How Surdna Is Pushing to Make Local Economies Work for Everyone

The hopelessness in Baltimore is just the latest reminder that the U.S. economy is not working for everyone, particularly for marginalized communities. What can foundations do to create more robust and inclusive local economies? And if your nonprofit is grappling with this challenge, who are your friends in the funding community? 

Well, one friend for sure is the Surdna Foundation. 

With total assets in 2013 of $943 million and total grantmaking for that year of over $33 million, Surdna is an energetic funder on the economic development scene. Its Strong Local Economies program made over $8.6 million in total grants in 2013, second only to Sustainable Environments with over $10 million in grants made that year.

To get a better sense of what Surdna is up to with its economic work, and which nonprofits might be a good fit for this funder, we hopped on the phone recently to talk to Shawn Escoffery, Director of the Strong Local Economies program at Surdna.

Escoffery has been director of Strong Local Economies since 2010. Prior to that, he worked on community development in some of the toughest cities in the U.S., including New Orleans, Baltimore and Newark. Escoffery well knows the challenges of injecting new life into urban economies that, in many cases, have never recovered from the de-industrialization that started in the 1970s. 

The aim of the Strong Local Economies program is to galvanize "robust and sustainable economies" built on diverse businesses and access to quality jobs. The program spurs the growth of local businesses, encourages inclusive economic development, and improves job quality and availability for low-income people, communities of color, immigrants, and women.

A key goal of the foundation's work is to challenge the status quo around economic development policy. Escoffery noted that corporations are frequently given subsidies to locate in certain states "without regard to the types of jobs being created or access to those jobs." 

A better approach, which Surdna backs, is a "triple bottom line" business development and acceleration model with the goal of bolstering employers who are focused not just on monetary profit, but also on providing a social return of good quality employment. The third bottom line, environmental concerns, fits into Surdna's larger focus on Sustainable Environments.

"We look for economic development that puts the worker front and center," said Escoffery. This means offering jobs that pay above industry standards, have health care benefits, and have the potential for career mobility. Such jobs, of course, are often scarce in places where low-road employers like fast food and retail outlets are doing most of the hiring.

Surdna looks at where the good jobs exist in a city and helps local residents get in on the action. Often that means pushing big local employers to engage more with the community. "There needs to be more of an intentional focus on the existing businesses and anchor institutions in a community, not just the entrepreneurship angle," Escoffery said. 

As an example, he talked about Surdna's support of the University of Chicago on a program called UChicago Local. Surdna is helping the university, a local anchor employer, to bring in more local contractors and employees. Business development support from Surdna has helped the university "shake up internal protocols on sourcing and contracting," said Escoffery, so that more work on campus is now being done locally by businesses on Chicago's south side.

Escoffery also cited Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where Surdna has funded a "Vendor Acceleration Program" with services from Next Street Financial, which is providing assistance to minority- and women-owned businesses in order to increase their ability to meet the purchasing needs of large employers in the area, such as the university and other large Baltimore employers. (Timely work, right?) With the assistance of Next Street, women- and minority-owned businesses are able to get help with everything from developing relationships to financing expansion in order to provide more products.

Meanwhile, Surdna is also funding research and advocacy aimed at boosting job quality. A key difference between "bad" jobs and "good" jobs is often not the work itself, but the benefits and protections enjoyed by workers. The factory jobs of yesterday weren't great jobs per se, but they came with union wages and benefits that allowed workers to lead a decent and secure life. The retail and restaurant jobs of today could be made much better through hikes in wages and protections like paid sick time, and Surdna is backing groups engaged in these fights. "Here, we're basically trying to lift the floor of low-wage work," said Escoffery.

Grants in this area tend to range from $15,000 to $400,000, with many of the larger grants being for a two-year time period. A recent big grantees here? Family Values at Work, a national organization at the center of the battle for paid family and sick leave that we've written about before. The group received a two-year, $300,000 grant from Surdna in 2014 to support policies that allow employees to earn sick time at their jobs.

Related - Why This Advocate Gets Big Bucks from Ford to Push Family Leave Policies

Job quality issues are red-hot right now, with workers protesting in cities across the country and several big employers pledging to improve. Escoffery noted, though, that Surdna is not interested in "project-by-project organizing efforts," so a protest against a local employer about wages might not be such a good fit. A campaign needs to have a broader impact on a policy issue to attract this funder's attention.

Again, Surdna is keenly interested in changing the broader debate about economic development. It wants to help communities recognize what constitutes good quality employment and advocate for inclusion of those aspects in economic development for their city, state or region.

In the future, Escoffery sees the foundation continuing to push an essential recipe for economic success: high quality jobs, more inclusiveness, more local sourcing, and benefits that help companies retain and promote their best employees.

Escoffery sees the blending of these ingredients as a key value of Surdna's work. "Other foundations touch on what we're doing, but not necessarily all within one program. With Ford, they work on some of the job quality piece, and some of the economic development piece, but not as much on the business development and acceleration. Kauffman works on business development, but not as much on the job quality piece. So with these three lines of work interrelated, we're pretty unique."

Escoffery offered some helpful hints about how to get a grant from Surdna. The foundation takes a careful look at whether grantseekers are likely to help the specific populations that need support. "We want to support the growth of women and minority-owned businesses," he said, and he recommends that grantseekers lead with information on the intention of their work to serve this purpose.

He also noted that it's important for grantseeking organizations to have diverse staff, particularly if they want to promote diversity. "We do look at the demographic makeup of the organizations providing services and leading projects," said Escoffery. "It does matter in terms of community."

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