Community Development is a Good Investment Strategy

By Mary McMurtrey


Mary McMurtrey is currently the Director of Community Engagement for the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation.  She previously served as President of the Gateway Center for Giving (formerly The Metropolitan Association for Philanthropy) for over six years.  Prior to joining The Center, she served as the Executive Director of Boys Hope Girls Hope St. Louis and before changing sectors to human services she served as the Executive Director of the Wildlife Rescue Center.  Before entering the field of nonprofit management, Mary was the communications officer for the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis where she was recruited to create a new position within the PPRC and to direct the organization’s communications and marketing efforts as an established professional entity in the St. Louis policy arena with a focus on both regional and national issues.  Mary lives in Ladue with her husband Michael and their children, Sophia and Lyla.

Our region fundamentally lacks the community development infrastructure needed to incent local and national development dollars. This is deeply troubling, as it means we are leaving meaningful philanthropic dollars on the table. The community development initiatives we choose to support must make business sense, but they must also help improve the quality of life for the people who live in those communities.

Think about it. Services exist in a place.  A community.  As such, before allocating dollars to a worthy cause, as funders I believe we have an obligation to give equal weight to the quality of life for the people within those communities. We need to think beyond our funding niche, and also focus on community and economic development and give those issues the attention they deserve.

After all, none of us would invest in a for profit business without sustainable infrastructure, human capital, or a growing customer base, yet these are the very (essential) elements we often overlook when we do our grant-making.

All the education reform initiatives in the world can’t make children safer on their walks to school each day. Similarly, administering medicines on an ongoing basis works best when the patient’s basic needs are being met. It stands to reason, we as individuals begin and end each day in our place – our home, our schools, our churches, our workplaces. Our community. Shouldn’t we as funders help improve the societal infrastructure that supports and sustains us all?

I often hear funders describe themselves using statements like, “I’m an education funder,” or, “Our foundation supports the arts.”  While these “categories” define what we fund, I believe they also cause us to operate in silos. It’s no wonder that these silos tend to permeate the nonprofits we support, and ultimately help reinforce the divisions that plague our community.

To combat this problem, what if every philanthropist asked the following before making a grant: “Upon what foundation will my money be supported?  Is there a roof?  Are there sidewalks?  Streetlights?  Will my intervention help build upon a community of people, or will it accomplish a fraction of what it could, simply because we did not look at the problem comprehensively?

That said, our allocation of philanthropy dollars need to make good business sense, but they also must help improve the quality of life for people who live in those communities.  One cannot exist without the other.

I recognize funders can’t solve everything. Often we have limited dollars and must make difficult choices about what we are passionate about and how we give charitably. However, wouldn’t it be novel – and exciting — to tie our education dollars, for example, to other funders who are working to address issues associated with healthy seniors, and at the same time involve other initiatives that are trying to improve the physical conditions of the communities and neighborhoods we are trying to serve?

What if our belated New Year’s resolution was to challenge ourselves as funders and nonprofit leaders to build a little more “place” and “community” into our strategies in 2015?  Imagine how we could come together as a region, as funders, as doers, and really make a difference. I have no doubt the entire country – and those national foundations – would take note.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the view of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.