Foundations have invested in improving the health and well-being of low-income communities for decades. Their approaches have ranged from reforming services available to residents to advocating for change in the policies and public systems that affect community life. While these efforts have been modestly successful, few have yielded transformative community change. In the face of widening economic inequality and continued racial injustice, foundation and community leaders alike are searching for more powerful strategies to reshape the conditions necessary for low-income communities to thrive.

One such strategy through which philanthropic investment can catalyze more durable and meaningful change is power building: investments that enable communities to advocate successfully for their needs and priorities and claim seats at the table for policymaking and governance to secure more equitable policy outcomes. Power building can take various forms, from grassroots organizing to build communities’ collective agency and develop youth leadership to alliance building to advance policy reform. Underlying these tactics is a long-term capacity-building strategy for leaders, organizations, and networks to increase the power of low-income populations and communities.

Power building is not a new investment approach, but commitment to it has been episodic and, at times, ambivalent. National foundations have invested in community organizing as part of multisite community-change initiatives, but they have rarely made these efforts central to their aims. Rather, they have adopted them as ancillary agenda items prompted by community interest. Only a few foundations—among them the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund—have made community power building a centerpiece strategy. Committing to power building requires extending long-term patient capital to grantees, yielding leadership and control to community partners, and being comfortable with strategies that intentionally upset the political and social status quo.

How can power-building strategies figure more centrally in philanthropic investments that seek more equitable public policy and healthier communities? We believe that foundations should take a deeper look at this approach based on promising recent results from power-building efforts in California.

In what follows, we review the evidence generated by a decade-long effort in California that grew up around The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative to advance health and racial equity. Power building was a primary strategy, goal, and outcome of this work, for which we were funders and evaluators. Based on what participants learned during the experience, we suggest a framework for philanthropic investment aimed at supporting power building among communities and populations that historically have been denied political influence and economic power in US society.

Read the full article about investment in people's power by Frank Farrow, Hanh Cao Yu, and Robert Ross at Stanford Social Innovation Review.