What It Takes: From Philadelphia, Lessons About Philanthropy and Civic Engagement

Photo: Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

Photo: Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

In 2017, the Knight Foundation placed a big bet on the idea that a city-wide revamping of parks, libraries and recreation centers as civic spaces, and that investments in improving residents’ interactions with government, could be the way to re-ignite civic engagement in the city of Philadelphia.

With support from the foundation and other philanthropies, as well government capital funds and soda tax revenue, Philadelphia became the first city in the U.S. to experiment with a new funding model to bolster capacity for civic engagement projects.

Yet, a lot of the work in Philadelphia, albeit promising, has been about circumventing unforeseen barriers: political timelines, resistance to change from civil society leaders and government, and stagnant implementation have generated lulls in excitement and participation, and hindered the well-meaning and promising initiative.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Recent research conducted by New America colleagues and I looks at this massive, long-term initiative to revitalize Philadelphia’s civic engagement ecosystem, and its successes and challenges so far. One of the initiative’s goals is to invest in parks, recreation centers, and libraries as civic spaces. Another goal is to use behavioral economics and human-centered service design as a way to make policy that’s more responsive to people’s needs.

In studying Philadelphia, we sought to develop insight not only into what kinds of interventions are most likely to promote sustainable civic engagement and more inclusive and responsive policy, but also into how funders can best address challenges that inevitably rise during civic engagement projects. A lot of these ideas, we found, are applicable beyond Philadelphia, and should be in the back of funders’ minds as they assess any given project’s sustainability and what success for that project would look like.

For example, one important component of the efforts in Philadelphia was the selection of parks, libraries and rec centers that would receive the first wave of funding for renovations, expansions, etc. That process was delayed by nearly a year, in large part due to a court challenge to the soda tax (one of the key funding components of the initiative), and to city council members’ district priorities (which meant more time than expected for them to agree on which sites should be selected). Many of the stakeholders we spoke with, including residents, community leaders and city staff wrestled with knowing what was coming next, whether the funding would really materialize, and if their neighborhood space would, in fact, be chosen.

Process and implementation slowed down progress, as political timelines didn’t necessarily follow funding timelines. Delayed implementation affected enthusiasm, as residents, advocates and grantees often felt stuck or began to wonder if change was actually on the way.

From this experience, we learned that one way to counteract that kind of dynamic is for funders and grantees to bake “if-then” planning into any projects that they seek to implement. By that, we mean building contingencies and iterative processes that guide behavior when things don’t go as planned. These alternative plans also help with power mapping—knowing who the stakeholders are, what motivates them, where points of tension between them might arise, are all crucial components of flexible and adaptable plans.

If alternative scenarios are built into grantmaking, then both funders and grantees can be more prepared to handle setbacks. If-then planning examples include grantmakers and grantees mapping out potential obstacles and developing alternative routes as a way to maintain momentum and stakeholder buy-in, while still moving forward.

A challenge well-known to funders is preparing for the consequences of grants’ sunsets. Successful and promising models shouldn’t have to disappear because of philanthropic funding constraints. During our research in Philadelphia, one promising and interesting experiment brought fellows into two city departments—the Department of Revenue and the Office of Homelessness Services—to work with city employees to rethink policy design and to make it more relevant to residents’ needs and constraints. The effort took something that already existed (the departments’ infrastructure and capacity), and tweaked it to include innovation (the fellows who had behavioral science expertise), instead of creating something anew altogether.

But to work within existing civic infrastructure, of course, also means tackling habits and processes that are entrenched and can be hard to change. In the case of the experiment in the city departments, a successful strategy involved bringing in the fellows not as policy experts, but as experts in experimentation. That ensured city employees’ buy-in, which has so far resulted in levels of collaboration that have, in fact, changed policy for the better. The existing structure also allows for projects’ longer lifespans and continuation once the philanthropic funding is no longer there (assuming this is something the city would want to continue). This way, philanthropic dollars serve more as a down payment—as investments in venture capital models—allowing for experimentation, but also requiring commitment from other stakeholders.

The work in Philadelphia has gained steam since we wrapped up our research there. Sites have been chosen and construction is underway at some of them. Despite the many challenges that the effort has faced and the new ones it will likely confront in the next few years, the proposition to revamp civic infrastructure and government interaction with residents at this scale is unprecedented and should be celebrated.

Progress, especially in the hard-to-measure world of civic engagement, isn’t linear. Political timelines, politics, funding limitations and stakeholders’ buy-in can all affect any endeavor’s planned-out schedule. But lack of linearity or expected outcomes isn’t synonymous with failure, per se, and shouldn’t discourage funders from betting on bold, big ways to change people’s relationship with their government and, more broadly, with the idea of participatory democracy.

One way to manage expectations is through “planning for sailboats, not trains.” As Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes, funders shouldn’t focus on “short time horizons, rigid planning, and unproductive evaluation,” as if plans moved in a linear way, similar to trains. Instead, they can approach grantmaking as more fluid, less linear and, as a result, less exact— much like the trajectory of a sailboat. Instead of delivering programs, funders can focus on “catalyzing change,” or even approaching challenges and the occasional failure as equally important measurable outcomes.  

These are times of high levels of distrust in government. But philanthropy’s role in investing in new models that are reflective of the changing realities of America and of individuals’ needs has created opportunities for engagement that are more inclusive and responsive, and that chip away at political gridlock. And as our research in Philadelphia shows, there are ways for funders to tackle some of the “hard realities” of civic engagement, without compromising on experimentation.

That way, philanthropic dollars can help distribute political power in ways that make democracy more inclusive and equitable, but that are also sustainable. It can create entry points for disengaged Americans, developing new models that consider the challenge of overcoming individuals’ distrust of government and, in turn, government’s limitations to what it can or can’t do, and for what it should or shouldn’t be solely responsible for.

Chayenne Polimedio is the deputy director of the Political Reform program at New America, a Washington D.C. think tank. She and her colleagues’ study of civic engagement efforts in Philadelphia was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.