The C. F. Foundation began its work in 1993 in East Lake, site of one of the most troubled public housing complexes in the city of Atlanta, Georgia. Tom Cousins bought the historically significant, but decayed, golf club that was at the center of the community and donated it to the C. F. Foundation with the charge of restoring the golf course and using the club as an “economic engine” to revitalize the community. The C. F. Foundation established an intermediary, the East Lake Community Foundation, which worked in partnership with the Housing Authority and the Residents’ Association to design and create a new mixed-income community of 542 housing units on 200 acres. Besides the housing, the development effort also included a new K-8 charter school, YMCA, child care center, and other programs and amenities. The C. F. Foundation has invested an estimated $25 million in the community since 1993. The Foundation expects to remain involved in East Lake for the foreseeable future, though it hopes to provide less gap funding (for example, for the school) and more venture capital for special projects.
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.
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