Commentary: Why We Asked the Public to Vote on Which Nonprofits Would Get $1 Million

By Pedro A. Ramos, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation

You don’t get to be 100 without being asked the secret to a long life. As Philadelphia Foundation celebrates that milestone this year, it’s no secret what keeps us going: our commitment to the well-being of people of the Greater Philadelphia Region.

We decided to use the occasion of our birthday to say thanks and to give back. Specifically, we chose to offer a $1 million Key to Community grants initiative to scale up nonprofit programs already proven to help.

And because we wanted to spread the word about top-tier nonprofit programs and have everyone experience the responsibility and satisfaction of philanthropy, we asked the public to vote among 15 finalists.

Now that the public has spoken – by casting nearly 200,000 votes – we appreciate the thousands of people who took a few minutes each day for 19 days to tell us which initiatives they thought would do the most good. We were proud last night (7/31/2019) to join our co-presenters Wells Fargo and Comcast NBCUniversal in announcing the nine terrific winning programs.  See the full list of winners here.

The public’s level of engagement reinforced the appeal of funding ideas that can transform lives. Their selections gave us a window into the kind of projects that resonate with those who may – or may not – have the means to provide financial support.

As the region’s oldest and largest community foundation, finding ways to expand philanthropy and generate support from the public for great organizations and programs is who we are.

Connecting with people to change what needs to be fixed now, to support what needs to endure and to improve conditions for the next generation is what we do. In short, our work and our partners are Key to Community.

We value and learn from the opinions of the crowd. Thousands have participated in our On the Table Philly initiative, talking to us directly about the issues and solutions that matter most.  All three categories of our Key to Community grants – fostering Economic Prosperity, shrinking the Opportunity Divide and widening Community and Civic Engagement – were directly inspired by those conversations as well.

Before presenting the proposals for public selection, we conducted a rigorous review process which included scoring and analysis by panels of respected national and regional experts in community issues and philanthropy, followed by in-person interviews. The process was heartfelt, challenging work – selecting the 15 finalists among the nearly 200 submissions of smart, strategic ideas that are already lifting up lives all around us.

Some of the organizations advancing the initiatives on our public ballot were household names, while others were lesser known.

We provided as level a playing field as possible for the finalists, restricting paid promotion, for instance, and offering social media support. We closely monitored the voting throughout the selection period to discern and address any irregularities and access issues. We made participation as easy – and therefore as widespread – as possible.

The results of the public voting exceeded our high expectations and not just from a participation standpoint.

The election was competitive because the options were strong, varied and had broad appeal. Among the proposals were teaching career skills, facilitating affordable housing, mentoring youth, addressing inequities and raising voices for change.

The initiative generated conversations among community leaders about ways to collaborate to do even more. We congratulate every organization that took the chance to think big, rally their current supporters and earn new ones. By shining a spotlight on all of these great projects, we hope the corps of our region’s givers and doers will grow. We also believe we’ve helped create a model for community philanthropy that shares decision-making with the neighbors we serve.

Our Key to Community initiative reminded us that each passing year is an opportunity to listen, learn, connect and create impact. Doing that with friends old and new is frosting on the cake.