Old Tools, Revolutionary Results

February 7, 2017

With all the trendy talk in philanthropy focused on “innovation,” “disruption,” and “impact investing,” it’s helpful to pay attention, now and then, to some smart foundation projects that follow the plain, old, dusty canon of established practice, using old-fashioned grants to support cherished and longstanding institutions — and yet ending up with big results worthy of Page One headlines. Exhibit A: The Charles H. Revson Foundation’s support for neighborhood libraries in New York City.

Followers of philanthropy at Duke may remember Revson President Julie Sandor’s presentation on this topic at the Sanford School in January 2016. I’ve just completed a retrospective summary of the whole Revson libraries oeuvre, which adds a little more detail to the story Ms. Sandorf sketched out in that talk. To put the whole saga into one sentence: Revson helped a fragmented, under-appreciated, largely unfashionable segment of New York City life — its threadbare branch libraries — escape from years of budget cuts and neglect and start reclaiming their stature as a prime portal of opportunity for low-income, minority, and immigrant families all over the city.

When seen in its totality, what stands out in this tale is how familiar, even traditional, was every single element of the process. First of all: libraries. Thanks to philanthropic pioneer Andrew Carnegie, who created some 1,700 American libraries at the turn of the 20th century, these surely rank among the most venerable of all foundation causes. Second, Revson broke no revolutionary new ground with its tactics. It used small grants and personal diplomacy to win the loyalty of the disparate key players (New York City’s libraries are segmented into three different, fiercely independent nonprofit systems, based on geography). The foundation gradually brokered alliances among those players, made larger grants for research to document their needs and the role they play in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, and then funded consultants who would help them pull together and present a forceful and effective message to the purse-string-holders at City Hall. Each of these strands of work was artfully executed, but none of them lay far outside what foundations have been doing for a century or more.

But at the center of Revson’s elegantly choreographed stream of initiatives for the libraries was the hoariest, most widespread foundation tool in the book: a prize competition. At this point, readers who already feel worn down by the steady drip-drip of foundation-sponsored competitions for everything from Most Mind-Bending Art Project to Wildest Possible Idea to Save the Planet will be rolling their eyes.  But bear with me here. This one is very different.

Revson’s New York City Neighborhood Library Awards look like a typical foundation prize only on the surface. True, like any traditional competition, these prizes recognize a few libraries each year for outstanding service to local patrons. In this case, only patrons can nominate, and the tens of thousands of nominations have arrived at foundation headquarters in multiple languages, many of them scrawled on notebook paper, telling heart-rending stories of lives made better and hardships overcome thanks to the programs, equipment, books, and advice (how to write a business plan; where to find a clinic; how to apply for citizenship) that are available gratis only at public libraries. WNYC, New York’s public radio station, publicized and co-sponsored the awards, which helped to spread the word.

But the real point of the prizes was not just to celebrate good service. It was to compile, from all those nominations, a dossier of firsthand testimony on the critical importance of libraries in a city of yawning inequality and deepening economic segregation, where the day-to-day struggles of low-income families are increasingly invisible to downtown power-brokers. It was a sophisticated exercise in research and advocacy, laid in all its poignancy before the chieftains of City Hall, in which all those moving stories about library service became a pealing indictment of the city’s indifference to crumbling buildings with no working toilets, frequent power-outages, obsolete equipment, broken furniture, and yet — despite it all — surging demand from people desperate for what the libraries had to offer.

It was a masterpiece of grassroots mobilization and advocacy, wrapped up in the most standard of foundation devices — the equivalent of building Chartres with a chisel and some mortar.

There was much more to Revson’s campaign for libraries than just what’s mentioned here. The full story deserves a careful read. For anyone weary of the gimmicks and razzle-dazzle that sometimes dominate discussions of American philanthropy, here is a story of time-tested methods of the trade, put to meticulous (and highly successful) use by people who understand what a century of experience still has to teach us.

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Tony Proscio


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