When you set out on a journey to a place you’ve never been, you’re taking a risk. This could certainly be said of The Denver Foundation twelve years ago, as it set out to create Strengthening Neighborhoods (SN). The truth is that foundations don’t always like to take risks, and sometimes the easiest thing to do is to take the well-trodden path by investing in established nonprofits with proven track records. Yet over the past decade, The Denver Foundation has given more than $2 million to help groups of neighbors seeking to make change in their neighborhoods, their schools, and their communities. Most of these grants have been in amounts ranging from $250 to $2,500, and all have gone directly to the neighbors for projects that they’ve conceived, created, and carried out themselves.
Are these projects “sure things” with “quantifiable outcomes?” Not always. Do these projects have the power to transform communities? Yes!
How the journey began
In 1996, The Denver Foundation asked 100 leading members of the community to share ideas about how the Foundation could expand its impact. Their number one suggestion was “Neighborhood and Community Capacity Building.” So, like all good explorers, staff and volunteers looked around for people who knew this terrain and could serve as guides. They learned of a concept called “Asset-Based Community Development,” based on the research of John McKnight at Northwestern University. The idea was simple: don’t look at a community and decide what’s wrong–look at a community and build on what’s right. All neighborhoods have assets–from people, parks, and businesses to ideas, connections, and relationships. The key is to help residents identify those assets and put them to work on the issues that they think are most important. So the Foundation set out to build the “Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative” on this premise. SN’s first grant went to the Community Resource Center to help start a brand new organization: Commerce City Community Enterprise. By the end of 1997, SN had chosen its partner neighborhoods and launched the program with five years of funding.
In its first six months, with only moderate outreach, SN received 24 applications and made 13 grants. The initiative gave larger grants to organizations like MOP (Metro Organizations for People), HECHO (Highland Economic and Community Health Organization), and the Neighborhood Resource Center, in order to help them support the work of community members in multiple neighborhoods. The first “small grant” of $2,000 went to Walter Keller of the Lumber Baron Inn in the Highland neighborhood, to create a slide show about home renovation for his neighbors. Near the end of 1998, it was time for the Foundation to take a bearing on how far SN had come. Staff attended a conference of other groups giving small grants to neighbors in their communities. They learned that SN, though still just a year old, was giving three times more grants than similar programs around the country.
As the Foundation built on this early success, it learned that the best people to follow on the journey were the neighbors themselves. The creativity of residents in every partner neighborhood continued to flourish. To support them, SN launched the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program (NLDP) in 2002, helping neighbors with good ideas develop the skills to launch their own journeys. Over 150 people have now completed NLDP and are hard at work in their neighborhoods, making life better for everyone.
From Initiative to Program
In all successful journeys, there is a time when the explorer becomes an established leader, committed for the long-term and ready to bring others along the path. This transition took place in 2002, when the Board of The Denver Foundation voted to make SN an ongoing program with dedicated funding. With this increased support, SN looked to the horizon for the next stage of its journey. In 2004, staff and volunteers saw that the Original Aurora neighborhood had a strong cadre of involved neighbors who would benefit from additional resources to meet their community’s changing needs. Today, more grant requests come from residents of Original Aurora than from any other neighborhood.
The Journey Ahead
In 2009, as SN celebrates more than a decade of success, the road ahead holds tremendous promise and opportunity. Residents of SN partner neighborhoods continue to work hard to improve their children’s schools, make their streets safer, and bring people closer through events and programs. The Denver Foundation offers its thanks to all who have made SN’s journey a success . . . from the residents to the volunteers to the staff. The risk that the Foundation took in setting out twelve years ago has been well worth the ongoing rewards of seeing its investment grow into healthy, vibrant communities.