The Connection Between Philanthropy and Place

August 19, 2014

Reflections on the Montana-Wyoming-Idaho Funders Teleconference

by Melanie Audette, Mission Investors Exchange and Jacob Hite, Philanthropy Northwest

On the recent Montana-Wyoming-Idaho Funders Teleconference, held July 31, two Montana funders reflected on their separate mission investments into the same project – NeighborWorks Montana and ROC USA.  Jo Ann Eder, president of The O.P. & W.E. Edwards Foundation, Inc. and Dawn McGee, president of High Stakes Foundation laid out how they became interested in mission investing and discussed their effort to help 36 owners of manufactured homes secure their land and their lives by successfully turning their mobile home park into a resident-owned community.

Jacob Hite, membership associate at Philanthropy Northwest and Melanie Audette, education and training manager of Mission Investors Exchange reflect on the connection between philanthropy and place and the role that mission investing can play in building community.

Jacob Hite

Listening to Jo Ann and Dawn talk about how closely they are connected — personally and professionally — to others in their community brought me back to my own rural roots.

I first understood the concept of place in the summer of 2004. I had spent most of a hot summer day clearing fence lines with my brothers and it was time for a break. As I enjoyed the cool shade of an old oak tree, my mind started to wander. I realized that place was not the small farm my seven siblings and I called home, it was our relationships in our community — the neighbors or church members stopping by to say hello. The neighbor up the street hired my littlest brother to come “watch her garden” so he had a summer job like his older siblings. Place wasn’t the garden my little brother was watching, it was about the relationships that we built with the people in our lives.

The stories I heard on the Montana-Wyoming-Idaho call connected immediately with my notion of place as community, and place-based philanthropy as focusing primarily on the relationships that define a place. Dawn McGee’s story of mission investing was a story of a neighbor helping a neighbor, not of grantee and grantor. Mission investing is a relevant tool for rural communities. It can complement a robust grants program, helping organizations become more sustainable and deliver long-term results.

 

Melanie Audette

One of my favorite stories about mission investing is about when I served on the board of a community foundation in a rural community. It is a story of “what-ifs.” For instance, what if we had known that we could have invested in a local business that manufactures an education tool that hit our mission targets exactly (we had turned down the grant request because the business was a for-profit.) What if we had invested in the economic development of our communities rather than limiting ourselves to responsive grantmaking to address unemployment and poverty?

Jo Ann and Dawn’s story showed me what happens when the what ifs become reality: mission investing by foundations can make limited dollars go farther and helps communities become more appealing to other investors who also want to make positive social or environmental impact.

Like Jacob, the teleconference also prompted me to reflect on a time when I was part of a farming community. When I lived in rural Maryland, I was an hour or two from the nation’s capital — but we were worlds apart. When you walked down the brick streets by the quaint little courthouse, you always said hello (and you knew when there was a trial on there because the city lawyers always wore dark suits). You knew your neighbors, you knew their challenges and you knew that most folks struggled to keep small businesses in business and their children well educated.

As Mission Investors Exchange works more closely with community foundations, small-staffed and family foundations, and others that represent the majority of foundations around these mostly rural United States, we begin to understand that all philanthropy begins with people and most philanthropy focuses on place. I am excited to help our members and others understand the what ifs that they can make real by investing more of their assets more strategically in their own communities.

Mission Investors Exchange offers a variety of resources on our website, including the Community Foundation Field Guide to Impact Investing, Making the Case for Mission Investing, and case examples, tools and readings to help you understand the scope of our work. In January 2015, we’ll release a new field guide to mission investing for small-staffed foundations. If you have a question — or your own story to tell — please look us up. We would love to walk alongside you on your own journey into mission investing.