Key Points

· This article describes six key roles for philanthropic organizations’ engagement in communities. It draws on Living Cities, a consortium of financial organizations, private foundations, and public sector organizations that has been working since 1991 to improve distressed neighborhoods in 23 cities.

· The six civic roles described are (a) convening and leveraging diverse networks of relationships, (b) developing local data and plans for community change, (c) leveraging new resources on behalf of communities, (d) mobilizing political will, (e) framing new messages about community development and communicating more strategically, and (f) generating and testing new ideas and building and sharing knowledge.

· Typically those funding community development have worked through intermediaries or advocates to affect policy. There are examples, however, of foundations playing a leadership role themselves in mobilizing public support and promoting policies and practices that support community development.

· Even if they can write the whole check themselves, foundations find that engaging others early on — raising even symbolic amounts of funds to get them to the table — has significant payoff down the road.

· The evidence reported here suggests that investments in civic capacity can help communities to access resources for neighborhood development, strengthen human capital and organizational capacity, and gain political voice. The evidence is not yet systematic, however, and more in-depth research on the connection between civic capacity and overall improvement in neighborhood outcomes is needed.

· Civic work sometimes requires foundations to take greater risks, to put their own name and credibility on the line publicly in order to advance a cause, and to support less powerful partners.

Open Access