Why JP Morgan Chase, An Urban Funder, Is Giving Big to the Urban Institute

JPMorgan Chase knows well the challenges that face urban America. It's headquartered in the biggest U.S. city and has innumerable branches in other cities—servicing not just individuals, but the local businesses and nonprofits that drive urban ecosystems. Along with this huge urban presence, JPMorgan Chase has big labor needs, and therefore a major stake in how well public schools and community colleges prepare young people for the world of work. 

All this helps explain why JPMorgan Chase's philanthropic arm is keenly interested in grantmaking that both builds urban economies and strengthens the skills of urban workers. A while back, Chase launched a $250 million, five-year New Skills at Work initiative to help close the skills gap. And Chase has taken some big risks in funding long-term efforts at economic expansion and opportunity in communities like Detroit, where the firm has made a $100 million dollar commitment. 

Alas, the bank also has faced allegations of engaging in predatory lending that targets minority communities. Last year, for example, it was sued by the City of Los Angeles. (The bank has denied the charges.) Longstanding questions around its lending practices are surely another reason why JPMorgan has ramped up its philanthropy in recent years—it settled with federal investigators for $13 billion in 2013. Seen one way, the bank has a debt to repay to minority communities that it (along with other lenders) exploited and weakened during the go-go years of the housing boom. 

Given all its grantmaking targeting complex urban problems, it's no surprise that JPMorgan Chase feels the need to have more intellectual firepower on its side. And now it's getting exactly that in a partnership with the Urban Institute. The bank is investing $10 million to bolster the institute's deep policy expertise, with the goal of finding solutions that improve economic opportunity and strengthen communities across the nation.

This new effort is unusual. In fact, we can't think of another example of a corporate funder and a think tank hooking up at this level. But the move makes a lot of sense. While many big foundations, like Ford or Hewlett, have loads of in-house expertise to figure out grantmaking priorities and assess impact, corporate funders tend to be more sparsely staffed with serious policy wonks, and that includes JPMorgan Chase. 

In 2013, JPMorgan Chase and its foundation made grants in 42 states supporting domestic economic development. This foundation takes a multi-pronged approach to strengthening both the workforce and the financial stability of households with several programs, including workforce readiness, financial capability, small business development, and community development/affordable housing.

The goal in supporting Urban is to help its data crunchers find out where best to invest for optimal impact. Urban will conduct research and analysis to figure out which of the foundation's philanthropic programs are achieving their intended long-term outcomes. As part of this, JPMorgan Chase is also committing to support "institutional modernization and capacity-building that will strengthen Urban for the future."

This grant appears to be part the larger culture shift in philanthropy toward more impact assessment and "feedback loop" evaluation of program work. Urban and JPMorgan Chase are hoping with this program to inspire other corporations and foundations to measure what works and question how to best leverage resources to make the most impact in communities.

JPMorgan Chase has an online letter of inquiry to establish whether your organization meets basic criteria for grant consideration. It also limits its support to areas where the bank does business, which are listed here. Recent grantees include the National Center for Latino Community Asset Builders, which received funding for a fellowship program in 2014, and $200,000 to LIFT in Washington, DC, to "provide financial coaching to individuals who live below the poverty line."

Related:

JP Morgan Chase's $250 million Jobs Program