The Quiet Side of Philanthropy in Newark

September 14, 2011

By Nina Stack
President, Council of New Jersey Grantmakers

What is missing amidst the headlines of extraordinarily generous private donors investing in Newark is the quieter story of what a group of local funders seeded 5 years ago. It started as a test to see if it might bear fruit, and has now gone on to have meaningful impact across the city in a number of important, very tangible ways.

When Mayor Cory Booker was first elected, a group of local foundations with long histories of supporting Newark talked of a model that had been working quite well: in Michigan, a group of foundations helped create the non-partisan Office of Foundation Liaison, a cabinet level position within the Michigan governor’s administration to promote cross-sector partnerships and to broaden understanding of the philanthropic sector.

Mayor Booker and his team recognized the value in such an opportunity, and with the support of funders committed to Newark, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers partnered with Mayor Booker to establish the Newark Philanthropic Liaison position in City Hall.

Many in Newark know Jeremy V. Johnson. He works closely with the Mayor’s office to connect local and regional grantmakers and government entities. He convenes philanthropy stakeholders and government leaders, and he leverages local philanthropic dollars to secure and raise additional resources – introducing new investments into Newark.

Since the position was created in 2006, more than $46 million dollars in private and public funding has been added to the city’s pool of money used for its prisoner re-entry program, workforce development, the greening of Newark, the creation of a safe haven for Newark’s lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning youth, and other programs too.

Through CNJG and Jeremy, the Newark Funders Group, which is made up of funders that invest in the city, now meets regularly to share knowledge and their varied expertise, and to connect with government and community leaders. The formation of this group has led to more agile decision-making when funds are needed. For example, in June of this year, when the group learned that school district funding had been cut for half of the high achieving 7th and 8th graders who were to attend the prestigious W.E.B. Dubois Scholars Institute at Princeton University, they sprang into action. Within days, the group put up the $65,000 shortfall. Thanks to their quick action, all 25 students were able to participate in the five-week, college-level, intensive program designed to develop Newark’s future leaders.

The unusually fast action is the result of the group’s trusted, collaborative network and a testament to the important role Johnson plays in one of Mayor Booker’s highest priorities: increasing Newark’s philanthropic investments.

“The Newark Philanthropic Liaison has worked out phenomenally well for local funders,” said Irene Cooper-Basch, Executive Officer & Secretary of the Board for the Victoria Foundation and a member of the Newark Funders Group, who has experienced first-hand the impact the Philanthropic Liaison’s office has had on the giving community. “Having this position embedded in City Hall and interfacing closely with the Mayor and his senior team has resulted in the ability to leverage countless opportunities to bring local, national and government resources to Newark that I believe would not have occurred otherwise.”

Jeremy was instrumental in drawing $15 million of private funding to Newark’s Strong Healthy Communities Initiative through the national organization Living Cities – which is another substantive example of what this position has enabled. A $15 million match by Prudential and support from other local foundations is being used to create healthy neighborhoods, improve the supply of and demand for fresh food, establish school-based and mobile health centers, and revitalize neighborhoods by rehabbing up to 100 abandoned properties.

In the coming weeks we’ll be announcing more examples of how funders are coming together in Newark, thanks in large part to the work of our Newark Philanthropic Liaison.

Nina Stack is the President of Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association for corporate, family, independent, and community foundations. She is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog.