How philanthropy can help communities thrive through innovation

How philanthropy can help communities thrive through innovation

As communities across America face disruption from innovation, what should the future look like? How will technology affect our communities? What will jobs look like? Those are the questions recently addressed at the 2020 Knight Foundation Media Forum, the premier gathering for funders and media leaders working to strengthen local news, community, and democracy.

Brian Hooks, CEO of Stand Together and president of the Charles Koch Foundation, addressed these and other questions during a panel discussion led by Andre Dua, senior partner at McKinsey,  joined by Karen Freeman-Wilson, former mayor of Gary, Indiana, and now president of the Chicago Urban League, and Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Click here to watch the full discussion.

The discussion focused on McKinsey research that explored the impact of technology on people’s work in various types of communities across America. “The big lesson we learned,” said Dua, “is that it’s not that a huge chunk of jobs are going to go away, it’s that most jobs will be transformed.” In 60 percent of occupations, at least 30 percent of the tasks could be automated — between now and 2030, 39 million jobs could be displaced. People in jobs requiring only a high school degree are four times more likely to be displaced.

Hooks spoke about the important role philanthropy can play to support communities experiencing economic disruption. Here’s what he had to say:

Stand Together’s unique approach

Everything we do at Stand Together is based on a deep belief in people and the idea that every person has something to contribute to our society. The whole reason that we exist is to help to identify and then help to partner with people to remove the barriers that are holding people back. 

Whenever I read a report like the one that Andre put together, the notion that so many people are being left behind is a top priority for what we do. And it’s particularly tragic. 

Understanding the roots of every issue

I don’t see any single cause of this challenge. I look at it as the consequence of the deterioration on a widespread scale of some of the foundational institutions that we rely on to empower people to succeed. We look across a society at some of the institutions that really have been essential for people to succeed. Institutions like education, which your study points to as a primary factor in people being left behind. It’s just fallen down on the job. It’s not doing what it needs to really elevate and empower everyone in our society to overcome the challenges that come with these very real issues in an economic transition. 

A bottom-up approach to empower our communities

Strong communities have been essential to the story of success in people’s lives. The work that the community foundations in this room are doing to reinvigorate civil society is essential if we’re going to make this work. We need a comprehensive approach in addressing any of these challenges.

One thing we’ve experienced as a national philanthropy is that too often, we and others in this space believed the solution to struggles in communities would be found outside those communities. But what Stand Together has discovered and experienced, at least through our investments, is the total opposite. The solutions are going to come from those closest to the problem.

We invest right now in about 168 different community organizations, groups on the ground that are finding new and different ways to solve some of the consequences of communities that are struggling. And they all do something different based on the circumstances in their communities.

But these community leaders all share that deep belief in people, that everyone has something to contribute and that they succeed at disproportionate rates relative to groups that are working in the same field because they act on that belief. They invest in people. 

You’ve got to live the problem to solve it

The core lesson that I’ve taken from our experience is that you’ve got to invest in those folks who are closest to the problems. You want to address addiction? Well, in our experience, you’ve got to invest in people who have experienced addiction.

And when you do, you see disproportionate results. A group called The Phoenix that we invest in has a success rate that is twice that of the best clinical programs. And it’s no surprise to us why they do. It’s because the guy that leads it is an extraordinary leader, a guy named Scott Strode, and he’s brought together people like him who are in recovery.

Groups like the Family Independence Initiative, which look at the problems of families struggling in poverty. They say the solution will be found in those families. As a result, they have an extraordinary success rate helping families to lift their annual income by about 20 percent in just two years with a relatively small investment of capital, but a significant investment in community and bringing people together.

There’s a lot to be learned from the experience of people in this room. But for me, the core is to solve problems that are the consequence of the disruption that you’ve described. We have to listen to those who are struggling and we have to ask ourselves, “How can we come alongside them to empower them, to enable solutions to help these communities make it through?”

For each community, a unique solution

Certainly, we can learn from what works in one community, but one of the things we’ve learned is that these are often unique situations. Celebrating some of the success that you see in these communities is a key, I think, to helping to bring highly effective but relatively small-scale solutions across communities, and then invite others to learn from what works there.

There is so much good that’s actually happening in some of these communities. It can get obscured if you look from the macro level, but when you really get down and see the good work that a group like Urban Specialists does. Urban Specialists is a phenomenal organization in South Dallas that’s led by a bishop and a former gang leader, and they’re going into one of the most dangerous communities in the country, and finding a way to inspire those who have done violence in the past to become part of the solutions to the violence — then ultimately inviting others from Chicago and other communities to come in, not to tell them how to handle things in their own communities, because they’ll know best, but to share some of their lessons about what’s worked.

What these groups have in common — a characteristic of these successful approaches — is that they don’t give up on anybody. They really do act on this notion that whatever your circumstance is, whatever mistakes you’ve made in your life, wherever you are right now, you have a unique gift, and if we can help you to express that gift in a way that ultimately contributes in your community and also helps you to live a better life with your family, that’s going to be the key to discovering what these communities ultimately have to offer, and the path that they need to take, their unique path.

700 philanthropists sharing successes and missteps

Stand Together is a philanthropic community. We work with about 700 different philanthropists, and we try to pool not just resources, but also knowledge, and we’re working to get that knowledge out beyond just that group of 700. Another area that I think we’re as a community under-invested in, but we’ve seen huge returns on, is simple storytelling.

We’re using metrics where metrics actually reflect reality rather than some abstraction, but we also want to make sure that we don’t lose the richness of some of these experiences — celebrating success, but also sharing some of our mistakes, through storytelling.

Creating partnerships

Bringing groups like this panel together, creating the space for us to make genuine partnerships is a primary focus of how we do all of the philanthropy that we’re engaged with. We would much rather partner with the group that understands this space better than we do, and then to the extent that we can bring something to the table, we make a greater impact together.

My experience is that the country is full of people who want to do the right thing, but they need some examples, and I think people in this room and the media and philanthropy, we’re in a great position to set a good example, do the right thing, and people will be encouraged to follow you.

Brian Hooks’ remarks from this panel have been edited for space and clarity.

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