March 25, 2014; PublicCEO

Income inequity in cities around the country has been brought into stark relief following the Occupy Movement’s calls about the 1% and the 99%. A recent Brookings Institute research paper demonstrated that the gap is widest in some of America’s most thriving cities. In Atlanta, for example, the wealthiest five percent earn 18.8 percent more than the poorest 20 percent of the city’s population.

Recently, the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), a collaboration between Harvard’s Ash Institute and Living Cities, convened to discuss how city governments and philanthropies could come together to address some of the issues that have caused this inequity. In a report on the results published by Living Cities, five key strategies were identified:

  • Work with, not around city government. Local government is a significant driver of the local economy, so the recommendation is that foundations should no longer avoid city programs, working around them, but should become direct partners with efforts the government is undertaking. This also means that governments have to learn how to be more effective, efficient, and collaborative in their approaches to the issues.
  • Fund key city positions. To ensure the right staff are in place within the local government and that they can be retained, foundations can pay for the salary of key workers.
  • Foster sustained collaboration. As already noted, cities must learn to act in a collaborative way. As discussions are held about how to address issues, representatives of the foundations can be brought to the table to participate. Building relationships of trust with foundations with generate their investment in initiatives.
  • Provide early-stage funding for the BHAG. Foundations are often willing to invest heavily in a good idea that is in the startup phase. Working together and coming up with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), foundations can provide the funding needed to start good ideas and bring them rapidly to scale.
  • Replicate what works. There are good ideas all over the country, so cities and foundations together can look around and see who is doing what, what is working, and bring that model to their own community for adoption and adaptation.

Some examples cited in the publicceo.com report are foundations stepping up to invest in Detroit, particularly in helping with the Institute of Art, as has been reported by NPQ. In New York, former mayor Bloomberg had called foundations to a roundtable discussion in a regular basis. He also established a “Cities of Service” initiative, encouraging cities to engage volunteers to help with projects.

Not everyone is certain this is a good idea, however. As noted in a Chronicle of Philanthropy article on the circumstances in Detroit, Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute has suggested that this is opening a Pandora’s box: Will this lead to foundations having to do the work of local government?—Rob Meiksins


This article has been altered from its original form. Although they have a content-sharing agreement with PublicCEO.com, the content originally appeared on the Living Cities blog. NPQ regrets the error.