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Centering Communities: A Case Study of Partnering in Place from Baltimore and Jackson

Place-based work has been an essential cornerstone of investing since philanthropy’s inception; it allows funders to address the unique issues and needs of a specific geographic area or community.  It involves directing resources toward community organizations, initiatives, and projects to create positive social impact and improve the health of a specific area or region. While this approach can be incredibly impactful, it also comes with its own set of complexities, challenges, and nuances. 

At TCC Group, we believe that communities are asset-rich and have the capacity to assess their immediate needs and plan for better outcomes in the future. Accompanied by funders who respect their insights, support their ability to lead, and commit to sticking around long enough for new ways of engaging to take root, communities can make the enduring gains in collective well-being that we all seek.

While naming community-centered engagement and investment is currently on trend in philanthropy, TCC Group has been partnering in place with funders for decades. A recent example – since 2015, TCC Group has worked with ViiV Healthcare, a healthcare company focused solely on solutions for HIV, to pilot, expand, and strengthen their place-based portfolio.  This piece explores some of the insights and crucial lessons learned from our partnership developing and implementing accelerate, a $10 million dollar initiative that supports a range of community-driven activities to strengthen the health and well-being of Black gay and bisexual men in Jackson, Mississippi, and Baltimore, Maryland. TCC Group designed and led the process, which was rooted in a community-centered framework—continuous listening, targeted activation, thoughtful amplification, and deliberate efforts to sustain momentum through applying field learnings to impact change.

Below we share three key takeaways for those involved in place-based work: addressing the system, building community capacity, and sustaining change.

Insights and Lessons Learned

Addressing the System

Place-based work that is intended to change the trajectory of a community’s response to a specific issue is complex, multi-faceted, and not necessarily self-sustaining.  A major insight from the work was the real understanding that it takes significant time and dedicated effort to identify and include all the players relevant to the issue of interest, including organizations that are adjacent to, and impact the issue area.  It takes even longer for all the key stakeholders to connect, establish trust, and create and implement new projects that address the broken systems and affect change in their communities. 

To affect true systemic change, the work requires intense, thoughtful, and diplomatic engagement across the community and from a variety of actors and stakeholders. One of the biggest pieces of advice we heard from community at the onset of this work is to let go of preconceived notions of organizational know-how and ways of working; we know that funding decisions can often be based on assumptions around prior knowledge and experiences, pre-existing relationships, and place in community.  To break out of this pattern, funders need to be intentional about mapping the ecosystem to understand who the key contributors are for the levers of change as well as identifying new and emerging leadership and lesser-known organizations; this is a critical component of creating, nurturing, and delivering community-driven solutions.


On-the-ground local coordinators play a crucial role in understanding and mapping the landscape, building bridges, creating and maintaining momentum, and staying connected to a variety of stakeholders, including grantees.

Building Community Capacity

Often the organizations that have the infrastructure and capacity to receive funding are selected to lead coordinated and collective community efforts, which can have the negative effect of crowding out other lesser well-known players and true community gatekeepers.  Some of the richest assets and strongest resources in communities are the people and organizations that have innovative ideas and passion but need more intentional skills-building, and leadership and organizational development. What we have learned is that these overlooked organizations require investment into developmental organization and capacity building as much as programmatic support. For example, strengthening the grantees’ capacity overall became a key part of the accelerate initiative and is a major factor that helped to sustain the work after funding ended. A focal point of the capacity building was leadership development as a critical building block to strengthen the work, coalitions, and organizations that could drive impact.

While funders may see this as a risky investment, we have learned that preparing to invest in people and grassroots projects has yielded tremendous impact. Note: Being comfortable in investing in a person or new organization is different from providing capacity-building support to well-established organizations.  This ultimately helps the communities reach their potential and the funders to achieve their goals.

Pro Tip

Funders can develop and deploy responsive capacity-building assistance to prospective applicants and grantees and/or identify responsible fiscal sponsors to provide additional supports to organizations.

 Sustaining Change

In geographies where disparities are well-documented and funders are eager to find ways to provide support, the end result is often one where communities feel over-researched and over-extended. Moreover, once/when the interest wanes, the real danger is that the work is not sustained. This sort of dynamic perpetuates the criticism that funders often swoop in with “solutions” and resources and then leave. A core learning was that committing to an iterative listening process where funders consistently engage, as well as solicit and share feedback helps to build trust and ensure that community voices lead the design of community-centered solutions. Deep listening is a critical phase and best practice in initiative design and funding strategy, and a hallmark  of our work in place.

To ensure a responsive and equitable approach, funders need to make a clear  commitment to the long term, which includes investing in network development and collaborative efforts. Sustaining programmatic efforts needs validation and dedicated resources to build on momentum and emergent opportunities created during the lifecycle of the program.

Pro Tip

Funders can leverage their convening power and host community events, whether it be hosting design workshops that bring together community stakeholders to workshop ideas, ask and answer questions, brainstorm projects and identify potential partners before proposals are submitted or learning sessions where organizations have space to exchange knowledge, resources and insights.

Place-based work is a dynamic and ever-changing process, and an open, learning mindset that allows for responsiveness to changing needs and situations is a key facet of the approach.   A long-term horizon and consistent funding are critical to the work. Moreover, we know that time is needed to build trust and relationships among the funder and organizations, as well as organizations among themselves.   

Through the complexities, one of our favorite aspects of doing this work is that it becomes a platform to help funders come down to the ground and meet the community where they are at.  It allows you to see impact in action, the work being done in real time and provides an opportunity to meet incredible people, and participate in powerful conversations.  At TCC Group, we value any chance that allows us to get real and deep with people and organizations, build relationships and contribute to genuine solutions and meaningful change. Share your thoughts with us here.

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