It could fail. “It’s a lab,” says Jake Hodesh, vice president of operations for People’s Liberty. “We’re going to learn as we go.”
Hodesh is standing with People’s Liberty CEO Eric Avner on the second floor of the foundation’s 8,000-square-foot, chic-yet-unfinished office space in Over-the-Rhine’s refurbished Globe Furniture building. Construction dust speckles the hardwood floors as sunlight streams through the massive windows overlooking Elm Street and Findlay Market. Founded last July, with the first grants being issued in January, People’s Liberty is a philanthropic lovechild of the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation and Johnson Foundation with the same mission as its parent organizations—funding and serving areas of community development—but with a grassroots focus. “It’s this hypothesis that you invest in a place by investing in individuals,” says Avner.
Over the course of the next five years and roughly $15 million in total investment, People’s Liberty will award various grants to local individuals along with workspace and other organizational resources. The end goal is to simply evaluate what progress has been made after that period, at which point People’s Liberty will decide whether the program should change, expand, move, or even continue at all. It’s the reason words like lab and hypothesis get thrown around. “This is literally a five-year experiment,” says Hodesh, though not one they’re taking lightly. “We’re going to do everything we can to make it successful,” adds Avner. “If it doesn’t work, we’re going to know why.”
“We realize not every project we fund will be successful,” says Amy Goodwin, People’s Liberty cofounder. “If some try and fail, that’s OK. At the end of the day, I would love for the buzz about Cincinnati to be a place where you can really get things done.”
Avner conceptualized the project a few years ago as a Haile employee. Long committed to aiding the city’s progress and development—the foundation was integral in keeping the streetcar deal alive—Avner wanted to attempt a broader, more visible impact. “Instead of being on the 11th floor of a nondescript office building, could we be in a neighborhood, be present?” says Avner. “We came up with all of these catchy slogans early on, and one of them was that philanthropy is more than just cutting checks.”
He teamed with Amy Goodwin, president and CEO of the Johnson Foundation, to form People’s Liberty (named after Ralph and Carol Ann Haile’s first bank) and craft its two-fold mission: to impact a city through individual-focused philanthropy in a manner that can be replicated elsewhere. “Our belief is that by engaging the community, People’s Liberty can have a transformative impact,” says Goodwin. “But we also want to serve as a model and example for grant-makers in other cities.”
People’s Liberty is hoping to accomplish this through a series of annual grants: 16 Project Grants of up to $10,000 for a period of 10 months each, three Globe Grants of up to $15,000 (and a corresponding three-month interactive installation hosted on the ground-floor of the Elm Street offices), and two year-long Haile Fellowships of $100,000. Each is awarded through an application process using Grant Cycle software, which People’s Liberty developed in-house. It utilizes a juried selection process involving public servants, community developers, and entrepreneurs selecting ideas with the greatest potential for civic value.
The 2015 Haile Fellowship winners—Brad Cooper, a former designer for GBBN Architects, and Brad Schnittger, a local musician—are ideal examples. Cooper’s project, Start Small, is designing and building two “tiny homes”—250-square-foot residences intended to make home ownership more accessible for low-income buyers. Schnittger is creating an online music library, MusicLi, which will allow local artists to publish and license tracks for use by local businesses and corporations. Neither is developing a multi-million-dollar business model, and neither is expected to. People’s Liberty is not a tech incubator looking to cash in on the next big startup.
Which raises the question: When seemingly everyone else is grasping for the next idea that will land a big payday, why is People’s Liberty altruistically backing (often unproven) individuals and ideas that fundamentally forgo such fate?
“We want to change the neighborhood,” says Avner, shrugging his shoulders. “We want to train people to take on a larger role in the community. By the end of this thing, we’re going to have over 100 people who received funding for different projects—”
“Real people,” adds Hodesh, jumping in to finish the thought, “who care about this city, who feel they have been invested in. And the return for us is that they’re going to show up. They’re going to do.”