Leadership Profile: Silicon Valley Community Foundation

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Subtitle
How a Catalytic Foundation Solidified Its Community Leadership
Author Organization
FSG
Author Organization URL
http://www.fsg.org/
Publication Date
09/13/11
Program
Engaged Communities
Community
San Jose
Categories
Evaluation

Using Information to Improve Civic Engagement

On May 24, 2011, Erica Wood, vice president of community leadership and grant making at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, stood in front of a crowd of more than 100 participants at a public regional planning forum in Oakland, Calif., to discuss how San Francisco Bay Area residents might address the influx of an estimated 2 million new people into the nine-county region during the next 25 years. Where these people might live, work, shop and find entertainment was anticipated to have a significant impact on issues ranging from air pollution and noise to the availability of safe and affordable housing and parking.

On May 24, 2011, Erica Wood, vice president of community leadership and grant making at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, stood in front of a crowd of more than 100 participants at a public regional planning forum in Oakland, Calif., to discuss how San Francisco Bay Area residents might address the influx of an estimated 2 million new people into the nine-county region during the next 25 years. Where these people might live, work, shop and find entertainment was anticipated to have a significant impact on issues ranging from air pollution and noise to the availability of safe and affordable housing and parking.

In an effort to inspire greater civic participation in the regional planning process, the community foundation partnered with nonprofit and government agencies to create a community information initiative called YouChoose Bay Area. YouChoose aims to help residents and community leaders make informed decisions about the building development and population growth that will shape the environment, economy and long-term health of communities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. The initiative has been centered on an interactive online platform that publishes region-specific information about Bay Area communities and hosts a suite of interactive exercises that allows visitors to choose regional development options and see the results of their choices if those options were adopted across the region. For instance, a user could prioritize things they value such as “big house with a yard” or “public transit within walking distance,” and receive a report on what the region’s overall development would look like and the impact those choices would have on other factors such as clean air or affordable housing. The YouChoose initiative also encompasses a range of offline engagement opportunities, including the forum in Oakland and five public discussions in other counties throughout the region.

Judging from the mix of civic leaders, real estate developers and business owners participating in the forums, the community foundation and its partners were successful in attracting new faces and perspectives into the conversation. The community foundation combined innovative digital technology and public forums to put community back at the center of the regional planning process. YouChoose demonstrated a new model for how the community foundation could approach its community information and civic engagement efforts.

Envisioning a Stronger Community Leadership Role

The community foundation is nestled in the heart of the Bay Area, and is a short drive to the campuses of companies like Google, Facebook and Apple. The highly successful businesses located in Silicon Valley have fueled dramatic economic growth in the region, yet the community has struggled to accommodate the growing workforce with adequate housing and public services. Silicon Valley’s transit and housing infrastructure are among the lowest ranked in the Bay Area.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation was created as the result of a 2007 merger between two community foundations serving Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. The merger created a blank slate for the community foundation’s program strategy. When convening community leaders to discuss the critical issues that the community foundation should address, CEO and president Emmett Carson recognized the opportunity to use the community foundation’s resources to inform how the region would grow over the next 15 to 20 years. As a result, the staff began learning more about the regional-planning landscape and building relationships with local and regional stakeholders working on regional planning and land use issues in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Soon groundbreaking legislation was passed in California in 2008 (SB 375) requiring all regions to develop a “Sustainable Communities Strategy,” and the community foundation seized the opportunity to turn a regional planning process run largely by insiders into a broader community engagement effort. The community foundation was well positioned to be a leader in this effort. Its understanding of the issues, relationships with key players and reputation as a strong, politically neutral leader meant that it could influence the planning process in a way that was different from advocacy organizations or government agencies. The community foundation’s credibility and objectivity also proved to be one of its most critical assets. “We are not advocating for one particular set of solutions or resolutions to a problem,” says community leadership officer Margot Rawlins. “We were able to get the regional planning agencies involved because they perceived we have the ability to bring people in that had a variety of perspectives, not just one point of view.”

The Genesis of YouChoose Bay Area

In order to equip policy makers and the public with information to make better regional planning decisions, YouChoose emphasizes three activities: 1) connecting nonprofit, for-profit and government stakeholders through an advisory committee, 2) engaging the public through regional planning forums and 3) educating people through theYouChooseBayArea.org website, which hosts the interactive online tool. At the regional planning forums, participants used the tool to discuss what they value most about their communities – clean air, safe roads, jobs – and learned how that might be affected by four different scenarios for growth.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of the advocacy organization TransFormCA, provided the inspiration for what ultimately became YouChoose. Cohen was frustrated that planning discussions often reached only a small group of “insiders” – mostly city staff and elected officials. He believed the community foundation could help develop a state-of-the-art online, interactive platform specific to Bay Area needs that would engage individuals in conversations about growth. He believed the way to capture attention was to focus on what residents most valued – clean air, walkability, access to jobs – rather than simply publish a list of complicated planning scenarios.

 

Projects discussed in this publication

YouChoose Bay Area

To support "YouChoose Bay Area" (a.k.a. Envision Bay Area), an effort to reduce carbon emissions in California using the Internet, public radio and public television to inform the community

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