Cincinnati is becoming a hub for humanitarian innovation, with focus on people-centered funding

Wave Pool, People's Liberty help lead way

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati is a charitable community. Look to the long histories and large impacts of philanthropic institutions from the local arts agency ArtsWave to the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Trust and Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation. These are classic charities that respond to area crises and needs mainly through donations to institutions.

New models in people-centered funding from organizations like the Over-the-Rhine-based philanthropic lab People’s Liberty (PL) and the Camp Washington-located arts center and community space Wave Pool are making Cincinnati a hub for humanitarian innovation and creating a new generation of social good entrepreneurs.

“I think there’s something about building an engaged population,” said Eric Avner, CEO and chief ambassador of People’s Liberty as well as vice president and senior program manager, community development at Haile. “We’re creating reasons for talent to stay and for talent to come to Cincinnati.

“Recently, there was this couple from Dallas who just moved to town. Their first stop was Wave Pool. Their next stop was here (PL). They knew this was a place that was going to help them connect and help them learn what’s going on in Cincinnati. We’re going to introduce you to people. Maybe we’ll give you a grant. Either way, you’ll want to be affiliated somehow.”

The people-centered philanthropy that Avner and his core PL team – Operations VP Jake Hodesh and Program Directors Aurore Fournier and Megan Trischler – are baking is steadily gaining international attention. Avner and Trischler are crisscrossing the globe sharing the PL story at idea festivals from Guernsey to Wales. They’re also attracting philanthropic leaders to town via large-scale events like last year’s IDEALAB and working with area nonprofits at smaller workshops called Liberty Lessons.

Cincinnati could become a global hub for philanthropic innovation. The PL numbers alone are impressive. Since its public launch in August 2014, PL has distributed $775,000 in awards to 55 grantees representing 24 Greater Cincinnati neighborhoods. During that time, 15,260 people have visited the PL headquarters at the former Globe Furniture Building across from Findlay Market.

Avner said his management role at Haile and the foundation’s funding of PL bring their work instant credibility and increased visibility. Still, it’s important that they remain distinct from mainstream funders like The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and United Way and remain focused on individuals.

“We’re using philanthropy in an interesting way,” Avner said. “I think of it more as a tool. We’re demonstrating and encouraging innovation in public art, innovation in place-making and innovation in community development and civic engagement. We’re using philanthropy as a tool for all of that.”

PL is also growing a local ecosystem of artists, designers, humanitarians and strategists committed to making a difference in the community from the creative agency Design Impact and its social innovation program called Studio C to the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Fund, the Camp Washington arts center Wave Pool and the community-centered design and art studio REVERB.

“Wave Pool is an ally, partner and friend of People’s Liberty,” said Calcagno Cullen, multimedia artist, founder and executive of Wave Pool. “We first got involved because we saw that we had mutual desires and aligned goals, namely to make Cincinnati better through creative means. We also aligned around a focus on individuals and giving opportunities to local creative.”

Midway into their five-year plan, what Avner and Trischler call “halfway home,” they’re planning an exhibition and series of events beginning in November to assess what they have learned about people-centered funding. They also see it as a good time to set their next challenges and answer questions from the community about challenges that remain.

PL – at least in its current form – is meant to have a beginning, middle and end. However, Avner and Trischler look to make their people-centered funding effort as impactful and sustainable as possible. What happens when an arts couple relocates to Cincinnati in 2022? Will there be a PL to help them connect with the community?

They’re not interested in franchising or growing in scale in a classic, business manner. However, like Ralph Haile’s Peoples Liberty Bank Trust, the business that inspired the PL name, Avner likes the idea of smaller, neighborhood branches focused on neighborhood projects and artists.

What’s clear to the PL staff as well as their community of innovative designers and humanitarians is that there’s plenty of work left to do, especially around diversity.

“I think the art industry is very key here, and at REVERB we are increasingly collaborating with organizations from the Cincinnati Arts Association to the Contemporary Arts Center around issues of diversity and inclusivity,” said Leo J.P. D’Cruz, who operates REVERB with his co-founder and wife, Michelle D’Cruz. “We talk about the bottom line. How diversifying your portfolio positively impacts your bottom line. Companies and organizations are responding, but there’s a lot of work still to do in Cincinnati.”

More importantly, what about the activists, foundations and organizations looking to Cincinnati and PL to inspire them to do better work? Who will be the future humanitarians carrying the PL torch?

“People’s Liberty has done a great job at bringing attention to philanthropy, especially the younger generation,” Cullen said. “I think the next step is for all of us to develop a generation of new, younger, risk-taking philanthropes. This goes the same for art collectors. Both groups are traditionally older, very wealthy and conservative in their funding. … I think there’s still a long way to go in developing the idea that philanthropy is for everyone, no matter age or income.”

Said Avner: “People want to be connected. So how do we maintain that community? Do we need to be the hub of that, or is it growing beyond us in an organic way? We’re like civic arsonists. We’ve created this wave, and it keeps growing. … We’re still scratching the surface.”

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