In their 2017 book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak make the case that we're at the beginning of a new era: one in which cities and counties must take the lead on new strategies to address pressing social and economic challenges.
But if they hope to be successful, city leaders cannot take on this burden alone: they need to unleash the collective power of their communities. The good news is that a growing number of cities are finding that supporting communities in small ways — for instance, with microgrants — can deliver outsized impact.
Consider the case of the Denver Foundation, which has kept its Strengthening Neighborhoods initiative going for nearly two decades. The initiative provides grants ranging from $100 to $5,000 to fund community-driven solutions that take advantage of the skills and resources already present in a community. Similarly, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation's Spark Grants program relies on a grassroots leadership model to bring diverse groups together to strengthen local neighborhoods.
The power of small grants to drive change has not been lost on city leaders, many of whom are embracing the potential of micro-philanthropy — and pairing it with a citizen-led ecosystem that supports the effective implementation of those grants. In Newark, we've taken these lessons to heart and are eager to share some of what we've learned about how small grants can help lay a foundation for improved social and economic mobility.
First, cities need help in creating the infrastructure that will ensure success. In addition to providing cities with a $25,000 grant, the Love Your Block grant program — a program of Cities of Service, part of Bloomberg Philanthropies' American Cities Initiative — supports cities with two full-time AmeriCorps VISTA members who assist the mayor's office in the areas of capacity building, information sharing, and community engagement. At the point where the cities start to divvy up their Love Your Block grant into micro-grants, the VISTAs also assist community members with their grant applications. And it works. In two targeted neighborhoods in Newark, thirty-four residents submitted project proposals totaling $42,518 for community clean-ups, minor home repairs, and vacant lot activation.
Second, cities need to learn from others who are working to get individuals involved in similar ways. Cities of Service has created a blueprint for action and provides ongoing technical assistance that includes advice about troubleshooting challenges as well as tips on making connections with other cities working on similar initiatives (including using both formal and informal communications channels, from webinars and e-newsletters to Slack). In Newark, our Love Your Block grant was implemented by the city's Office of Sustainability, which works to make Newark a healthier, cleaner, and greener city — and which relied on resources provided by Cities of Service to ensure that implementation of the grant went smoothly.
Third, cities need to create opportunities for continued collaboration in order to reap the longer-term benefits of micro-philanthropy. When the Urban Institute recently studied the value of the Love Your Block program, it found that, in addition to revitalized neighborhoods, Love Your Block projects led to increases in both social cohesion (the level of connectedness individuals feel to their neighbors and surroundings) and social capital (as a result of relationships built with city leaders over the course of the project). That social capital then becomes a catalyst for even deeper work and collective action. Newark is taking collaboration a step further by committing public dollars to continue the Love Your Block program. To ensure that philanthropic resources are aligned with the priorities of city leadership and, ultimately, the city's residents, it is also one of the few state or municipal governments in the country to have created the position of philanthropic liaison, thanks to a unique public-private partnership between city government and the local funding community under the auspices of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers.
Cities have a unique opportunity to drive big returns on investment from small grants. A citizen-led microgrant program allows for a more accurate identification of the challenges that people in the community want to see addressed. Engaging community members in this way can create long-tail benefits such as increased social cohesion and civic engagement that can be channeled into other community needs. When these three pieces — microgrants, technical assistance, and human connections — come together, the impact is greater than the sum of its parts.
With the right support networks in place, hyper-local microgrants can accelerate city leaders' efforts to not only meet the short-term needs of their communities but also strengthen the networks and relationships that drive long-term outcomes. The result? Stronger connections between citizens and municipal leaders — and stronger cities overall.
Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Myung J. Lee is executive director of Cities of Service, a national nonprofit based in New York City.