Chelsea 2021: A New Model for Collaborative Philanthropy

TBF News Winter 2022

Faced with a global pandemic, national discord, and a state economy seesawing on various measures, zooming in on the neighborhood level may be the most effective way to spark positive change.  That was the hope of Chelsea 2021.

The initiative’s novel approach to both philanthropy and social justice combined the talents and resources of a diverse group of people united by a drive to address and ease problems in one area particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. While all the players may have previously chipped away at the problems from their own isolated vantage points, putting heads together on planning and carrying out ways to support the community changed the nature  of the work. The collaborative involved Boston Foundation donors, nonprofit leaders, community members, Chelsea officials and TBF staff (some with personal ties to Chelsea).

The Foundation seeded the project with $150,000 from its COVID-19 Response Fund. Donors collectively gave more than half a million dollars. In the end, $825,000 was distributed to organizations working in and for Chelsea through grants ranging from $25,000 to $75,000; community members also received stipends for their time and engagement.

Joan Cromwell
Joan Cromwell 

Engagement was the operative word throughout the year. There were monthly Zoom meetings, on-site visits and other opportunities for donors and community members to get to know one another and work together.  Cross-sector collaboration wasn’t the only shift in the approach to problem-solving in Chelsea; grantmaking took a nontraditional turn. Community members’ voices informed the process, shifting decision-making around funding to the people most affected by the issues funders were seeking to address.

“When [organizers] first said, ‘Tell us how you want us to spend this money in your community,’ it seemed too good to be true,” says Joan Cromwell, President of the nonprofit Chelsea Black Community. “But as it went on it became clear it was in all sincerity.”

In fact, some donors—though interested and invested in the process and outcome—recused themselves from the decision-making, acknowledging that the most germane knowledge about where the highest-impact grants could be made lay with the people who knew the neighborhoods and organizations more intimately. 

John Connors, Founder and CEO of Boathouse Inc., a marketing strategy and creative services firm, loved that about Chelsea 2021. “Having donors engage with the community directly makes a huge difference,” he says. “You can go to all the trainings you want about issues and methodologies but when you walk around Chelsea and break bread with people there, you just get smarter. Putting local leaders and community members in charge of decisions and having donors or investors available with specific expertise or perspective—to be of counsel instead of being in control—is a game-changer.”  Cromwell agrees, emphasizing that putting trust in organizations makes them want to live up to and exceed expectations. “TBF realized you don’t need the extra [forms and documentation]. Here we are, honest folks at the table, doing the work in the trenches—how nice that you don’t have to prove yourself.”

John Connors
John Connors, Founder and CEO of Boathouse, Inc.

Says Connors, “The Chelsea piece of this is important too—it was a really powerful decision to start there.” He’s a big believer in geography as a focal point for change: “You can get at all kinds of issues on the micro, local level, and then you can scaffold. We know the drivers of inequality, but they can be hard to address across a broad space.”

Chelsea 2021 grants were finalized toward the end of the year, disbursed to 16 organizations with a focus on jobs, workforce development and entrepreneurship (including in the arts); affordable housing; and food insecurity. These priority areas had bubbled to the surface through a survey of Chelsea residents and partners, and meetings of members of the collaborative throughout the spring and summer.

Importantly, this was a forward-looking collaborative. Members met throughout the year not only to plan next steps and decide on grants, but to assess impact, including feedback on the process itself. While adjustments and improvements are indicated at different phases of such a project, relationships between Chelsea organizations and leaders were strengthened, and donors and nonprofits alike say they are eager to follow up with similar initiatives.

“We’ll definitely be looking for more collaboration opportunities,” says Cromwell. “When folks work together the outcome is amazing.” 

Chelsea 2021 Grantees

Apollinaire Theatre Co.
Chelsea Black Community
Chelsea Business Foundation
Chelsea Community Connections
Housing Families
Jewish Vocational Service
La Colaborativa
La Vida Scholars
The Neighborhood Developers
Phoenix Charter Academy
Revival International Center
ROCA, Inc.
Selah Day Resource Center