Embracing a Place-Based Approach to Our Work

June 7, 2016

For each of us, our community, landscape and identity create a fluid concept: place. Environmental thinkers use place as a common ground for deepening local awareness of ecological relationships, with bioregionalism as a compelling manifestation of that impulse, suggesting that political boundaries, governance and public policy must be considered within the natural connections of geographic settings. We regard place-based thinking as the foundation of community relationships as well as the appropriate scale for civic engagement; this concept has also become part of the literature in anthropology, economics, education and political science. We believe it has an important role to play in philanthropy, as well.

There’s an implicit understanding that a focus on place is virtuous. This has deep roots in American culture, reflecting a long tradition of associating American virtue with our spectacular landscapes. Such presumed virtue has a shadow, however, as pride often comes before a fall. Pride in place can be a convenient excuse for exclusion, discrimination and superiority, taking the soft form of NIMBY or the hard form of anti-immigration sentiment.  

In today's fast-paced global economy, it’s only natural that a desire for a more place-based focus can serve as a way to hold on to what's right nearby, to a community contained by our neighbors and face-to-face relationships. Consider that the average American now moves 11 times in a lifetime. Within the space of a year, just about every one of my neighbors on the fifth floor of my Seattle apartment building has moved away — not because they were dissatisfied with the building, but because personal or professional reasons compelled them to leave. How can all of these sparkling new downtown high-rises even contemplate building community when they have such high turnover in residents, and when their very presence implies dislocation of what preceded them? So the virtue of place is easily subverted by the delusion of exclusion or the mobility of capital.

Indeed, I am a bicoastal resident, with a main residence in downtown Seattle and a small cottage in New Hampshire. I wonder how I can be in two places at the same time, how I can contribute to both communities simultaneously, how I can flourish with this dual identity. I desperately miss the woods of New Hampshire, the intimate familiarity with the songbirds, watercourses, hillsides and seasons of the Yankee forest. Yet I am equally enamored with the mysterious landscape of Seattle and Puget Sound, the majesty and flavor of the Pacific Northwest in all its complexity and diversity. With beginner’s eyes, even after three years, I still enjoy the mysterious, misty maritime Pacific light.

My love of place allows me to expand and transcend my identity, so that that I merge with the landscape, whether it’s the woods of New Hampshire, the city streets of Seattle or the remarkable diversity of Pacific Northwest habitats, each with its own variety of cultures, perspectives and insights. Being place-based means we understand ourselves in the broader context of people and species moving through space and time, rather than the narrow band of a myopic life. It means we view our place with respect, participation, inquiry, open-mindedness and humility. Then, perhaps, the notion of place becomes embedded in virtue. And we can apply it to our work in supporting vibrant, equitable, inclusive, and sustainable communities. Place is the binding concept that integrates communities, builds long-lasting relationships, and requires tangible, meaningful impact. Hence it is a fitting rubric for philanthropic investment.

The Role of Place in Sustainable Philanthropy

Sustainability deepens our understanding of place because it challenges us to consider our place in space and time. How are today’s actions informed by our past and impact what this place will be like in the future? Why do we all care about this place and what responsibility do we have to maintain it? How can we contribute to a place whether we inhabit it for one day or a thousand years? How do we find the common ground that allows us to focus on human flourishing in a dynamic environment of global change? How does place help us develop local commitment and responsibility, and thus inform public policy? How can place become a foundation for sustainable philanthropy?

Gaining a deeper understanding of these questions is a convergent theme for Philanthropy Northwest’s Catalyst Fellows, focused on advocacy, impact investing, sustainability and place. Remy Trupin, our Catalyst Fellow focused on advocacy, and I have met jointly with several Philanthropy Northwest members to explore the intersections of sustainability and public policy work. One recent meeting with The Russell Family Foundation highlighted these intersections on the Puyallup Watershed Initiative.

Funded by a 10-year grant from the foundation, this grassroots community-organizing project on the southern end of Washington’s Puget Sound organizes its efforts around clean water, “a capstone indicator of environmental health for future and present generations.” Now in its second year, the initiative recognizes that social and environmental solutions "must be part of a broader process of building strong leadership, more equitable social conditions, new structures for trust and cross-sector collaboration, and a shared agenda.” The program organizes communities of interest (COIs) from a broad coalition of businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and interested individuals, working to identify their most important regional challenges and eventually coalescing into governance structures that will invest foundation funds into self-generating projects and opportunities. Thus far, the COIs have organized around transportation, agriculture, environmental education, forests, just and healthy food, and industrial storm water. On the ground, this is an inspiring and often difficult process as the players must find ways of linking their specific interests in order to collaborate for the common good. The most successful COIs have been willing to coordinate their specific interests, understand the broader spectrum of community issues, and demonstrate multiple forms of generosity, in terms of the time they spend on the project, their willingness to listen to and respect multiple points of view and their desire to contribute their social capital to the well-being of the watershed.

After our meeting, Remy and I came up with a list of several points for the Puyallup Watershed Initiative to consider going forward, which also apply to other types of philanthropy projects and long-term initiatives concerned with issues of sustainability, advocacy and place:

  1. In a long-term project, how can a foundation support a community decision-making process that allows for flexibility, autonomy and public impact?
  2. How do the challenges of diversity, equity and inclusion emerge from the communities of interest? Who gets to participate in various programs and how can participation be sustained? How are leaders cultivated, nurtured and rewarded?
  3. Is a long-term project more likely to build commitment to place and in so doing encourage civic engagement across a broad spectrum of community issues?
  4. How can a local project encourage participation among both community newcomers and long-term residents?

There are no set answers to these questions; “best practices” will differ according to the specific issues faced by a community. A rural region dealing with the changing dynamics of its natural resource extraction history is very different than a city working on affordable housing and transportation challenges. Ultimately, however, both regions struggle with how changing economic circumstances impact their residents, whether those people have lived there for generations or arrived recently. Building a sustainable community in any place means attending to local solutions and creating local capacity for implementing those solutions.

What makes sustainability such an important term is that it links these community aspirations to both ecological and economic criteria — and how we address these criteria becomes the challenging political question. Hence, the concept of sustainability simultaneously promotes ecological conscience, civic engagement and investment in local community. Working together, we Catalyst Fellows on sustainability and place, impact investing and advocacy aim to bring these areas into focus, through a philanthropic lens.

Mitchell Thomashow is one of Philanthropy Northwest's Catalyst Fellows, focused on sustainability. He can be reached at mthomashow@philanthropynw.org.