Fixing Baltimore

The city's charitable organizations have become increasingly activist in attacking social and economic problems, providing leadership and money to spark renewal


It was not that long ago that philanthropy in a place like Baltimore was tinged with an "alms-to-the-poor" aura.

There was a bit of noblesse oblige involved in helping ease the miseries of those known as the less fortunate, as well as supporting the standard variety of educational and cultural institutions.

That was then. Now, such philanthropy is almost an industry whose leaders spout buzz terms like "strategic coordination" and "leveraging" and "accountability."

"Foundations have become much more significant in the local community over the last 20 years," says Robert Embry, head of the Abell Foundation. "In many ways they have had to make up for the loss of corporate giving because of the loss of corporate headquarters in Baltimore."

With that importance has come a increasingly complex role in the life of the city. No longer do these foundations just fund do-gooder programs; they now permeate the governmental and educational bureaucracies as well as the business and economic life of the city, planting seed money here, suggesting policy changes there, investing in businesses over there. They do not have the wherewithall to build the economic ship of Baltimore, but they can be a significant hand on the tiller.

Foundations come in all varieties in Baltimore. Two - the Open Society Institute and Annie E. Casey - were national operations lured here by Baltimore's combination of huge problems and potential for finding solutions. The OSI is funded by the international financier George Soros, though it is now looking for additional donors. The Casey money came from the founder of UPS. Both make grants nationally but focus much of their work on Baltimore.

"We came here from Connecticut in 1994 because we thought as a foundation that focuses on vulnerable and low-income families and kids that we could learn a great deal here, and apply what we had learned elsewhere to Baltimore," says Douglas W. Nelson of the Casey Foundation. "We thought there was a fit between the issues and needs at that point in the history of Baltimore and what we at Casey wanted to be about."

But there are plenty of homegrown foundations, too, such as Abell and France-Merrick and Harry and Jeannette Weinberg - which also makes national grants - as well as the Baltimore Community Foundation, an umbrella group that administers about 500 foundations with assets from $10,000 to $21 million.

All report a growing cooperation among the foundations as they tackle the needs of the city.

"It used to be you would never get the Jewish charities and the Catholic charities and the Protestant charities to sit down in the same room together," says Tom Wilcox of the Baltimore Community Foundation. "Now that happens all the time. Everyone is looking for maximum impact."

Diane Morris of the Open Society Institute says this is evident at all levels of Baltimore philanthropy. "There is a real desire to work more strategically. People realize that they have to be present for a long time, to stay at something for a number of years, and take multiple approaches.

"You can't do it all yourself," she says. "You work with other foundations, hand in hand. What that means is that there is a lot of collaboration going on."

Some of those multiple approaches are not traditional philanthropic activities. Abell, for instance, invests in businesses with the goal of making money for the foundation while contributing to the city's economy.

"Overhelmingly, the business has to be projected to make money," Embry says of such investments. "Secondly, it should be doing something socially worthwhile. Third, it should be headquartered here in Baltimore, and fourth, it should be providing jobs."

Embry says its most successful such venture is Guilford Pharmecuticals, which has been sold, but still employs 200 in the city. He is currently touting a firm that makes cement which does not contribute to the pollution of the atmosphere.

The Casey Foundation was instrumental in bringing together all the disparate characters necessary for the big biotech park around the Johns Hopkins medicial complex, which has the potential of remaking a huge swath of East Baltimore. It was the catalyst, a word often used by foundation executives to describe their role.

"We can't singlehandedly revive the economy of East Baltimore or provide all the needed housing or the access to employment," Nelson says. " But in many ways we can facilitate those things happening by the private sector."

The idea is not to throw the money up and watch the winds blow it this way and that, but to use the money to help direct those winds in the right direction.

That's because, no matter how much money these foundations hand out, it is a pittance compared with what businesses can generate in the private sector, or government can do in the public arena.

"We can only take care of a finite number of people," says Shale Stiller, president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which focuses much of its efforts on helping the elderly poor.

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