Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

A city of neighborhoods defined by compass points, Baltimore is known for its unique culture, but more widely for drugs and violence. West Baltimore came to national attention in 2015, with the death of Freddie Gray and the civil unrest that followed. 

Until then, the city had been experiencing a modest upswing compared to other areas of urban blight, thanks to anchors like Johns Hopkins and its location along the Northeast Corridor, just a quick train ride from D.C. and New York. Its population had increased slightly, and signs were pointing to growth, including new businesses and residential hub by the waterfront. 

The uprising stopped that trajectory in its tracks. Since 2015, the city’s been unable to escape from the kind of systemic violence, policing issues, racial inequality and problems of entrenched poverty that characterized the Baltimore of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Last year, the FBI reported it had the worst homicide rate among the nation’s 50 largest cities, and the second highest violent crime rate overall.

So where does that leave the residents and businesses that call Baltimore home? And how can philanthropy hope to reverse these trends—or even make a sustainable impact—against such long odds?

Committed to Baltimore

T. Rowe Price, the global asset management firm, has been based in Baltimore since its founding in 1937. Today, it employs 5,200 associates in a city of roughly 620,000. In 1981, the company created the T. Rowe Price Foundation, which has made $121 million in grants since its inception. The Foundation’s level of giving has increased steadily since 2010, growing from $2.6 million to $4 million last year—$10 million when including employee matches. 

The seaport city has undergone rapid demographic shifts from the time its major industries were manufacturing, heavy industry and rail. Baltimore’s movement toward a service-based economy now aligns with its major employers, from John Hopkins to financial services firms like T. Rowe Price. 

Add the long-term community engagement of key stakeholders, residents who are willing and able to help determine their futures, embedded partners who are open to taking calculated risks—and the conditions may be right for successful place-based philanthropy. The T. Rowe Price Foundation certainly thinks so.

A New Approach

In 2015, the year of the Freddie Gray uprising, the foundation hired a new president, John Brothers, a former community organizer who arrived with a mandate to help the city rebuild and prosper. His first step was to conduct a listening tour with the community, residents, nonprofits and elected officials. He also consulted thought leaders with expertise in troubled times, from places as far-flung as Northern Ireland. Brothers and his team attended almost 150 community discussions. Being new to the city, he had the benefit of flying under the radar at meetings. The voices he heard were authentic. 

As a result of that collaborative approach, the foundation made a 3-year, total $1.3 million commitment to a single neighborhood, West Baltimore. The commitment was the foundation’s first place-based commitment, and focused on strengthening leadership and organizational capacity among community leaders, building financial empowerment for citizens, and improving access to healthy food.

The chances of achieving sustainable impact with many times that investment are low, but the foundation was not deterred. Baltimore is its community, and it’s in it for the long-term. 

Upping the Ante

Four years later, the foundation has doubled down on supporting Baltimore, committing $2.7 million to a four-year program to “promote social good”—the single largest financial investment in its history. 

Just like its first place-based decision, the strategy was informed by a listening tour it conducted with associates, the community, national and global thought leaders—and what it learned from its work in West Baltimore. 

Brothers says that work is ongoing, and that they’ve drawn important lessons from it. Chief among them is the idea that it’s difficult to move the needle when coming from a place of deficiency. “When you’re a community in pain, it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong, and build a model around deficiencies and a language of challenges,” he observed. “That approach doesn’t work in business—why would in work in communities?” 

The new round of listening helped developed a new mindset—one that hopes to change the narrative by accentuating the positive, and playing to Baltimore’s strengths. The foundation’s latest funding celebrates the city’s unique assets, particularly the creative capital of its vibrant artist community. In another pivot, the investments are being made holistically, rather than to one neighborhood.

The foundation’s new impact strategy focuses on three issues: strengthening Baltimore’s creative economy, providing its schools with the organizational capacity to partner with families and community resources, and bolstering financial empowerment in underserved communities. 

The $975,000 pilot round of “strengthening creative economy” grants will support four initiatives over the four-year period. One provides quality arts instruction to students in Baltimore City schools. Another funds an on-line portal that will rate all schools on their ability to provide arts opportunities. And a third creates an “artist navigator program” that’s based on the patient navigator system currently employed by hospitals. 

Grants to ensure Baltimore schools have the capacity to leverage community and family involvement total $875,000. They’ll fund a formal framework for measuring strategic outcomes within the public school system, increase pathways to higher education, and continue a partnership with Baltimore Ceasefire, which works to end violence. 

Financial empowerment grants totaling $850,000 will provide access to a Neighborhood Trust program that helps citizens increase credit scores and reduce debt, along with a partnership with CityDibs, to increase black home ownership and financial literacy skills.

An Evolving Place-based Approach

The T. Rowe Price Foundation’s place-based giving approach is transitioning from the model of an embedded funder targeting a single neighborhood, to a multi-site, single city initiative. Its work continues to mirror best practices by engaging the community and key stakeholders, using local data for planning and decision-making, and making grants that help create the culture and structures for learning and adapting. It’s also been successful delivering on the key principle that place-based philanthropy should enable and expect community residents to participate in determining their own destinies

John Brothers believes the community itself owns measurement and outcomes for the Foundation’s investments. It appears to be working. Several of the initiatives the TRPF funded in the first round have become self-sustaining, and John has high hopes for his new partners. 

“We don’t tell them what’s valuable,” he says of his nonprofit partners, “or what to measure. We only help them find their North Star and march to it.”

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