Commentary: Smarter Philanthropy Will Aid St. Louis

By Rev. Starsky D. Wilson

Reprinted from St. Louis Business Journal.

June 2016 began with a bang for St. Louis. On Thursday, June 2nd, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency confirmed that its Western Headquarters will, indeed, remain in the city and Amazon announced it would bring 1,000 jobs to Edwardsville. In a coincidence of the calendar, festive crowds came out that afternoon to celebrate the opening of the Arch grounds. For a region focused on economic development wins, the fireworks over the Mississippi took on greater meaning.

There was less fanfare around a philanthropic announcement the day before. On Wednesday, June 1st, Missouri Foundation for Health announced a $6 million commitment to address issues identified in the Forward Through Ferguson Report. Soon we should have national context on this commitment. Charity Navigator’s Metro Market Study will be released in days. The report monitors “the financial, accountability and transparency behaviors” of nonprofits as influenced by the markets in which they operate to assess the capacity of the community groups to meet social needs considering the economic environment.

In June of 2014, two months before the incidents which led to last Wednesday’s announcement, St. Louis led the national rankings in meeting community needs. Last year, we dropped from first to 16th among the top 30 metropolitan areas. This may come as a surprise to people following coverage of our community investments post-Ferguson. In early May, Civic Progress announced $600,000 in gifts on a $2 million commitment to diverse groups in response to the Ferguson Commission report. The United Way consistently outperforms regions of our size. This Saturday, Deaconess Foundation gave another $600,000 to groups advocating for children.

St. Louisans are clearly committed to charity. Our challenge is to work smarter, not harder, to get better return on our investments.

The party at the Arch is a reminder of our capacity to fund diversions. In Herculean fashion, the region mobilized $380 million to transform the first place we and visitors play. Increased gifts to groups led by ethnic minorities following Ferguson also illustrate our capacity to fund diversity.

The difference-maker (in an election year) will be cultivating an orientation to funding democracy. In a 2011 report, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found that for every dollar invested in civic engagement for affected communities, $115 of public benefit was returned to the local economy. In his new book, “Brown is the New White,” Steven Phillips documents the impact of demographics shifts on the voting population in America to reflect groups often intended to be served by philanthropy. Supporting their active voice has proven to be a more effective strategy for social and economic impact.

Soon we will see how our region measures up. Our philanthropic responses to the Forward through Ferguson’s calls, including one to start a racial equity fund, could make the difference. With hope that the region will work smarter, when hundreds of families joined Deaconess to talk policy, give to advocacy and register voters to speak up for kids this weekend, we didn’t wait for a coincidence or report. We threw our own party because that’s worth celebrating.

Wilson is president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, chair of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ National Equity Advisory Group and former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission.