Novo and Surdna Foundations Key Backers in Push to Build Community Wealth
These are heady times for local and regional giving. Although national funders coming out of places like New York and the Bay Area command the most attention, growing philanthropic wealth can be found almost everywhere. Just this week, for example, the Minneapolis Foundation announced that it raised a record $100 million last year—more than double what it was averaging five years ago.
In turn, as we often report, there's a lot of local giving action around issues as diverse as criminal justice reform, early childhood education, environmental sustainability, and LGBTQ communities. But as U.S. politics becomes more heated around issues of inequality, globalization and the urban-rural divide, economic development may be one of the most consequential focus areas for a rising tide of philanthropic localism.
An interesting player in this arena is the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies, or BALLE. Founded back in 2001 as a membership organization for local-first business networks, BALLE has evolved into a nationwide “community of localists” encompassing entrepreneurs, foundations, investors and policymakers. The network sees itself as a politically inclusive group at a moment when many Americans fear their livelihoods are being shaped by external forces beyond their control—worries that Donald Trump channeled to win the White House. As executive director Rodney Foxworth told me, “People [in our community] have tremendous agency, but there are systemic issues that need to be addressed. We need to be in constant inquiry about how we got to where we are today.”
With its longtime invocations of “buy local” and “think local first,” BALLE challenges a national economic order that not only concentrates wealth, but does so in unfair ways vis-a-vis geography, race, gender, and the like. It also challenges some of the proposed solutions to these inequities. In a recent Medium piece, Foxworth throws down the gauntlet on impact investing, arguing that without proper attention to how systemic inequality arises, “we need to call into question the very concept of doing well by doing good.” To his surprise, Foxworth said, the piece got a lot of traction among funders, including impact investors, “who are trying their best to support change.”
Who funds BALLE? For one thing, it’s important to note that since around 2012, the organization’s work has revolved around several fellowship programs, each with its backers from the foundation world. The flagship BALLE program right now is its Local Economy Fellowship, a two-year development program for a diverse range of leaders on the local economic stage. Its aim, according to Foxworth, is to “cultivate entrepreneurial ecosystems focused on creating equitable wealth and strengthening local economies.”
The Local Economy Fellowship network, which just announced its latest cohort, already numbers over 100 strong. Foxworth was a 2016 fellow in the program before taking the reins from BALLE’s previous executive director Michelle Long in late 2017. The intent, he says, is to “evolve BALLE into a conduit for resource aggregation, where our fellows have the financial and social capital necessary to achieve their visions.” There’s a specific focus this year on leaders from rural communities...