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Local Action: Philanthropy’s Answer to “Where Do I Start?”

by Tory Martin
Local Action: Philanthropy’s Answer to “Where Do I Start?”

There are countless organizations dedicated to helping individuals begin their philanthropic journeys. Sites like VolunteerMatch, Sixty and Me, and DonorsChoose make taking action simple and fast, while national programs like Teach for America, City Year, and AmeriCorps provide immersive experiences on a grand scale.

Many of the places we frequent everyday — recreation centers, workplaces, schools, houses of worship — offer opportunities for community engagement and volunteering. It can often be as simple as signing up.

Yet each person’s philanthropy — each person’s love for humanity — takes a unique form.

We each have different levels of time, talent, and treasure to offer the world. This can make finding the right entry point more complicated.

For the next three months, the Johnson Center will work with partners and friends from across the country to offer answers to the question, “How do I begin?” Field Focus: Local Action will explore how individuals and organizations first plug into the communities they care about, and spur others to action as well.

The word “community” can refer to nearly any connection between people, but for this campaign, we’ll be focusing on local communities. Geography has a powerful effect on how people relate to each other, how they conceive of themselves and their membership groups in contrast to others. As geographer Tim Cresswell (2004) writes, “place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world.” We’ll be using the frame of geographic communities throughout Field Focus: Local Action.

Community Solutions to Community Problems

The history of philanthropic work — private action for the public good — in the United States is grounded in our First Amendment Freedom of Assembly. Americans have been banding together for centuries to generate community-driven solutions to community-recognized problems.

However, as the nonprofit sector professionalized throughout the 20th century, and the number of nonprofits at work leapt from around 14,000 mid-century to 1.29 million in 2017, those doing the work of community change were often moving further and further away from the community itself (2017 Data Book, IRS).

Today, there is a growing understanding that we need to reverse this trend. We see the argument laid out in numerous case studies and reports — such as “The Case for Community Philanthropy,” a joint report from the C.S. Mott Foundation, Aga Khan Foundation USA, Global Fund for Community Foundations, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and Cynthia Gibson’s “Participatory Grantmaking,” produced for the Ford Foundation.

To be most effective, philanthropy cannot swoop in and overlay a set of priorities and strategies on top of the populations we aim to serve. Rather, we must begin by working authentically and purposefully with the people who are actually experiencing the problem to hear from them what they need in order to thrive. By returning philanthropy’s starting point to the communities themselves, we adopt a more inclusive, participatory approach to philanthropy that promotes working together with local stakeholders to design and support strategies for change.

Dig Into the Data

Part of the social sector’s growing focus on data-driven decision-making revolves around using data to establish the scope of a need before designing a plan to address that need.

This practice is as useful for private residents as it is for local nonprofits and major funders who want to better understand local determinants and make critical arguments for support on issues as diverse (yet interrelated) as criminal justice, housing policy, and park planning.

The National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, of which the Johnson Center’s Community Data & Research Lab is a part, is just one example of a social sector organization that is devoted to supplying philanthropy, business, and government with critically needed local data. Within this segment of the field, there are organizations that collect their own data, aggregate existing data sets, create online tools, or do a mixture of all three and more. But many of the emerging community data tools our sector increasingly relies on in turn rely on the decennial U.S. census.

Dozens of nonprofits and infrastructure organizations like the Census Outreach Project in California and BeCountedMI2020 in Michigan are already organizing to ensure a high response rate for Census 2020. In many ways, census data is a starting point for community philanthropy, as the federal government uses this information to allocate some $700 billion in grant money (Census Outreach Project, 2018). If incomplete data results in an unbalanced allocation, communities and organizations that are most in need will be left scrambling to cover gaps and raise funds from other sources.

Social Media as a Community Tool

The power of social media to spur philanthropic action in communities has been proven over and over again.

City-specific Giving Tuesday campaigns in Dallas, Baltimore, Memphis, and other cities have driven tens of millions of dollars in donations and raised awareness for local nonprofits and causes. The Women’s March on Washington was born, and almost entirely took shape, on Facebook event pages that also facilitated hundreds of sister marches in cities worldwide. And the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which first appeared on Twitter in 2013 (Pew Research Center, 2018), continues to rely on a decentralized, local chapter structure that focuses on community-driven priorities.

With a low barrier to entry and clear rules of engagement, social platforms make it possible for anyone to turn their idea into impact.

Still, social media’s true value as an instrument of change remains debatable.

Pew Research Center notes that while 67 percent of Americans agree social media is “important to creating sustained movements for social change,” a slightly higher number, 71 percent, agree that “social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t” (Pew Research Center, 2018).

For those wishing to take a course in “How to Start a Neighborhood Association,” or a seminar in “How to Run for Elected Office,” the nonprofits, academic centers, local governments, and others that offer this kind of training are usually just a Google search away.

But more and more frequently, philanthropy is taking a hard look at how we first approach the problems we see, how we develop our strategies for taking on these challenges, and how we prepare each other and new practitioners to do the work.


Census Outreach Project. (2018). The 2020 Census: Nonpartisan Data & Civic. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from Census Outreach.

Cresswell, T. (2004). Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Pew Research Center. (2018, July 11). Activism in the Social Media Age. Retrieved from Pew Research Center.

Internal Revenue Service (n.d.) Table 25: “Tax Exempt Activities,” 2017 Data Book.