To Build Community, Start with a Question

When I became the president of Brooklyn Community Foundation just over a year ago, it took me no time at all to realize that, even though I’ve lived here for 25 years, raised three children here, and started a nonprofit here, I really didn’t know Brooklyn.

Of course I knew Brooklyn—its signature brownstones, varied neighborhoods, and rich history; the amazing neighbors who helped me feel at home as a single mother when I moved here all those years ago; the outstanding young Brooklyn women who I worked with at the Sadie Nash Leadership Project—but in this ‘city’ of 2.5 million people, I had to acknowledge I really knew very little.

I had a huge challenge ahead—to lead the first and only foundation for New York City’s largest and fastest growing borough, and build it to take on daunting issues, including entrenched poverty and surging inequality.

Up to that point, in just five years in operation as a community foundation, the Foundation had been a fairly board-based funder of excellent nonprofits in nearly every neighborhood, to organizations of nearly every size. But while its support had been widespread and consistent, the Foundation struggled to measure its impact and effectiveness. 

As an experienced nonprofit professional, I knew the critical value a foundation’s investment can have on the success of an organization. But I also understood that this support should be part of a bigger foundation plan—one that makes clear its mission and values, and how it is striving to drive change.

With a place as vast as Brooklyn, where nearly half of all residents are living in or near poverty, how could Brooklyn Community Foundation truly move the needle?  

So we decided to spend sixth months posing this question to almost 1,000 Brooklyn “experts”—people who live here and work here.

With a staff of only eight, we sought out the guidance of the Helicon Collaborative to help design the effort, and simultaneously paused most of our other operations to give full attention to the project.

We launched Brooklyn Insights in January 2014 to create a boroughwide conversation among residents, civic leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, and activists to discuss Brooklyn’s future, its challenges, and the opportunities for change. We wanted to hear about their experiences, the services and resources they need and desire, and their ideas for making their communities stronger.

We looked at 30 sectors—from health and human services, housing, and media to seniors, religion, and jobs—and we took a “deep dive” into three distinct neighborhoods—Sunset Park, Coney Island, and East New York. We hired seven high school Community Fellows to be an extra set of eyes and ears in each meeting to make sure we were hearing all the voices in the room (as we would say, “to keep us honest!”). We also launched to be a transparent view for the public into the process, posting meeting notes for every meeting and conversation, collecting feedback, and sharing the stories of unheralded local leaders.

In our planning for Brooklyn Insights, we outlined the sectors and neighborhoods we felt would accurately capture our desired range of responses, but we knew we needed to do a lot of leg work to ensure that we spoke with a substantial and diverse cohort of Brooklynites. We started by talking to our close partners—nonprofit leaders—and asked them to introduce us to the people in their organizations who work hand-in-hand with residents each day. We then asked those staff to introduce us to a variety of local leaders—from tireless organizers to school principals to heads of civic associations. In turn, we asked every leader we met to connect us to five more. Through this networking effect, we touched far more people than we ever imagined, and were surprised and heartened by the immense generosity of time, counsel, and honesty provided along the way.

Each sector and neighborhood meeting kept the same basic format. In groups of anywhere from 5 to 55 people, a facilitator (chiefly Helicon’s Holly Sidford or Tynesha McHarris, who is now our director of community leadership) began by asking participants to share one insight they have about Brooklyn in 2014. We then moved into a discussion about the challenges they experience in their work and in their communities, what’s succeeding, and what more could be done. To close out each meeting, participants named specific wishes they wanted to see realized by 2016—from policy change to new programs and services. My staff and I had the privilege of listening and learning in every meeting, and with Helicon, weaving together every conversation into a larger picture of what’s happening in Brooklyn.

By June, five major themes emerged (read the recently released report and explore our process at

  • Neighborhood Cohesion
  • Youth
  • Criminal Justice
  • Immigrant Communities
  • Racial Justice

Viewing these themes as key levers of change, we developed a balanced action plan for our new core programs, each of which will address barriers to equity for low income residents and people of color. Our three-pronged approach will focus on:

  • Investing in opportunities and outcomes for vulnerable youth, through work on juvenile justice, immigrant families, and youth development;
  • Fostering neighborhood strength and community leadership, starting in Crown Heights, the Foundation’s new home; and
  • Recognizing the excellence and innovation of local nonprofits through a new annual awards program. 

We anticipate launching the first of these programs in early 2015. In the spirit of Brooklyn Insights, all initiatives will be led by committees of Foundation Board members, donors, community leaders, and experts in the sector. Additionally, we will establish a Racial Justice Committee to educate ourselves on the underlying causes of racial disparities and to develop an action plan for our role in advancing racial equity and justice. 

Last but not least, Brooklyn Insights led the Foundation to a clear vision and mission—to spark lasting social change, mobilizing people, capital, and expertise for a fair and just Brooklyn—anchored by five core values: courage, creativity, honesty, collaboration and respect.

Wonderful things can happen when you start from a place of learning and questioning. 1,000 Brooklynites have given voice to our new vision—and 1,000 new partners are invested in our success. In short, we feel like we’ve truly put “community” first in our community foundation, and are pleased to be a small part of an exciting movement among community foundations around the world. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but if any place is up to the task, it’s Brooklyn!  

About the author(s)

President & CEO
Brooklyn Community Foundation