NationSwell has spent nearly a year facilitating  the ‘Putting Place-Based Impact Into Practice’ Collaborative: an initiative focused on uncovering opportunities for more funders to implement  place-based philanthropic strategies that ensure that growth and development in different geographies across the U.S. is community-centered, enriching for local and new residents, and equitable for all. 

To understand the significance of place-based strategies and why buy-in across the public and private sectors is essential to their success, we spoke with two of our Collaborative experts: Tomi Hiers, Vice President of the Center for Civic Sites and Community Change at the Annie E. Casey Foundation (Casey), and Tony Pipa, Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution.

Here’s what they had to say:

NationSwell: Tell us a little about the work you do as it relates to place-based impact. What’s unique about the work you’re leading? What are the strategies, approaches, or models you use to reach your goals? Tomi, let’s start with you.

Hiers: Casey’s place-based work — that we call community change work — supports local efforts to improve communities where young people and their families live, work and play, in the Foundation’s hometowns of Baltimore and Atlanta, as well as strategic initiatives in targeted cities across the country. Our work continues to be undergirded by the belief that strong communities are possible when young people have the family connections, relationships, communities and educational and employment opportunities they need to thrive.

Our current approach has evolved, informed by lessons from earlier place-based initiatives. Take our first attempt at large-scale community change, New Futures. This five-year effort launched in 1988, and aimed to improve opportunities for kids living in low-income neighborhoods and at-risk of dropping out of high school. It taught us some key lessons for this type of work. What really stuck with me was that addressing issues narrowly defined by institutions does not change individual lives. Plus, not every community is ready to take on comprehensive change; and you have to make space for mid-course corrections.

Making Connections (1999) was another example. It was a really ambitious 10-year community change initiative launched in ten sites across the country, aimed at improving the lives of children using a comprehensive approach towards strengthening families. We learned many things — critically, the importance of integrating services for children and parents; recognizing unique challenges each community faces; understanding complexities of managing and measuring community change; setting realistic goals and defining effective ways to harness and learn from data.

NationSwell: Amazing — thank you for such a comprehensive overview and insights. Tony, you are focused on rural communities. Tell us more about your approach.

Pipa: I lead two different initiatives around place-based impact: 

Firstly, I work with local government officials and leaders of local institutions in cities, globally, that use the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a policy framework. The SDGs require a data and goal-driven discipline, where targets are set with transparent, concrete metrics and an end date; this can mobilize collective action and widespread participation and partnerships. Since they are a global framework, it also allows local residents to see the solutions they pursue in their own community as a contribution to progress at a global scale. 

Secondly, I focus on improving the effectiveness of federal policy to support and improve economic opportunities and resilience in rural places that have been left behind in the U.S, and are exceptionally diverse, racially, geographically, and economically. These small towns have limited governance capacity – volunteer elected officials, thinly staffed city halls, limited ecosystem of nonprofit and public institutions, and people involved in place-based strategies may already hold multiple positions in the community. However, people from different socio-economic backgrounds are more closely integrated in rural communities, and the lack of bureaucracy means progress can happen more immediately with the right people and resources. 

NationSwell: This work requires such human empathy with the communities you serve. I’d love to know more about your personal journeys into this work. Was there a moment in your personal life or in your professional journey that led you here?

Hiers: My mom was a longtime union member and organizer (I call her Norma Rae!), so I have always focused on finding ways to “make things better” for others. I almost followed in her footsteps to become an organizer, but instead began my career in the Baltimore Mayor’s Office, coordinating a community violence prevention program which sought to not only reduce crime, but reduce the “fear of crime.” The voices of the people who lived in the communities where the work took place were integral in setting priorities, developing strategy and getting the work done. 

I am fortunate to have been taught to not only understand and respect the expertise that exists in communities, but the magic that can happen when community leaders and those who oversee agencies and institutions work together, crafting holistic solutions to tackle problems. Deep collaboration has been a constant throughout my career and it remains important.

Pipa: The primary objective underlying my professional career has been to address the root causes of poverty and open up opportunities for people who are marginalized in their efforts to fulfill their potential, whether because of their race or where they live. My very first job was as the first executive director and employee of a local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, and it showed me how the community itself – the physical place and its local history, institutions, culture, level of political power and investment – was central in defining the realm of possibility available to the people living there. 

As someone who grew up in a rural town of about 2,000 in central Pennsylvania, I have an intrinsic appreciation of how my place molded me – my values, my dreams, my aspirations. While “identity” is a word oft-used to describe our politics today, we generally think about it in relation to a person, forgetting that communities have identities too – and that the future prospects of a place are closely linked to its identity. 

NationSwell: We’ve been hearing about the idea of “thinking globally and acting locally” in some form since 1915, when Patrick Geddes wrote Cities in Evolution. But from your perspective what’s behind the recent surge of interest in place-based impact?

Pipa: Inequality has surged in the last several decades, with growing awareness of the extent to which wealth and income have aggregated at the very top of the socio-economic scale. Yet that surge in inequality is not confined to individuals – our country has also experienced rapid and significant geographic inequality. A small cohort of “superstar” cities have primarily driven economic growth in the U.S. since the mid-2000s, leaving behind many other communities, especially places in the middle of the country and rural areas. Even before the pandemic struck in early 2020, employment and labor rate participation in rural areas had not recovered to levels experienced before the Great Recession of 2008. Recognizing that places have been left out and left behind has captured the country’s attention, with renewed interest in undertaking strategies and approaches that can more evenly distribute prosperity, economic security, and resilience across the country at the macro level and across different communities and neighborhoods at the micro level. 

Hiers: I have always believed that people with lived experience should be involved in defining the issues that impact them and developing the necessary solutions. That thinking has become more widely accepted, post 2020, in my opinion. Increasingly, there are expectations that advisory boards and committees include impacted populations or that there will be mechanisms for the “voices” of those who are impacted to be a part of the processes of finding solutions.

Lessons that Casey learned through its earliest community change work, include the belief that resident involvement and leadership can mean the difference between short-lived and lasting change in a community and that residents should be actively involved in shaping their neighborhood’s future. In Baltimore, the Workforce Development Board — charged with guiding the expenditure of federal workforce funds — now not only has a committee focused on youth workforce needs, but that committee actually includes young people and meets during times that are convenient for them.  

NationSwell: What do you think is most promising about place-based strategies and their ability to support thriving communities?

Pipa: Change must be owned and led by the people who live in a community for it to be successful and sustained. From my perspective, place-based strategies force us to rebuild our democratic muscle – ie, they help communities create governance models, collaboration, partnerships, and even interpersonal relationships that are literally democracy in action, with people coming together to create solutions to the problems their communities face or to expand opportunities for their collective future. From an informal coalition of farmers in rural Michigan who jointly negotiated a revenue-sharing lease for a major clean energy project, to an initiative where the leaders of fifteen jurisdictions worked together to create shared priorities on managing the growth brought by a major industrial development in central Ohio, I have been amazed to witness the diversity of cooperation reflected in different place-based strategies, and it offers optimism for our future as a country. 

Hiers: I think the practice of joining existing work happening in communities, rather than starting from scratch, is very promising. As a national funder, Casey appreciates and takes advantage of opportunities to join, support and strengthen existing community-based initiatives, bringing not only our investments but also what we have learned over the years to those efforts. 

NationSwell: What are some of the biggest challenges — systemic or otherwise — in the space for you, and for your peer leaders?

Hiers:  Single or even clusters of neighborhoods are not the unit of scale that is necessary for long-term change. So, leaders must think simultaneously about short-term outcomes and the on-ramp to long-term outcomes. In other words, we should think about the path toward making things better not just for the kids in one school, but the kids in the entire school district.

Pipa: In an increasingly polarized political environment, divisions and differences in communities have become sharper and sometimes even threatening. This makes it challenging to build the trust and relationships that can enable place-based partnerships to succeed. It can even make it hard for people to believe in the possibility of coming together for collaborative action, dampening that all-important currency: a sense of hope.

Also, for place-based partnerships, depth of impact may be as important or as consequential as breadth of impact. This may require a shift in language or mindset for some philanthropies, and require time and a willingness to change. 

NationSwell: Thank you for sharing your experience on this issue. To finish, is there a call to action you have for others who are interested in putting place-based strategies into practice?

Hiers: First, think about how the program or innovation will gain traction to positively impact more people over time. Working with systems, agencies and institutions matters: programmatic interventions are not a permanent solution for deeply entrenched issues that typically reside in public agencies. 

Second, make space at the table for everyone, including community residents and young people. Resident involvement and leadership can mean the difference between short-lived and lasting change. 

Third, join existing efforts, versus starting from scratch. Finally, tell stories and don’t be afraid to share lessons, even the bad ones. Understanding what did not work is just as important as understanding what worked.

Pipa: 1. Set a diverse table and be intentional about building relationships and trust. I recently talked with a place-based collaborative redressing local health disparities that over its couple-decade existence has started every meeting with a meal. 

2. Listen, then lead from behind. Let communities fashion their own agenda based on their own unique history, political dynamics, and set of partners and relationships – and then support that. 

3. Challenge yourself to recognize that depth of impact may sometimes be what the situation calls for.

4. Provide a platform for stories from the very beginning. The stories a community tells about itself are a key part of a community’s identity – support and reinforce this, and above all, don’t forget it!