The Cincinnati Experiment: Can 'Citizen Philanthropy' Improve a City?

August 30, 2016
‘Philanthropy lab’ People’s Liberty is funding individuals with smart ideas to benefit Cincinnati, in the hope of finding a new generation of local civic leaders.

When Brandon Black and his wife were trying to fix up the old two-unit house they’d recently bought in Cincinnati, they discovered they needed some help from people who actually knew what they were doing. His old wrestling coach and her father – two baby boomers with construction experience – proved to be invaluable home improvement mentors, who happily guided them through the process.

Black realised that the project was mutually beneficial: he and his wife needed help, and his coach and father-in-law had skills they wanted to share. He also realised there were probably many other people in Cincinnati – both new homeowners and older skilled tradespeople – in the same situation.

“What if there was a way a new homeowner could just borrow somebody’s aunt or uncle and leverage their experience?” Black says.

He saw an opportunity to connect these two groups. Now, thanks to a new and unconventional approach to place-based philanthropy, he has $100,000 (£75,900) to develop a programme in Cincinnati that makes those connections.

Black is a recipient of the Haile Fellowship, a year-long “civic sabbatical” for individuals to develop ideas that can benefit the city and its people. It is a project of People’s Liberty, an experimental “philanthropy lab” set up by the Cincinnati-based Carol Ann & Ralph V Haile Jr/US Bank Foundation.

Instead of handing out grants to urban planning non-profits or community development organisations, People’s Liberty is giving the money directly to regular citizens with good ideas.