Blog: Amplify

Creating Big Impact in Small Cities

Here in Massachusetts, attention is turning to the lack of philanthropic support for small cities with high poverty rates. The Boston Globe recently profiled Brockton Superintendent Matt Malone, who unsuccessfully attempted to attract private donors to a school system that is both high poverty and high performing. “I’ve had great conversations with all sorts of people,” said Malone. “It’s either you are not big enough or glamorous enough. Some of these folks, they kind of like the bright lights, big city appeal.”

Conventional wisdom dictates that poverty is concentrated in central cities, and most private philanthropy continues to make funding decisions accordingly. But poverty is no longer the exclusive province of the urban core. We reached a tipping point as a nation in 1999, when the number of poor living in suburbs and smaller ring cities drew even with those living in central cities. Census data from 2008 indicate that there are 1.5 million more Americans living in poverty in suburbs and ring cities than in central cities. While the Great Recession led to a 26 percent increase in urban poverty, the rise in suburbs was a stunning 53percent. In Massachusetts, for every one person living in poverty in Suffolk County (Boston and Chelsea), three people are living in poverty in the five counties that surround Boston.

Philanthropy has not yet caught up to the changing demographics of poverty. Our analysis of one year of grantmaking by the 50 largest philanthropic providers in Massachusetts shows that for every $5 spent on poverty intervention and prevention in Boston, $1 is spent in the five surrounding counties combined. Many of these philanthropies are hamstrung by giving instruments set up in the early 20th century; they can no more shift their giving patterns than the MBTA can move commuter rail tracks.

There are some notable exceptions that suggest a more promising alignment among philanthropy, demographics, and evidence of impact. The Amelia Peabody Foundation, the 12th-largest donor in the state, now offers a substantial portion of its grants to high-performing youth development organizations outside of Boston. The Richard & Susan Smith Family Foundation extended its giving outside Route 128 beginning in 2006 and now funds two Root Cause Social Innovators working in ring cities: More Than Words (Waltham) and United Teen Equality Center (Lowell).

Our consulting work with United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) in developing a sustainable scaling strategy suggests that nonprofits can thrive even in more philanthropically challenged small urban markets. Building and spreading strong community roots have been two key success factors for UTEC. Their efforts to develop an empty church into a new teen center were the subject of anotherGlobe profile earlierthis year.

For philanthropy to fulfill its promise to the poor, resources must stop flowing toward what we think we know. Instead, they should be directed toward what the data tell us works. In other words, grantmaking needs less of the “bright lights, big city appeal” that Matt Malone described and more support for the UTECs of the world making a demonstrable difference where the poor actually live and work today.

Stephen Pratt is director of financial sustainability at Root Cause.

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