By Scott Westcott
For Denver Foundation President David Miller, the only way to truly revitalize a struggling neighborhood is by connecting – truly connecting – with its residents. That’s exactly what the Denver Foundation has strived to do over the last several years through its Strengthening Neighborhoods program.
The program is one of several the Foundation operates that are guided by a core mission aimed at engaging local communities in ways that extend well beyond the traditional approach of funneling all funding and resources through established charities or social service agencies.
For instance, Strengthening Neighborhoods features grassroots funding grants that can be as simple and straightforward as providing seed money – literally – for an urban pumpkin patch. “I sincerely feel that we are using our money the way the community wants,” Miller says. “We are being responsive to the real needs and making a direct impact in a lot of small but meaningful ways.”
Focusing on community strengths
The Foundation’s community-centric focus has evolved since the mid-1990s, a time during which the organization was in the midst of considerable soul searching following a less-than-flattering report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
“It was pretty scathing criticism depicting the Foundation as being out of touch with the community, and not responsive to the disadvantaged,” says Miller, who took over leadership of the Foundation a short time later.
In response, the Foundation embarked on an ambitious campaign to better understand community needs as a means to develop and deepen relationships within Denver’s underserved communities. All told, 100 volunteers put in 1,500 hours to engage in the questioning and listening campaign that identified a range of ways to improve local communities and address social challenges.
The approach by the Foundation was modeled largely on the fundamentals of the Asset Based Community Development , which had been established by Northwestern University Professors John Kretzmann and John L. McKnight. Rather than focusing only on community problems, the approach seeks to uncover and use the strengths within a community as a means for sustainable development and ongoing improvement.
Grassroots efforts take hold
Out of the listening campaign in Denver grew the Strengthening Our Neighborhoods initiative that features $100 to $5,000 micro-grants directed toward grassroots efforts executed by the local residents themselves. The Foundation initially targeted nine low-income neighborhoods where it had started to develop relationships through the listening campaigns. Today, the program is open to residents from low-income communities throughout the seven counties of the Metro Denver area.
“A lot of it is really small, grassroots type stuff,” Miller says. “Maybe it’s a woman in the neighborhood who has offered to tutor after school and the grant pays for pizza so those kids aren’t hungry and can focus on learning. It can seem small, but over the years we have given away millions and millions of dollars that way. It goes back to McKnight and the idea that there are already assets in those neighborhoods that can be supported and nourished.”
The results of these grassroots measures are often difficult to measure, Miller concedes. The Foundation regularly interviews community members as well as contracting with independent organizations to conduct surveys. It has also initiated a local leadership training program aimed at developing leaders within the neighborhoods.
“The reality is a lot of it is based on faith,” he says. “It is much more qualitative than quantitative. We are doing a lot more good than harm. I truly feel that we are using the money the way the community wants it to be used.”
Adding the inclusiveness angle
Another effort to fully engage communities it serves has been the Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project. The program evolved in part out of the Strengthening Neighborhoods effort, and the realization that many of the boards overseeing community efforts were made up predominantly of white males.
The inclusiveness work occurs on three levels:
- Individuals: The Foundation has sponsored training for diverse groups of people to serve on non-profit boards as well as establishing an internship program at non-profit organizations, which has more than 100 graduates.
- Organizations: Grants are given to help organizations become more inclusive as well as offering training programs and resources aimed at increasing diversity and inclusiveness.
- Philanthropy sector: Aiming to share their insights and lessons learned about the value of inclusiveness, Miller and others from the Denver Foundation frequently write and speak to non-profit and other audiences.
This post is part of the #CF100 Series of blog posts . The Council on Foundations is marking the 100th anniversary  of the nation’s first community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, by highlighting the roles of community foundations with this series.
‘Who is not here?’
The inclusiveness effort has broadened the community involvement and activism among people from all walks of life in Metro Denver. “One of the questions we always ask of ourselves, regardless of what we are working on is “who is not here?” Miller says. “Who is not at the table who maybe should be?”
“For example, one of our committees is focused on basic human needs. It gives away millions of dollars. On that committee are three women who are, or have been, homeless. The information they share is as valuable as someone who might have expertise in homelessness.”
The inclusiveness program has profoundly impacted the foundation itself, Miller says, as the deeper exploration “has forced us to confront our own biases.”
The Foundation has adopted a more inclusive approach throughout the organization. In recent years, board chairs and members have come from diverse social, racial, and religious backgrounds as well as sexual orientations. And the shifting mindset filters through the organization where the staff is diverse in myriad ways. “Our IT guy is deaf and mute,” Miller says. “It works out fine. We communicate by e-mail.”
Ultimately, the transformative thinking both within the Foundation and in how it approaches its work has forged deeper engagement with a wide range of Denver’s communities, Miller says.
“I think it has made it easier for people in neighborhoods to trust us,” Miller says. “We didn’t come into neighborhoods and say we know what is good for you. We listened, we learned, and we partnered with those in the community to build on the many strengths that already existed.”