The power of partnerships. These four words embody the essence of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation’s neighborhood grants program. Founded in 1998 as a result of a merger between predecessor banks, First Union and CoreStates, the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation was created with a simple mission: To improve the lives of children and families living in Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Since that time, the Foundation has developed a robust grantmaking strategy that focuses solely on the revitalization of low-income neighborhoods. By adopting a neighborhood through a long-term commitment to providing concentrated resources and support, the Foundation’s grants have given life to successful programs and initiatives that are creating lasting change throughout the region.
Since 2003, the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation has been providing primarily two types of grants through its neighborhood grants program: neighborhood planning grants and neighborhood implementation grants. Neighborhood planning grants are used to develop a comprehensive resident-driven plan to revitalize the neighborhood. Neighborhood implementation grants are provided to help support the work described in the plan.
By utilizing this strategy, the grantee neighborhoods benefit from increased stakeholder communications, higher quality programs and services, increased neighborhood assets, increased stakeholder collaboration, increased family wealth and ultimately strengthened at-risk families (see figure 1).
It Starts With a Plan
The usual planning process can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. During this time, Wells Fargo Regional Foundation grantees partner with community residents to develop a steering committee comprised of key neighborhood stakeholders to guide the process, host neighborhood meetings, conduct resident surveys and write a plan that embodies all of the feedback collected. Typically grantees hire an external planning consultant to provide technical assistance in writing and developing the plan. The Foundation’s funding guidelines emphasize the importance of the process being resident-driven to ensure resident and stakeholder buy-in at the time of implementation. The maximum planning grant is $100,000.
Because the Foundation strongly believes in the importance of tracking progress over time, all Wells Fargo Regional Foundation grantees are required to utilize several tools to gather baseline data to be measured. First, grantees must administer a resident perception survey to neighborhood residents. This surveying tool, which is a component of NeighborWorks America’s Success Measures program, provides the Regional Foundation with a methodical way to gather primary data about how residents view their neighborhood. Grantees are also required to do a physical observation survey of land parcels in the neighborhood to assess the condition of the neighborhood’s physical assets prior to implementing the plan. These tools have also had an auxiliary benefit of heightening resident awareness of community services and programming and better connecting community development practitioners with their communities. Because of the amount of time and resources required to administer a survey in this manner, each grant includes funds dedicated specifically to this task.
In addition to support from NeighborWorks America, the Foundation also provides planning grantees with a premier subscription to The Reinvestment Funds’ PolicyMap. This data-mapping service provides grantees with access to secondary data regarding neighborhood demographics and trends. The service has been particularly useful to planning grantees as they identify neighborhood strengths and weaknesses and develop strategies for implementing the objectives of their neighborhood plan.
Upon completion and approval by neighborhood stakeholders, many plans go through a secondary level of vetting by city or municipal officials to be adopted as an official plan for that section of the city or township. A typical neighborhood plan will take at least ten years and millions of dollars to implement. Obtaining approval at these various levels lends to a greater ability to fundraise for the initiatives outlined in the plan.
Making it Happen
Once a clear plan has been established, most planning grantees apply directly to the Foundation for implementation funds. Implementation grants range as high as $750,000, are performance-based and are disbursed over a five-year period. Given the larger dollar amounts and the longer time period, prospective grantees are engaged in a rigorous, six-month due diligence process prior to being awarded a grant. During this process, the Foundation assesses, among other things, the capacity of the prospective grantee, strength of the partnerships and the feasibility of the goals laid out in the plan. Given the large scope of goals laid out in a neighborhood plan, no one organization can accomplish all planned goals in isolation. It is critical to have a strong lead grantee and partners who are committed to the goals laid out in the plan.
All prospective implementation grantees are required to create an implementation matrix, which serves as the most valuable tool to ensure strategies are being implemented along a timeline and that the comprehensive nature of the project is maintained throughout its implementation. The implementation matrices list detailed quantifiable milestones and outputs that are expected to be reached by dates identified by the lead grantee. These matrices are ultimately used as a quarterly reporting tool for the Foundation to monitor performance of the grant in its performance-based portfolio.
Over time, the Foundation has learned that the first five years is just the infancy stage of a truly successful revitalization process. Often an initiative would be just gaining momentum at the end of five years and would not have had time to really take root, attract other funders and become sustainable. As a result, in 2008, the renewal grants program was launched, allowing high-performing implementation grantees to apply for additional funds in two-year increments for up to an additional $300,000. This program has promoted the sustainability of the neighborhood revitalization projects and given grantees the security they needed to focus on accomplishing large goals outlined in the plan that serve as a catalyst for lasting change.
In addition to instituting the renewal grants program, in 2011, the Foundation piloted its sustainability initiative. Through this initiative, in partnership with Community Wealth Ventures, the Foundation takes high-performing renewal grantees through a year-long capacity building process. The initiative particularly focuses on understanding the breadth of resources that have been dedicated to the revitalization projects and how to sustain the project after the Foundation exits the neighborhood. It also provides grantees with intense coaching around raising resources and pitching the project to additional funders.
As a private, corporate funder, the success of the Foundation’s strategy has been rooted in the fact that it is specific, it meets an unmet need with being one of the only funders of neighborhood planning in the region, and it takes a long-term view toward community development. As a learning organization, the Foundation continues to refine its strategy to maximize impact in the neighborhoods it serves.