Birmingham Foundation

Source: Chapin Hall Center for Children (University of Chicago)

Date: 2006

The Birmingham Foundation was established in 1996 with a gift of $17 million from the sale of the South Side Hospital. Since its inception, the foundation has directed all grant-making—about $1 million a year—to the hospital’s service area, which encompasses twelve small, primarily low-income neighborhoods that form South Pittsburgh. Birmingham focuses on the most vulnerable populations in the service area, including children, senior citizens, and mentally or physically ill residents, and the foundation strives to meet their comprehensive health and developmental needs. For several years, Chapin Hall has been working with a group of foundations that have an uncommon approach to their philanthropic mission. These foundations are applying many of the principles identified as key for foundations attempting to promote positive community change. We have dubbed their operating style embedded philanthropy because what distinguishes them from conventional philanthropies is an unusually intimate and enduring engagement with the communities in which they live and work. A long-term, place-based commitment is the first criterion for embedded philanthropy. A second criterion is a commitment to direct and ongoing community engagement and relationships with a range of community actors. Thirdly, embedded funders don’t think of these relationships as incidental or secondary aspects of their community work; they constitute the very means and method through which embedded funders do philanthropy. Finally, whether or not monetary grants are part of an embedded funder’s approach, their community engagement and change efforts consist of a good deal more than grant-making. Beyond these four defining features, embedded funders tend to share several other characteristics: an unusually flexible and adaptive approach to their work; a high tolerance for uncertainty; an emphasis on respect and reciprocity in their approach to community relationships; and a willingness to sacrifice a measure of the power and authority that foundations ordinarily possess. In a philanthropic climate of growing eagerness for new perspectives and departures, embedded philanthropy deserves greater attention from the wider philanthropic community. Its distinctive operating approach offers novel insights and leverage on the challenges and dilemmas faced by all philanthropic foundations.

Link: Birmingham Foundation

Keyword: Strategy

Region: Northern America