Common future works to catalyze inclusive economies. Rawpixel.com/shutterstock
When we last wrote about Common Future, the nonprofit had a clunkier name: the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies, or BALLE. Founded as a hub for local business networks in 2001, Common Future has changed significantly over the past several years. Behind its recent rebrand is a tale of shifting identity and new priorities, situated within a funding environment that’s growing more attuned to how power and place intersect to reproduce economic inequality.
Racial and class equity weren’t always crucial parts of Common Future’s DNA, but geographic equity was a priority from the start. The organization did quite a bit to further the “buy local” movement and long critiqued the concentrated capital that keeps most investments—and philanthropy—centralized around major urban hubs. But still, as Common Future’s CEO Rodney Foxworth put it, “eighteen years ago, BALLE began with a community that isn’t as inclusive as the network is today.”
With Foxworth at the helm, the organization has taken intentional steps to bring what was once an “overwhelmingly white” network into sync with the equity mainstream. In so doing, Common Future has sought to complicate narratives about what “local” implies in the United States, modifying its offerings to help funding partners invest in a more diverse set of homegrown projects.
As it transitions from BALLE to its new identity, Common Future has also attracted support from a bunch of new funders, and solidified relationships with existing partners. The example is illustrative at a time of heightened funder interest in equity.
Reimagining the Local
The winds of change began to blow at what was then BALLE well before Foxworth took the reins in 2017. But his elevation to CEO symbolized how the organization was transforming. “We have to acknowledge that I’m an African American male leading an organization that’s historically white-led,” he said. Back when BALLE was founded, the notion of philanthropic localism had a distinctively white tint, implying a rural heartland that lacked diversity as well as investment.
Foxworth and team don’t use the term “localism” much anymore. Common Future hasn’t renounced mission of economic empowerment for local communities; rather, the new name is meant to embrace the growing diversity of its network. Comprised of foundations, investors, policymakers, and business owners, that network reflects BALLE’s original creed that community leaders form the basis of local economic success. But over the past two decades, it has become clear to Common Future that many of the local communities most affected by economic injustice are communities of color.
“When we talk about a common future, we’re talking about mutuality,” Foxworth said. “How do we actually recognize and acknowledge the fact that front-line folks understand best when it comes to economic development where they live, and that it’s an economic imperative for them?”
Big Changes, New Roles
Even before its rebranding, Common Future’s funders were a fairly equity-forward bunch. The NoVo Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and the Kendeda Fund all back the Living Local Economies fellowship, a two-year program built to cultivate local economic leaders. The Living Local Economies network is comprised of over 100 individuals who’ve undertaken the fellowship, including Foxworth himself.
Then there’s the Local Economy Foundation Circle, another network of around 40 funding professionals, many of them hailing from small local and community grantmakers. Much of the Foundation Circle’s work revolves around moving capital toward mission-oriented investments and into communities the funders serve. Participants partially fund the Foundation Circle themselves, with much of the remainder coming from the F.B. Heron Foundation.
Following its rebrand, Common Future is hitting the pause button on new Living Local Economies fellows, preferring instead to deepen its collaboration with the network it has already built. The organization is, however, still pushing ahead with the Foundation Circle and will accept applications for a 2020 cohort through the end of this year. Foxworth says he’s looking to extend the Foundation Circle in a substantial way. A number of new initiatives are also in the works, including a Social Entrepreneurs in Residence (SEIR) program.
Both the Foundation Circle members and the SEIRs will focus on shifting capital currently sitting in traditional investments, DAFs and endowments toward new destinations, especially those located in marginalized communities. Toward that end, Foxworth wants to leverage Common Future’s existing network of fellows to take on an expanded role as advisor and intermediary. “One of the roles for Common Future is to be a conduit for connecting capital from institutions and individuals to on-the-ground efforts in the fellowship network,” Foxworth said.
Bringing on New Funders
Common Future’s effort to rebrand itself matters to many of its funders. Foxworth says that leaning into an equity-forward identity demonstrated intentionality to several funders who were wavering. New funders have also come on board over the past several years, including some big names in progressive grantmaking—like the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Libra Foundation, the Swift Foundation, the Amalgamated Charitable Foundation, and Propel Capital.
For the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Common Future’s move toward racial equity was a strong point in its favor. “We recognize the value of [Common Future’s] work to close the racial wealth gap in America by placing communities of color at the center of economic growth and transformation,” said Lavastian Glenn, Director of Racial and Economic Justice. The Swift Foundation, whose environment-focused funding includes support for local economic resiliency, also acknowledged Common Future’s evolution. “It has been deeply inspiring to see the organization become Common Future, led by people with more lived experience of economic segregation,” said Interim Executive Director Sonja Swift.
When we asked Crystal Hayling, who heads the Libra Foundation, about its support for Common Future, she pointed to a longstanding “focus on what it takes to create businesses that replenish local economies rather than extract profits from them.” The disconnect between local and national economic health has been an important story over the past decade, she went on. “Common Future will become even more effective as a leader in the regenerative economies movement by placing equity at the center of its work.”
The Amalgamated Charitable Foundation is another interesting supporter of Common Future. It’s the grantmaking arm of Amalgamated Bank, a financial institution with roots in organized labor that remains majority-owned by the Workers United labor union. According to Tyler Nickerson, a Vice President at Amalgamated, the bank-backed Common Future “as one of our core strategies to support worker’s rights and build a new economy where everyone can thrive.” We heard from Nickerson before in our profile of Amalgamated’s philanthropy last year.
Nickerson is also one of three new board members that Common Future brought on shortly after its rebrand. The other two are Miriam Warren, VP of Engagement, Diversity, and Belonging at Yelp, and Alexandra Aquino-Fike, VP of Development at the East Bay Community Foundation, a place-based funder that’s engaging in some bold new grantmaking to support community organizers. Foxworth notes that Common Future’s board is less a panel of its funders and more a way to connect with new audiences and partners.
Foxworth is confident that over the coming years, Common Future can act as a more active intermediary between philanthropic capital and the local communities. In fact, it is already helping several national funders—anonymous at this point—begin new initiatives to bring capital to community leaders in its fellowship network. “We’re saying that folks in our network have many of the answers to a what a new, equitable capitalism looks like for all of us,” Foxworth said.
The evolution of Common Future’s mission toward a more pointed role as intermediary reflects a trend we’ve seen quite a bit lately. Take Lever for Change, a nonprofit that emerged from the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition and now cultivates smaller contests that cater to inexperienced big donors looking for grantees. And in its eagerness to remodel itself around equity, Common Future resembles Living Cities, another well-established network player that’s incorporating racial equity goals into all aspects of its programming.
In all three cases, these strategies are an acknowledgment that equity concerns are on the rise among funders. But that goes both ways—by adopting equity-focused strategies, these network builders can uplift voices on the ground that might accomplish a lot if funders are willing to listen.