People’s Liberty, A Cincinnati Experiment

October 8th, 2016  |  Published in Early Fall 2016

People’s Liberty, located at 1805 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine, overlooks Findlay Market, but serves the Greater Cincinnati area within the I-275 corridor.

A unique experiment, People’s Liberty is a philanthropic lab that brings together civic-minded talent to address transformation in Greater Cincinnati.  People’s Liberty invests in individuals through funding and mentorship.

The organization is designed to last from 2015 – 2020.  It is an extension of The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. /U.S. Bank Foundation.  Carol Ann’s father founded People’s Liberty Bank and Trust in Covington, Kentucky in 1871.

Eric Avner, Vice President and Senior Program Manager, Community Development, Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation; CEO, People’s Liberty, said the foundation decided to become more involved with Cincinnati and chose an inner city location to base its efforts.  There were discussions at the senior level.  Tim Maloney, President and CEO, Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation, asked, “Is there something more we can do in philanthropy?”  Avner said, “We realized soon that we were curious about the work.  We wanted to do more than just write checks.”

The foundation initiated an internal lab called “Haile’s Kitchen” in 2011 to learn more about a variety of topics.  There, staff members thought about grants differently, allowing learning to take place. “A design process with nonprofits was created where we launched two projects:  CoSign and First Batch,” said Avner.

In 2012, the foundation worked with the local American Sign Museum to create a neighborhood enhancement project dedicated to revamping signage in a business district.  The project provided 11 businesses with new signage and created the infrastructure to train the next generation of sign makers in Cincinnati.

The second project “First Batch” concentrated on local designers turning physical product prototypes into finished, locally manufactured products and turning them into sustainable businesses.

The process created for these projects included the steps to identify, partner, research, design, plan, package, test, document and evaluate.  People’s Liberty adopted this process.

The foundation decided to leverage a new way of philanthropy to grow people by giving grants to individuals who would like to make a difference.  Avner noted that philanthropy has changed:  The power of individuals is being harnessed.  Foundations are not always transparent, he said, and should be.

Although People’s Liberty is only one-year-old, it has attracted more applications and drawn national attention from other foundations, such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago, Illinois.  Press coverage has included an article in The Guardian’s US edition.  PL staff is receiving more offers to serve on panels. In addition, PL convened a national funding conference in October 2015 in Cincinnati.

To his knowledge, Avner said that People’s Liberty is unique in the country.  It offers physical space, staff, a place to meet and connections.

Avner also serves as community development program officer of the Haile Foundation, which funds the effort.  (Disclaimer:  The Haile Foundation awards grants to aeqai.)

Avner said there are different ways of outreach, including the role of design pushing boundaries bringing in young designers.  “We’re harder on ourselves,” he said.  “We’re trying things all the time.”  Even Kresge Foundation from Detroit sent representatives to People’s Liberty to learn about its program.

The annual budget is $435,000, with $15M over a five-year period spent on grants, operations and cost of space.  Approximately 350 people apply for 21 grants available annually.  Jurors are civic leaders as well as those with arts and business backgrounds.  The age range of the grantees is from 20 to 70, with the average age of 30.

Aurore Fournier, program director, has numerous responsibilities.  She manages the grant programs, the grant-making process as well as oversees installation in the Globe storefront.  She also focuses on current and past grantees offering guidance and support.

Fournier said, “People’s Liberty is significant because we are providing opportunities for people with great ideas to make their community better, stronger and more active. I believe our grantees will become and have become civic leaders, and I hope this experience empowers our grantees to continue on with their existing projects and future projects. “

“Our work is unique because we, the staff, are dedicating five years, if not more, to this philanthropic experiment,” she said.  “We are here for our grantees and anyone interested in applying for a grant. We have about three and a half years left to continue telling the people of Greater Cincinnati about these opportunities that impact our community.”

Four components comprise People’s Liberty.  The first is The Haile Fellowship, a year-long civic sabbatical for two highly-motivated Greater Cincinnati residents, who each receive $100,000.   According to information provided by People’s Liberty, “Two residents are challenged to research, plan, implement and present the results of a big idea that could change the community’s future.”

Grantee Chris Glass, 44, a Haile fellow for 2016, is a Northside resident who said, “I had been watching People’s Liberty for a while.  When they retooled the fellowship, I became interested.”  A graphic designer by trade, Glass created PhotoCorps, a program that encourages individuals to demonstrate photographic principles, explore neighborhoods and connect with others.  Glass collects the photos submitted and will have them printed in spring 2017.

The second program is Project Grants which provide opportunities for 16 individuals each year to implement innovative community development projects in Greater Cincinnati.  Grantees receive $10,000, a launch event and access to People’s Liberty’s workplace and mentorship.

Another resident of Northside, Nate May, has a grant project called “State.”  It is a series of performances, featuring MUSE Women’s Choir, local singer Kate Wakefield and other local musicians, that foster interest and understanding of the Appalachian migration to Cincinnati.

The third program is entitled The Globe, People Liberty’s storefront open Monday – Friday from 10 am to 5 pm and Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm.  It is the location positioned to help expand the OTR Renaissance north of Liberty St. to Findlay Market and beyond.  Three grantees receive $15,000 each year to support installation and interactive, civic-minded programming of The Globe.  Work space is available at People’s Liberty.

Julia Fischer, a Covington resident, has a project “Play Library,” which promotes imagination and development by encouraging positive play. It is a library that lends toys instead of books. In the summer of 2016, children and adults alike could check out safe, high-quality toys and games, bringing families and communities together through play.

People’s Liberty Residency program, otherwise known as the Society of Mad Philanthropists, is for younger interns to help emerging leaders sharpen their skills, gain access to connections and work on real-world projects to build their design/communications portfolios.  The residency takes place for three months.

Avner said that People’s Liberty empowers people to contribute.  Approximately 150 to 200 grantees will complete the program over a five-year period.  “We hope they stay,” he said.

–Laura A. Hobson

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