A Look at 3 Emerging Philanthropic Models in Philadelphia - Generocity Philly

Mar. 26, 2014 11:00 am

A Look at 3 Emerging Philanthropic Models in Philadelphia

Editor’s Note: This feature is part one in three-part series created in partnership with TEDxPhiladelphia to explore the ways in which Philly is indeed “The New Workshop of the World.”   In this installment, we take a look at the various new shapes philanthropy is taking in response to shifting donor attitudes and changing community needs in the […]

TEDxPhiladelphia5_01Editor’s Note: This feature is part one in three-part series created in partnership with TEDxPhiladelphia to explore the ways in which Philly is indeed “The New Workshop of the World.”  

In this installment, we take a look at the various new shapes philanthropy is taking in response to shifting donor attitudes and changing community needs in the 21st century.


In the Philadelphia of the 19th century, philanthropy was inherently local. Homegrown business tycoons invested in infrastructure and civic monuments that increased their status and contributed to their own business operations. Many of these men (and they were mostly men, unfortunately) even took a turn in public office.

Philanthropy is much bigger and less local today. This has been a positive change in many ways, because large national foundations now fund a wider range of activities, from scientific research to global poverty alleviation. But this has also meant less philanthropic money flowing into cities.

Philadelphia has felt the brunt of this change in recent years with the departure of the Annenberg Foundation to the West Coast and the Pew Charitable Trust’s shift to a more national focus.

Despite this (and perhaps because of it), Philadelphia has become a hotbed for innovation in philanthropy. Giving circles, microgrant dinners and a new focus on infrastructure investment are just a few examples.

Microgrant Dinners

Microgrant dinners have brought intimacy and community to philanthropy in Philadelphia. The two most prominent organizations to hold microgrant dinners, Philly Stake and PhilaSoup, both welcome people for a small fee to attend a dinner where individuals present their ideas and attendees vote on which project they want to fund.

The amount raised at these events rarely exceeds a few thousand. But the types of projects looking for funding are working at a small enough scale that they can really benefit from small grants.

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At a recent Philly Stake event, for example, the organization Aging in Motion walked away with $400. This money will go towards sound equipment and other materials needed to hold a dance for seniors where they can exercise and socialize.

Philly Stake event at Bartram’s Gardens

Giving Circles

Similar to microgrant dinners, giving circles show how philanthropy can come from wide pockets rather than deep pockets. They do this by organizing people and pooling their donations.

Some giving circles are also similar in size to a microgrant dinners, but in general they are bigger and more organized.

There are around 13 giving circles in Philadelphia with thousands of members, according to the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal. Some of these groups have been able to offer considerable amounts of money, such as Impact100, which gave $284,000 to five local nonprofits in June 2013.

impact-meeting

Impact100 event

Investing in Infrastructure

But giving circles and microgrant dinners have not yet taken on the task of funding infrastructure, park space and other civic assets that cash-strapped cities can barely maintain, let alone build and improve.

This is where the William Penn Foundation has stepped up to the plate. The Philadelphia-based foundation, which has worked in the region since 1945, has recently made watershed protection one of its biggest priorities. This has included investments in infrastructure, education and culture.

William Penn’s place-based strategy is an exception to the modern trend of less local philanthropy. But here in Philadelphia the results are tangible: miles of bike paths and trails, a popular news site (Plan Philly), funding for a local arboretum, the new FringeArts facility and water-quality education programs through Outward Bound Philadelphia.

bike-path

New segment of bike path on Delaware River

What are some other philanthropic models you’ve seen locally? Leave them in the comments. 

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