropy in 2013 to share some insights.

More foundations should experiment with bottom-up philanthropy. Some years ago, Brad Smith, the president of the Foundation Center, wrote:

Foundations receive a tax exemption on their investment income in exchange for contributing to the public good. One way to do that is to maintain at least a single program area, however small, that invites the public, in the form of nonprofits, to freely apply for grants. Besides, no matter how knowledgeable a donor, staff, and consultants might be, the next big idea out there may be the one that literally comes in over the transom.

Indeed, foundations could go a step further and consider participatory grant-making–a topic for another day.

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