Tú eliges/You choose,” Marta García Cabrera

July 8, 2019; Philly Voice

Please see below for the Philadelphia Foundation’s response to this newswire.

Philadelphia Foundation made headlines last week when it decided to open up a process to get the public to help them make $1 million in grants. We’ve seen variations on this idea before, and it doesn’t always turn out so well, as we wrote in this piece about a similar effort in Minnesota, where a million-dollar grant made by popular vote went to an organization that was unprepared to make best use of it and that went under three years later.

This effort is not structured in the same way, though; it is more an exercise in contest philanthropy, about which we have written a ton. Rick Cohen, in fact, wrote one of his signature pieces on it, as was planned to be practiced at a meeting of the Council on Foundations five years ago. (That session was eventually cancelled.)

In contrast to what the foundation stewards through externally directed funds $25 million each year, it has only $5 million in discretionary grant dollars. And it’s from this fund that their Key to Community grants initiative was born; it’s part of a centennial celebration for the organization. They plan to give nine grants of varying sizes, totaling $1 million, to area organizations. All winners will participate in a Leadership Institute in the fall. The winners will be determined by popular vote between now and July 26th; anyone over 18 in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York can participate.

There are three categories: Economic Prosperity, The Opportunity Divide, and Community and Civic Engagement. From 200 initial applications, Philadelphia Foundation narrowed the list to five initiatives in each category. They include things like community-based criminal justice reform, teaching and inspiring girls to pursue tech education, and building community ownership of property to stave off gentrification.

CEO Pedro Ramos said, “It was an opportunity to bring those projects to our attention, and more importantly bring the projects and proposals to the attention of the public.”

NPQ discussed participatory grantmaking earlier this week, but this isn’t  that. Citizens are being engaged to vote, but not to participate in conversations about community building. There’s no ongoing commitment from the foundation to engage voters in other grant decisions down the line. According to the foundation, a review panel “comprised of Philadelphia Foundation staff, representatives from the grants’ co-presenters and independent experts in the fields of philanthropy and community solutions” narrowed the list.

In essence, this is a popularity contest following a regular grant vetting, which smacks more of marketing than public participation or education. Still, it is a step out of their usual practice paradigm—and with a full fifth of their discretionary budget! We sincerely that they have checked in with Minnesota and will keep an eye out for the results.—Ruth McCambridge and Erin Rubin

Following the publication of this piece, we received an email from the Philadelphia Foundation. They disagree with our assessment of the program and wished to express their dissent and clarify some points. Their response, edited for formatting, appears below:

• [The comparison to the St. Paul foundation] is an unfair comparison. Philadelphia Foundation’s Key to Community initiative heavily scrutinized both the viability and sustainability of proven program already in place and the financial and operational stability of the nonprofit organization running it. We are confident that all 15 are worthy of support and have the capacity to scale for additional impact if they prevail in the voting.

• Philadelphia Foundation values and trusts the public’s feedback and reaction. As a community foundation, finding ways to expand philanthropy and support from the public for great nonprofits that meet community needs is part of our mission. Philadelphia Foundation implemented several measures to ensure fairness in the voting. The actual voting ballot leads with the programs and minimizes the power of existing name recognition for the presenting nonprofits. Placement on the ballot is not fixed – it rotates randomly so no one organization consistently has the top spot. Front-runners are revealed only after the vote is cast. The foundation also established strict guidelines on how the finalists can promote themselves so it would not be a competition based on whose marketing budget was the largest. All organizations received one-on-one pro bono social media training. As an indication of how genuinely engaged the general public has been, over 41,000 votes have been cast in the first three and a half days. This signifies to us that all the worthwhile programs have been seen by many individuals beyond each individual organization’s initial support base.

In fact, Philadelphia Foundation has historically and continuously engaged residents of the Greater Philadelphia region. For example, thousands have participated in our On the Table Philly initiative, in which community issues are not only discussed, but resources provided for directly implementing positive change. After last year’s On the Table Philly, 47 projects conceived during those conversations were funded by Philadelphia Foundation and implemented by community members. Significantly, the three categories of the Key to Community Grants were directly inspired by those conversations. We continue to engage the community: the next On the Table Philly is scheduled for this fall.

• The above is compression of the process that led to the finalists.

  • A public RFP was issued open to any nonprofit in the seven-county region.
  • Close to 200 applications were received.
  • The staff reviewed each submission to discern which who met basic discretionary grant requirements and fit the parameters of the initiative.
  • Three separate panels of judges scored the applications, then discussed and interviewed semi-finalists. These panels included grantmakers from beyond the foundation, including local and national subject matter experts in philanthropy and community issues.
  • At the end, existing programs already in place that have been proven to work at respected organizations and that had a plan in place to be scaled for further impact were presented for public vote.

• We disagree [with the characterization as a “popularity contest” and “marketing.”] Many of these nonprofits have been unsung heroes quietly doing significant work. Through this initiative, the public is being significantly educated about both the projects and the community needs they address.

• [On the subject of the use of discretionary funds,] The purpose of our discretionary budget is to address community needs, so we own this commitment with pride. Our $1 million Key to Community initiative is an expansion of our discretionary spending in honor of our Centennial.