The genesis of People’s Liberty is a bit modest compared to the 8,000 square feet of prime renovated Over-the-Rhine real estate it currently inhabits, with refinished hardwoods and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Findlay Market. Before that, there was just a cramped room in the nondescript Haile Foundation offices on the 11th floor of the U.S. Bank building, furnished with an old yellow table that once belonged to founders Ralph and Carol Ann Haile.
“That was our little skunk lab,” says Megan Trischler, program director at People’s Liberty.
The Haile-powered venture was every bit an experiment in those humble beginnings, but remained one even after it officially graduated to the five-year, $15 million philanthropic engine that doles out a series of grants (in quantities of $10k, $15k, and $100k) directly to local individuals who offer ideas on how to make Cincinnati a better place. It sounds idyllic because it is: People’s Liberty spent the past three years rewarding big swings with money and resources and expecting nothing in return. And now that they’ve rounded the halfway mark, they’re taking stock in the form of Intermission, a multi-week celebration that kicked off in November with a month’s worth of one-time events hosted by previous grant winners. It was underscored by a redesigned Elm Street storefront at their Globe Furniture Building offices, outfitted with a collection of pliable curtains imprinted with the organization’s history, skunk lab to present.
“You’re kind of walking in to the PL Trophy Room,” says Jake Hodesh, vice president of operations. “It’s an interesting way to look at all the people who have come through, and an opportunity to look forward and invite new people. We’re finding that the power of this weird philanthropic experience is in this cohort, these people.”
Which is why, cool as the storytelling curtains may be, Intermission is more about marking the impact the foundation has made on the city thus far, and how that might look moving forward. People’s Liberty has never concerned itself with the perceived success of the projects they fund or any type of return on investment, but rather the personal influence those projects and investments foster.
“We hope that at the end of these five years, if we put the PL bat signal out to the city, there’s a real and sincere megawave of people,” says Hodesh. “What we set out to do from the beginning was build a strong cohort of interest and activism in this place, and we feel like that’s happening.”
The second half of the experiment will largely resemble the first, though People’s Liberty is giving serious thought to what the next phase will look like. Maybe it’s focusing the megawave of people and some larger chunks of money on a smaller number of projects aimed at specific neighborhoods or issues. What if they purposefully paired funding with their vast Rolodex in an effort to stimulate the Camp Washington business district, or reduce infant mortality in Avondale? Trischler points back to 2012, pre-People’s Liberty and still working off that yellow table, when the Haile Foundation partnered with the American Sign Museum on a project dubbed CoSign, a nine-month mission to pair business owners in Northside with artists to help them create new storefront signage. It wasn’t exactly revolutionary, but it was a feasible, collaborative approach to a local issue. “And it was fun,” says Trischler. “Identify an issue, bring the right organizations to the table, enlist the right talent, put some support and time to it, and do something.”
Come 2020, People’s Liberty’s approach will likely change, but the mission won’t. For as innovative and noteworthy as it’s been, PL remains a rather singular enterprise. The foundation has raised awareness for and encouraged similar grassroots grant making here and in other cities, but no one has managed to replicate it in a significant way. “We’re going to take the best pieces and roll it into something else,” says Trischler. “I think it would be irresponsible to just shut off the lights. If our mission is that you can play a role in shaping the future of this community, and then we just go away, that sends a really dismal message. And we don’t need any more dismal messages.”