Arena builders

Can philanthropy give disadvantaged cities a boost as they compete for federal funding?

Dollar for dollar, successfully influencing where public money goes can be one of the most powerful things philanthropy can do. While we often think of philanthropy as a wealthy sector, its assets pale in comparison to federal and state resources. This is why we often write so favorably about advocacy funding. If it works, it can leverage public spending to far greater effect than philanthropic dollars deployed alone.

But advocacy is just one of the levers philanthropies can pull to keep the public funding tap running in tandem with their missions. Another strategy is to provide public officials with types of technical and implementation support to improve the way they govern and, in some cases, to help them access public funds.

Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg has long been a strong advocate of this form of technocratic philanthropy. He is not the only one. Over the past decade, philanthropy-backed “public-private partnerships” have become commonplace at the local level. But Bloomberg is pretty much the face of technocratic localism in the national philanthroposphere, so it’s no surprise to see him backing the latest big-ticket collaboration in this space.

Despite its unassuming name, the Local Infrastructure Hub is actually quite an interesting development for anyone watching major philanthropic trends. Founded on an “initial investment” of $50 million, the hub will pursue a specific mission – to ensure small and medium-sized metros can compete and access more than $1 trillion in federal funding from the 2021 Transportation Act. infrastructure investment and employment.

“Over the next 24 months, local governments will sort through approximately 400 programs designed to help everything from ports and parks to rural broadband and green buildings,” Bloomberg wrote in a post about the new hub, co-authored with LaToya Cantrell. , Mayor of New Orleans, and Vince Williams, Mayor of Union City, Georgia. “But the reality is that many cities and towns don’t have the staff to identify all the funding that might be available to them. And once they determine what funding they are actually eligible for, they lack the capacity to complete the necessary applications.

Scheduled to launch on July 1, the Local Infrastructure Hub will provide these municipalities with technical support to help them level the playing field with larger cities seeking the same funding.

The hub is something of a successor to the many COVID-sensitive funder collaborations that sprung up early in the pandemic. Like many of them, it relies on funding from major living donors, Bloomberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, as well as resources from two legacy foundations, Ford and Kresge.

While many questions remain about how the hub will distribute its aid and to whom, it’s safe to say that this is a growing space for big-name philanthropic collaboration. It is also an implicit vote of confidence in the power of federal spending and the role that private funders can play in supporting large-scale government initiatives.

Old and new funders collaborate

When the pandemic first hit in 2020, American philanthropies quickly responded by setting up a wide variety of crowdfunding efforts. From nationally pooled funds drawing on the resources of major foundations and billionaire donors to modest local relief teams, this COVID-era turn to collaboration has spread, and now we barely go a week without hear about the creation of a new backer collaborative store.

Part of what sets the Local Infrastructure Hub apart from the crowd are the funders involved. The Ford Foundation, of course, is one of the nation’s leading foundations and a serial collaborator on a whole host of COVID-era initiatives, including the Economic Justice-focused Families and Workers Fund, and its partnership with other major funders (including Bloomberg) on ​​America’s Cultural Treasures, designed to help BIPOC-led arts groups weather the COVID storm.

The Kresge Foundation, no stranger to public-private collaboration itself (including saving the city of Detroit from bankruptcy), has been a strong advocate of the idea that philanthropy can be, at the times, deeply local and responsive at the national level. In that sense, it has a lot in common with Bloomberg Philanthropies, despite the obvious differences between the two funders.

Then there’s Emerson Collective, the mysterious LLC funding platform of another major living donor, Laurene Powell Jobs. Like Bloomberg, Powell Jobs has shown a lot of willingness to collaborate with other major funders in recent years. She also holds a unique position as the only billionaire board member of the Ford Foundation, where she is something of a bridge between an old order of foundations and the brave new world of contemporary billionaire giving.

In addition to the support of these four funders, the initiative will draw on the expertise of the United States Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, Results for America and a number of other national organizations. Offerings will include technical assistance as municipalities navigate the application process, as well as help identifying opportunities to apply for, in the interests of racial equity and climate action.

Making Federal Stimulus Funding Fair

The Local Infrastructure Hub will be one of the largest and most geographically expansive efforts we have seen to date in which philanthropy supports the equitable distribution of public COVID relief and recovery funds. But this is not the first time this has happened.

For example, Bloomberg Philanthropies has been working with the United States Conference of Mayors since early 2020 to help US cities track federal relief opportunities, an effort that eventually manifested as a resource hub. built in conjunction with Johns Hopkins, called Federal Assistance e311. It’s like a prototype for the Local Infrastructure Hub.

Other philanthropic organizations, such as the Joyce Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, have previously worked with the National League of Cities to provide technical assistance to local funding applicants. And at the state level, other funders have collaborated to support similar efforts to steer federal stimulus funding in an equitable direction. One example is the California-based Community Economic Mobilization Initiative, supported by the Center of the Sierra Health Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation.

These are much needed and still too rare examples of philanthropy bringing its vast technocratic chops to bear on a problem that can really benefit from technocracy. It’s not advocacy in the typical, nor particularly edgy sense (it’s infrastructure we’re talking about, after all), and that makes it appealing to liberal funders — like Bloomberg — who are typically hesitant to build a progressive power. At the same time, progressive power builders have no qualms about participating.

Many questions remain

The big question going forward will be whether this new infrastructure hub delivers on its promise of leveling the playing field for small and medium-sized towns, and which municipalities will actually benefit. There is also the question of how far this effort will go to ensure that federal infrastructure funds reach historically marginalized communities.

Earlier this spring, Lois DeBacker and Joe Evans of Kresge covered this topic at length in Nonprofit Quarterly. Guaranteeing technical assistance for small towns with more restricted budgets was one of the philanthropic measures they recommended. But they also called for more advocacy around developing better criteria for these competitive programs – an arena where industry lobbyists play a lot – as well as more funding for local community development institutions and organizations. other non-profit organizations playing a role in implementation.

Kresge President Rip Rapson made a similar point in a guest contribution for Inside Philanthropy last December. “Put simply, the nonprofit sector is often the executive arm of the municipal public policy apparatus,” he wrote. “Philanthropy will need to ensure that the right organizations are well positioned, well resourced and knowledgeable about the legislation in all its dimensions.”

All told, support of the kind that the Local Infrastructure Hub plans to provide is just one piece of the cake. We’ve chimed in on Bloomberg in the past for its reluctance to complement technocratic local support with values-based arguments about how society should be organized. This criticism also applies here. Without victories in the war of ideas over public spending, victories that can translate into political victories, and yes, political victories, the risk is that initiatives like this will be reduced to the arbitration of a struggle for crumbs.

And then there’s the whole separate issue of constantly inflated US infrastructure costs and endemic waste, issues that have a lot to do with shackled government authority and industry lobby power. What, if anything, philanthropy can do about it is an open question.

As the Local Infrastructure Hub and similar philanthropy-supported collaborations come online and begin providing technical assistance, it is hoped that addressing these broader issues will also be on the agenda.