The business of doing good: Place-based initiative People’s Liberty

Elizabeth Eagen
6 min readOct 24, 2017

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As far as place-based initiatives go, People’s Liberty feels a world away from traditional philanthropic efforts to invest in cities. Set up by the Haile Foundation, People’s Liberty occupies offices in the center of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. It was founded as a “philanthropic lab that brings together civic minded talent to address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati.” The group is halfway through a five-year limited term to do this. People’s Liberty focus is on getting the funds to an individual with a great idea, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the grants is intriguing for the business of doing good. Can you change the community by investing in people to experiment with good ideas?

The value set

I had a chance to discuss PL’s process, values, and aims with CEO Eric Avner, who laid out the metrics in broad strokes: have we made a difference in the lives of people in greater Cincinnati? Have we empowered individuals? Are we learning and leveraging so that others, outside of our organization, can learn too?

PL gives three types of grants. Project grants, selected twice yearly, give individuals $10,000 for project-related costs, workspace and professional support for preliminary brand and story components to implement innovative community development. Globe Grants give teams or individuals $15,000 to take over one of two storefronts to transform it into an interactive experience engaging the surrounding neighborhood. And two Haile Fellowships of $100,000 a year provide a year-long “civic sabbatical” to research, plan, implement and present a big idea to change the community’s future.

It might not seem obvious that People’s Liberty grants are really about the business side of doing good. After all, it’s still philanthropy in the form of a grant, capacity building, and coaching. However, by giving a number of people a small amount of money to try something out, explicitly not requiring more permanence than that, People’s Liberty is incentivizing experimentation. Nobody has to quit a job or start a nonprofit to spend $10,000 in project grants, but it might be the start of something new. And even when the scale is greater, such as in the civic sabbaticals, Avner said the most important piece of advice they give recipients is not to spend too much time at the start trying to figure out whether you’re a business or a nonprofit: step away from that and begin building on your idea.

The critical business side of things for me here has to do with size, scope, and mission. It’s clear that with individual grants in small amounts, the philanthropic aim here is not institutional investment in an NGO. Rather, it’s money that on the foundation’s side, fulfills its aims on community empowerment. For the individual recipients, it’s a grant that gives them the funds to test an idea — and that idea could be a business or it good be a nonprofit. It’s an incubator for the possibility of dual engagement, the “maybes” in the back of our minds. It mitigates some of the risk of trying to turn a hobby or an interest into a business, and that in turn engenders freedom to experiment. Because PL is a high-touch funder, expecting to support projects through every phase, it can take on more risky projects. And it creates new opportunities to do civic engagement — as Avner put it, that’s 200+ people who had never interacted with city regulations before, and now have an empowering experience under their belts.

The enterprise

In terms of process, the application is the start of a consultation with the community. Application grant cycles are announced, in a public event and online. People’s Liberty follows up with information sessions, where individuals can get up to 20 minutes for 1:1 feedback on their submissions. Applications are reviewed by juries of three people holding expertise in civic work, arts, and business, and the group strives for demographic diversity as well as a diverse length of time as residents of Cincinnati. Each group reviews around 30 applications, which also have further feedback from PL staff, and eventually the juries winnow to 10 each, and then 8 finalists and 2 alternates are announced.

I say all this to link back to the idea that the enterprise is the strategy. The way PL reviews projects is almost as important as the projects that they choose, because that feedback and the ongoing consultations with experts, even for projects that don’t make it, increases the capacity of the city’s interested residents overall to develop a civic oriented project’s business plan. If PL gets on average 110 applications per cycle, that’s roughly 36 hours of 1:1 consultation just at the beginning stage. Because the parameters of an application are so wide open, that’s advice and workshopping that is true to the brainstorm of what you want to accomplish, rather than locking advice-seekers into a specialty (a loan officer, a small business consultation, a foundation). Measuring the outcome on the acceleration of Cincinnati’s talent will have to include some metrics for that ripple effect.

Impact

I’ve argued before that place-based initiatives change economic growth by tying an effort to an existing local population. A tour through the stories on People’s Liberty website is a goldmine of ideas and experiments (all descriptions quoted extensively from the site, which itself is well worth a read!).

Here’s what’s going on with $10,000.

  • Drivewell is a free six-week course on auto mechanics. The class empowers people to perform regular car maintenance on their vehicle, learn how to identify an honest mechanic and learn how to avoid common automotive shop scams. Students will use their personal vehicle throughout the course, so they will be able to perform their own maintenance in the future.
  • Using milk crates, The Abundance Box creates modular intensive gardens as a sustainable, affordable and flexible way of getting fresh produce into the hands of those lacking accessible food. The modular garden model gives the person most in need direct access to their own fresh ingredients. It allows garden users the ability to utilize minimal space and tight areas like apartment buildings by creating a stackable, light-based production system.
  • Made in Cincinnati wants to make it easy for consumers to support Cincinnati makers, crafters and artisans anytime, anywhere. Made in Cincinnati is a way to provide the world with goods from the region’s best creatives, while building a sense of support and community among the featured makers by documenting their stories and sharing their creative processes. Made in Cincinnati launched during Small Business Saturday in the fall of 2015, and continues to expand in reach and number of creatives featured.

The opportunity to use the storefront for the Globe Grants makes it possible to test market fit without a long lease.

  • The Green Store aims to help visitors discover and incorporate sustainability into their lifestyle. The Green Store highlights sustainable clothing and products, while playing host to a robust program of interactive happenings such as screenings and workshops.

And the year-long civic sabbatical can support place-driven niche markets:

  • Brandon Black used his Fellowship year to explore traditional apprenticeship in the age of technology. Brandon believes there are many people, namely elders, willing to share working knowledge and expertise to novice, able-bodied home rehab enthusiasts. Brandon spent 2016 narrowing the relational gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials, by connecting them through home repair projects that bring out the best in both generations. His project, Retire Repair, seeks to re-imagine the role of elders, beautify neighborhoods and increase home values. Brandon believes his exploration and learnings could be used to develop future models, incorporating other disciplines with inter-generational apprenticeship.
  • Tamia is spending her Fellowship year developing Tether, an infrastructure that connects Cincinnati’s growing community of image-makers (photographers, wardrobe stylists, fashion designers, hair & makeup artists and models) to each other and to opportunities for work, so people can earn a living and stay here in Cincinnati. Tamia is developing new ways for people to find opportunities and share information via events, a website and a print sourcebook that highlights Cincinnati image-makers that will be sent to targeted agencies and brands nationwide.

Urban resilience and renewal can take place on a huge scale — as the Resilient Cities efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation have demonstrated. But significant change can also well up from a much smaller intervention and investment, where change and creation might be as local as a storefront, a 1:1 consultation, or in supporting civic interests, block by block. People’s Liberty supports people to develop their plans about impact even before they’re asked to choose to become some kind of business or nonprofit. By being agnostic about the vehicle to deliver impact, People’s Liberty critically places value and revenue generation more on the same footing. It asks the community itself to participate in evaluating and improving proposed projects that will affect it. And by doing so, it aims to shift the power to identify what a region or place needs into more people’s hands.

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