Twenty years later: community foundations are still improving neighborhoods

Kids playing sports on neighborhood streets are common in communities around the country. Equally common is residents’ anger after flying balls dent their car hoods and break house windows. But on one narrow street of row houses in Baltimore, the scenario changed when an older man spoke up at a community meeting about the problem and offered to meet kids after school to walk them to a nearby park — one they had been too afraid to enter due to the menacing teenagers who hung out there.

“Six kids went to the park with him the following day, and within three months there were almost 100 kids playing football in the park instead of the street,” said Jolyn Rademacher Tracy, executive director of Banner Neighborhoods Community Corporation.

Young people participate in educational, recreational and employment programs at a neighborhood program funded by the Baltimore Community Foundation.

Young people participate in educational, recreational and employment programs at a neighborhood program funded by the Baltimore Community Foundation.
Photo courtesy of Banner Neighborhoods Community Corporation

“Coach Don,” as he was fondly called, formed a football league, secured more than a dozen other volunteer coaches, and approached Banner to raise $10,000 for team uniforms and sports equipment. The needed funds came from the Baltimore-area Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Baltimore Community Foundation’s (BCF) Neighborhood Grant Program.

The BCF was one of 25 community foundations participating in the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s national Neighborhoods Small Grants Program that ran from 1984 to 1994.* It was the Mott program that initiated the BCF’s interest in neighborhood grantmaking and led to a relationship between Banner and the community foundation that still exists some 20 years later.

Today, Banner has expanded its youth programs to include reading and art clubs, a summer youth employment project, and several co-ed basketball and football leagues. As a requirement to be in the programs, each participant must agree to attend school, earn passing grades, stay out of trouble and donate time for community service projects. According to Dion L. Cartwright, BCF’s program officer for neighborhoods, Banner is one of the foundation’s greatest success stories.

“Some see these neighborhood grants as itty-bitty grants, and they don’t understand the impact they can have on individuals, neighborhoods and the entire community,” she said. “They might seem like small things — neighborhood clean ups, community festivals and sports programs — but these programs can have a huge impact.”

The Banner sports program brought together residents of different races, ages and socio-economic backgrounds. It also resulted in a reduction in police calls after the street games ceased, an increase in local volunteerism, and a decrease in student absenteeism, Cartwright said.

Cartwright’s colleague, BCF President and CEO Thomas E. Wilcox, says the foundation’s neighborhood programs, much like its educational programs, are frequently done in partnership with other organizations and institutions. BCF’s Healthy Neighborhoods program, which often links with the public, private and nonprofit sectors, is primarily credited with leveraging tens of millions of dollars. To date, the community foundation has helped leverage $88 million from public, private and nonprofit sources to support projects that have led to positive changes in several Baltimore-area neighborhoods, he said.

“Social engagement is key to neighborhood development, and we were seeing some real changes happening from the bottom up,” Wilcox said. “We decided to make neighborhoods one of our major initiatives so we can help create a vibrant urban life in Baltimore.”

Since its inception, BCF has granted $3.3 million to hundreds of organizations working to strengthen Baltimore’s neighborhoods so they are safe, vibrant, clean and green. BCF continues to provide neighborhood grants through several endowments, including the William Donald Schaefer Civic Fund. The latter was created in 2008 by former Maryland Governor Schaefer, who had a lifelong dedication to Baltimore’s neighborhoods. That long-term interest is shared by the community foundation.

In addition to having a host of donors from the greater Baltimore area and throughout the state of Maryland, BCF frequently links with foundations around the country.

“National funders come into local communities with all kinds of ideas that meet with a greater or lesser degree of success. Obviously, the Neighborhoods Small Grants program was one of the great ones,” Wilcox said. “When you get one that works well, you make it part of the way you do things. That’s what we did here in Baltimore.”

* Mott’s Neighborhoods Small Grant Program connected 25 community foundations with resident groups in low-income neighborhoods around the United States. The grants Mott gave were matched by community foundations, which then made mini-grants to support projects generated by local groups. Like the BCF, the majority of participants still fund neighborhood programs in some way.

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