Ideas you can steal: Community information projects that worked

Left to Right: Knight Communities VP Trabian Shorters, Minnesota Philanthropy Partners’ Jennifer Ford Reedy, Boulder County’s Chris Barge, Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Margo Rawlins, Community Foundation of Great Buffalo’s Clotilde Dedecker, and West Anniston Foundation’s Tycoma Miller.

This post is part of a series about the 2012 Media Learning Seminar, a gathering of foundations, news organizations and tech experts on community information needs. Watch the livestream Monday and Tuesday at

As part of Knight’s Media Learning Seminar (livestreaming today and tomorrow), five community foundations presented successful projects and ideas that could be applied to other community engagement efforts around the country.

1. You Choose Bay Area: Silicon Valley Community Foundation

With rapid growth in the Bay Area threatening the quality of life, the foundation wanted to get more people involved in regional planning.

So the foundation went for a three-pronged approach to engage the community. They built an interactive website called “ You Choose Bay Area,” initiated a media campaign that involved a partnership with public radio station KQED and hosted a series of public forums.  

Of the folks who visited You Choose Bay Area, 20% said they were brand new to the regional planning process. At the 10 public forums across several counties, both the far right and the far left were showing up in the same room to discuss how different ways of growth would affect their lives. The foundation learned quickly about how to moderate a forum with wide-ranging views and maintain a civil tone during talks.

Ultimately, 70% of the folks who said they were new to the regional planning process reported they were likely or very likely to stay involved with the cause. The only disappointment was a lack of ethnic diversity among the people the project engaged.

2. Ready, Set, Learn: The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County

The problem Boulder County identified was a huge achievement gap between low income kids and their peers from middle or upper income homes. “Not everyone gets an even start in life,” said the foundation’s Chris Barge. “Children show up to kindergarten with folks who aren’t prepared, who even at kindergarten are so far behind that they are not likely to go to college.” Research showed that Boulder County, despite having one of the most competitive school districts in the state, was failing kids from low income families.

The foundation identified two problems: no public awareness of the issue, and no public funding capacity to address it. Kindergarten is not compulsory and underfunded in Colorado, said Barge. So the foundation did more research to find out what would motivate the public to act. Women in a focus group felt this was a moral issue. Men wanted a business case for why they should invest in this issue, especially when it came to having to raise taxes to address the problem.

With Knight’s help, the foundation got the community’s attention, educated them and galvanized public support. Early childhood education is a matter of personal, economic and national security, the campaign said at festivals, fairs and on the radio across Colorado. The group brought in a national expert and convened state leaders to help drive home the issue.

Ultimately, the community, once it learned about the gap, got the school board to take action. The School Board agreed to donate millions from an upcoming levy (if passed) to help increase pre-school and kindergarten classes for low-income schools. The levy won in a landslide — 60% of voters ulimately supported it.  “Our initiative was successful because a community organization got behind it. Community organizations are trusted sources,” Barge said.

With so many public health and environmental issues that residents of Western New York had questions about, the foundation identified a need for a “United Way of the environment.” So they started by creating GROW Western New York — a virtual town square for all things green in the community. When a homeowner had an environmental issue, like finding a bat colony in a house he was renovating, he went to GROW and it connected the homeowner with people from local organizations like the Audubon Society who helped him relocate his bat colony.

GROW now connects 150 environmental nonprofits to each other and to the public. They co-create and maintain structures that bring people and information together. “We are the grease and the glue that initiates and sustains collective action,” said Clotilde Dedecker, with the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo.

And GROW is only growing. This year, the site will engage low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental contaminants. GROW is building out a network to let folks text in their environmental threats in their neighborhoods and map them on the GROW website to provide a comprehensive record and data visualization of environmental threats. Ideally, this will provide a basis for advocacy and policy work.

“Whether it’s bats in the attic, or calculating your family’s carbon footprint, or addressing environmental justice, we’re harnessing the power of info technology because increasing the flow of information will lead to healthier, more economically viable communities,” said Dedecker.

4. Call-in Radio Show: West Anniston Foundation

The foundation used the radio to engage its small Alabama community, which was one of the most toxic cities in the country. Residents didn’t know they were being exposed to PCB contamination for decades. They found out 40 years after the toxic contaminants were in their city (the primary source was a chemical factory). The foundation wanted folks to share their stories and raise more awareness, so they used a radio show to engage.

What started with only a handful of callers turned into hundreds of calls a month. The radio show gave people a voice, allowed them to tell their stories of health problems that came as a result of the exposure, and share what mattered most to them about what to do now.

The largest challenge was engaging 18 to 25 year-olds. Tycoma Miller, who spoke on behalf of the West Anniston Foundation, said the effort was ultimately unsuccessful in getting more young people to call-in or engage in discussing the issue.

5. The Minnesota Idea Open: Minnesota Philanthropy Partners

Much like GROW, Minnesota Philanthropy Partners saw its greatest success from creative collaboration among various non-profits in its state. The organization knew that what’s possible in philanthropy is fast-changing, so donor expectations are changing with it.

They launched, an e-philanthropy method that has now helped raise more than $50 million for non-profits in Minnesota in three years. By creating this platform for partner non-profits, Minnesota Philanthropy Partners has gone from working with hundreds of donors a year to tens of thousands of donors a year.

The foundation also started the Minnesota Idea Open, aimed at engaging every Minnesotan to help solve statewide problems. The Idea Open issues community challenges surrounding critical, statewide issues in which individuals or groups can use grant money to try and solve. Their first challenge was on obesity. They received more than 400 proposals from around the state on what people and organizations would do in their communities about the problem. The users of the Idea Open then got to vote on which proposals should win the grant.

By the next challenge, more than 10,000 people voted for their favorite proposals.

Every major newspaper and television station in Minnesota covered the Idea Open, and that press attention helped galvanize public participation. The project continues to thrive in its effort to get community members engaged in solving problems that affect the state.

Those are just a handful of some creative, innovative projects that have helped inform and engage communities – and make a difference on important community issues. Feel free to steal them – and adapt them to your own community.

What these groups have is common is that they each won Knight Community Information Challenge grants, which provide matching funds to community and place-based foundations for their community project proposals. (Read more about what Knight has learned about the challenge in our latest report.)

Elise Hu is covering the event as a freelance blogger for KnightBlog. She is the digital editor of StateImpact at NPR.