Alexandre Saez/shutterstock

Alexandre Saez/shutterstock

It’s no secret that poverty in the United States is a profoundly place-based phenomenon. Where children happen to be born and raised affects the course of their futures in deep and sometimes disturbing ways. With that in mind, a growing array of of funders are looking for more holistic means to tackle the factors that keep neighborhoods poor. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is one leading example.

Beginning a decade ago, RWJF convened a Commission to Build a Healthier America to take a deep dive into the impact of socioeconomic conditions on health. The commission’s final 2014 recommendations—in line with RWJF’s expansive strategy under the leadership of longtime CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey—called for greater attention to non-medical factors that affect health and well-being, including community revitalization and support for children early in life. 

The commission found lots to like in the work of Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit whose board chair, Shirley Franklin, was the first African American woman to serve as mayor of Atlanta. “We have been great fans of Purpose Built Communities for some time,” said Abbey Cofsky, Managing Director of Healthy Communities at RWJF. “With people looking for easy solutions, Purpose Built is what a holistic approach looks like.”

Last month, Robert Wood Johnson solidified that relationship with a $6 million commitment to Purpose Built Communities. It’s the first time Robert Wood Johnson has made a direct investment in Purpose Built. Here’s what makes this grant interesting, and what’s in store going forward. 

Exporting a Successful Model

Purpose Built Communities is a fascinating philanthropic story in its own right. The tale begins in the mid-1990s, when big-time Atlanta developer Tom Cousins turned his attention to the plight of Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood. Centered on a public housing project, East Lake Meadows, the area became notorious over the years for entrenched poverty and rampant crime. Some even dubbed it “Little Vietnam” for its war zone-like homicide rate.

Marshaling wealth he accrued from developing some of Atlanta’s tallest office towers, Cousins set up the East Lake Foundation to turn the struggling neighborhood around. A sense of the injustice of place permeated his giving from the start. “Suppose I had been born in East Lake Meadows,” he said in a video for Purpose Built. “I mean, these kids that are born in these [places], they had nothing to do with why they’re there. They’re there. They got a bad deal.” 

Over the next several years, Cousins worked with the Atlanta Housing Authority and local residents and business leaders to come up with ways to revitalize East Lake. The model that eventually emerged combined several elements: a defined neighborhood, a nonprofit to “quarterback” the revitalization, and a threefold community development approach involving mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline, and place-based support services. “We needed a new way to address neighborhoods that had experienced the most disinvestment and the least likelihood to grow themselves out of poverty. The result was the use of federal funds to develop mixed-income housing,” Franklin said. 

By most accounts, this multi-sector partnership was successful. Today’s East Lake is a clean and attractive community with plentiful amenities, impressive educational achievement, and far, far less violent crime. East Lake’s picturesque turnaround attracted the attention of two more philanthropists, Warren Buffett and hedge funder Julian Robertson, who teamed up with Cousins in 2009 to found Purpose Built Communities. The mission: advise leaders from other cities interested in replicating the “East Lake model” on their own turf. 

Over the past decade, Purpose Built Communities has consulted on a broad set of local revitalization efforts across the eastern United States. Specifics vary, especially where funding is concerned. Local family foundations are crucial to some projects but not all of them, Franklin said. What distinguishes the East Lake model—in addition to its threefold approach—is its sustainability. “The not-for-profit quarterback and alliances formed are intended to last a long time so that the well-being of the community is sustained, so that the community doesn’t go through fits and starts of healing,” Franklin said. 

Funding in the Intersections

The relationship between Purpose Built Communities and RWJF has been evolving for a while. The foundation’s initial forays into holistic health funding gained Purpose Built’s attention early on, and that eventually led to an invitation to participate in the Commission for a Healthier America. It was then that Purpose Built Communities began having internal conversations about the role of health in community revitalization. Those deliberations led to a refined East Lake model in which support services, which began as a catch-all category, coalesced around community health and wellness. 

RWJF’s $6 million grant to Purpose Built reflects this growing synergy. But it doesn’t actually have to do with health, at least not directly. Instead, it’s designed to bolster Purpose Built’s overall work, which the foundation sees as a valuable way to change underlying community conditions. In other words, it’s about promoting upstream determinants of health like housing security, public safety, and quality education. 

The grant supports two types of work at Purpose Built. The first will be a “knowledge-sharing platform” enabling the nonprofit’s community network to interact and swap strategies. The second is a research effort to nail down precisely how Purpose Built’s model has impacted residents in the communities where it’s been implemented. “There still aren’t many folks thinking about neighborhood transformation through the lens of health and well-being. We are very much committed to really exploring and understanding what works,” Cofsky said. 

Cofsky praised Purpose Built’s model for its capacity to channel community voices and promote community leadership, especially in communities where racial divides have stymied progress. “We want to fund in the intersections,” she said. “We’re trying to fund the space for practitioners to build relationships and understand each other.”

RWJF’s grant to Purpose Built Communities joins a growing portfolio of work focused on multi-sector local partnerships and the community conditions affecting health. One such project is the foundation’s Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC). In six major metropolitan areas, SPARCC provides grant funding and technical assistance to local anti-poverty collaboratives integrating racial equity, health, and climate strategies. RWJF also backs Invest Health, which convenes collaboratives from mid-sized cities to promote well-being and equity in the built environment. 

Other RWJF projects in this space include the Center for Community Investment at the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy as well as the Conservation Law Foundation’s $22 million Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund, which uses a discrete “HealthScore” to assess mixed-income, transit-oriented housing investments in the Boston metro area.


Since RWJF began its pioneering work around the social determinants of health, many other funders have followed suit, including a growing array of health conversion foundations that operate locally or regionally. Meanwhile, Kresge is another national funder that’s been keenly focused on the social determinants of health, and especially the link between health and housing. The health-housing nexus has also attracted money from healthcare providers like Kaiser Permanente and become a key thread in the upstream funding of health conversion foundations.

But while it makes sense to examine the intersecting factors keeping people in poverty, funders should be wary lest they get pulled in too many directions—slicing their grantmaking budgets so thinly that it’s hard to have a decisive impact in any one area. For health funders, in particular, the danger of moving upstream is that they’ll diffuse their resources trying to tackle some of the biggest socio-economic problems facing the nation—even as immediate health challenges, like the deadly opioid epidemic, demand greater attention.

And then there’s our usual caveat about the unintended consequences of urban place-based philanthropy: Efforts to “improve” neighborhoods can help lead to gentrification and displacement of low-income urbanites—usually renters and often people of color—undermining equitable community development.

Even the East Lake model, conceived with equity in mind, couldn’t steer fully clear of those challenges. Out of the 400 or so families who lived in East Lake Meadows prior to redevelopment, only 100 eventually returned. And while today’s Village of East Lake reserves 50 percent of its units for residents on public assistance, there were apparently some pretty heated fights in the nineties over whether residents were getting displaced to make way for a kinder, gentler sort of mixed-income neighborhood adjacent to the East Lake Golf Club—purchased and renovated by none other than Tom Cousins. 

That’s not to deny what the East Lake model has done for Atlanta or what it can do in other cities. But it’s worth remembering that neighborhood revitalization tends to shine a light not only on the conditions that keep poor Americans poor, but also on the systemic advantages available to the wealthy and well-connected. One hopes funders interested in transforming local communities will keep that in mind. 


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