The Walker Family Foundation was created in 1979 when Bill Walker sold his family’s chain of dollar stores and used 10 percent of the profits to endow a philanthropy (now worth approximately $10 million). The foundation has always been tied to the city of Jackson, Mississippi. In the early 1990s, however, leaders decided to target resources to revitalizing North Midtown, a small neighborhood with 2,500 residents, mostly African Americans, that at the time was considered the city’s poorest community. In 1994, Walker chartered the North Midtown Community Development Corporation (CDC). The foundation now funnels all of its money into the neighborhood through the CDC and plays an active role in the CDC’s management and operations. Over the last decade, Walker has invested about $5 million in development of the CDC and the community.
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.
- Northern America