There’s a vacant lot in Ferguson, Mo., where last August a QuikTrip was looted and burned.
The Urban League plans to open a job-training center next summer on the now-iconic site, where the convenience store was destroyed in the angry uprising after a white police officer killed black teenager Michael Brown Jr. In many ways, the empty plot symbolizes the struggles nonprofits and foundations in St. Louis face as they work to turn Ferguson into fertile ground for change.
Local nonprofits say they are up to the challenge, although finding a unified voice has proved elusive.
Donors are unsure of how to help the residents of Ferguson, a suburban area beset by poverty, racial tension, and a lack of economic opportunities. Some nonprofits with little or no presence in the region allegedly took advantage of the crisis to raise money for themselves, and corporate donors have favored projects that some local leaders say fail to tackle the issue of race head-on.
"These things are not going to turn around quickly," says Robert Hughes, president of the Missouri Foundation for Health. The region’s problems are so difficult, he says, because they have accumulated over "a significant history that’s deeply rooted in our institutions, behavior, and the way we interact with each other."
Even so, St. Louis foundations, nonprofits, businesses, and individuals are devoting time and money to dismantling unfair systems and creating a community where everyone can thrive.
"The incident was tragic, and the change that could result from the community sector could be transformative," says Diane Drollinger, chief executive of the city’s Nonprofit Services Center, which provides training, leadership development, and consulting.
With the subsequent violent deaths of other African-Americans in Baltimore, Charleston, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, calls for that kind of transformation have grown increasingly urgent. Making change happen in St. Louis has required organizations to look hard at their shortcomings, collaborate in new ways, and seek innovative ideas from overlooked sources.
"Everyone realizes the stakes are high," says Amelia Bond, president of the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation. "No one organization, no one donor can do it alone. It’s going to take a community."
Weaknesses in the System
St. Louis may have appeared well positioned for a strong philanthropic response to the events in Ferguson. Washington University in St. Louis is one of the best-endowed universities in the country, and the city boasts the nation’s fifth-largest local United Way.
However, resources were much thinner at many organizations working on the front lines of poverty and social change, and the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation didn’t have a large endowment to draw on in the wake of a disaster. It was largely dormant until the 1980s, Ms. Bond says, and has only about $13 million in discretionary unrestricted funds.
Even so, when the protests broke out a year ago, blocking Ferguson residents’ access to grocery stores and preventing them from reaching their jobs, nonprofits quickly mobilized to meet people’s immediate needs.
The United Way of Greater St. Louis distributed food and supplies and offered counseling services. It put out a call for donations to a new Ferguson Fund, ultimately raising $2.35 million from individuals and corporations and receiving a $1 million contract from St. Louis County.
To keep kids learning while protests closed public schools, the St. Louis arm of Teach for America set up a community school at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library.
St. Stephen’s & the Vine Episcopal Church in Ferguson, which runs a food pantry, distributed an estimated $250,000 in food over the course of three weeks, says its pastor, Steve Lawler. When people from all over the country started calling to ask how to help, the church set up a PayPal account to allow them to donate.
And locals devised creative ways to contribute: An anonymous couple donated $100,000 to the community foundation and asked the organization to assemble a team of Ferguson residents to distribute it as they saw fit.
But beneath the flurry of that initial response, local officials say, was a lack of coordinated effort.
"If you don’t have a network, a hub of infrastructure for collaboration, you can’t immediately collaborate because of an event," Ms. Drollinger says.
The Ferguson crisis revealed great need — and created anticipation that a flood of donations and grants would come to organizations operating in the area. Both factors motivated nonprofits to push into the beleaguered suburb, leaders say.
Large, regional organizations and grass-roots, neighborhood nonprofits have found it frustrating to try to reconcile their differences in perspective and practice, Ms. Drollinger says. The former are accustomed to providing the best possible services but not necessarily taking direction from community members, she explains, while the latter are not inclined to accept services from any group that offers.
Additional confusion and tensions arose as people sought to create new charities, and the initial surge in donations allowed some nonprofits from outside of Ferguson to launch operations in the now nationally known suburb. Worse yet, local leaders say, was that some organizations based outside of the St. Louis area misused the crisis for their own purposes.
"There’s clearly been some fundraising done in the name of Ferguson that has never made it back to Ferguson," says Thomas Harvey, co-founder and director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit legal-aid organization in St. Louis.
Mary McMurtrey, director of community engagement at the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation, also criticized what she called "opportunistic behavior."
"Some people, frankly, were doing a big land grab. A lot of people were thinking there was going to be a lot of money," she says. "I got calls every week from national groups who wanted to do community activism and asked us to invest in their program model to teach people in Ferguson how to work together. ... Funders and folks on the ground right out of the gate were like, ‘Whoa, thank you, but no.’ "
The situation left some donors feeling overwhelmed, Mr. Harvey says: "I heard from people hesitant to donate because there wasn’t one unified recipient of funding."
Still, Mr. Harvey says, he considered the overlapping efforts to be a strength overall, not a weakness. "It’s multivoiced," he says. "There are a bunch of organizations doing different things, and that’s the beauty of it."
Nonprofits are also wrangling with how to best include the perspectives of those St. Louisans whose protests first brought national attention to their city.
The United Way of Greater St. Louis has not used its Ferguson Fund to support protestors, says the group’s president, Orvin Kimbrough. But it did join with the Regional Business Council, Civic Progress, and other nonprofit groups to bring representatives from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change to St. Louis to train students, activists, residents, and business and church leaders on how to use nonviolent principles to resolve conflicts.
Young people involved in the Ferguson protests have already started to work at some nonprofits, like the Organization for Black Struggle and Missouri Jobs for Justice, says Starsky Wilson, president of the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis.
"These movements create, activate, and inspire people who find themselves in careers working for social change," Mr. Wilson said. "It’s already creating that kind of change and building that kind of pipeline."
The Gateway Center for Giving, an association of local grant makers, jumped in early to host a series of events designed to help members learn about racial equity and inclusion. As of May, member foundations reported donating more than $12 million to Ferguson-related efforts.
Six local foundations donated a total of $150,000 to support the work of the Ferguson Commission, the 16-member body appointed by the Missouri governor to study racial-equity problems in the area. Mr. Hughes, of the Missouri Foundation for Health, which contributed $100,000 to the commission, says St. Louis grant makers have been doing a better job recently of exchanging information and working together.
"Many of us are meeting regularly now around issues we’re working on," Mr. Hughes says. "We’re aware of what others are doing. When we get inquiries, we know who we can refer people to."
However, Deborah Dubin, president of the Gateway Center for Giving, expressed concern that the organization’s Ferguson programs have attracted only self-selecting people — those already interested in racial equity.
Gail Christopher, vice president for policy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has made racial equity one of its grant-making priorities, says reaching the rest and turning them into allies will require creativity. Ms. Christopher cites as models White Men Are Full Partners in Diversity, a national organization that works with white, male corporate leaders, and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, which promotes the message to evangelicals, police officers, and military members.
She believes community foundations in St. Louis and elsewhere could be in a strong position to do more to expose donors to racial-equity causes.
"Community foundations could be real strategic partners and allies because they would represent credibility in the community and they also represent resources in those communities," she says. "I would love to see taking these issues on become a priority for these community foundations and the Council on Foundations, which is a voice for all philanthropy but particularly community foundations. I don’t think they’ve done that. There’s a need for more leadership in the field of community foundations."
Ms. Bond, the head of the St. Louis community foundation, agreed that community foundations should do more to address inequality.
"A community foundation is an important and strategic place to take on the issues of race," she said. "That’s a goal. I suspect the events of Ferguson will make it a near-term goal — an imperative. I think it puts it right in our face."
Looking to the Future
A year after Mr. Brown’s death, St. Louis nonprofit leaders acknowledge that their work has just begun. Charities are starting to think more about what they could accomplish if they worked together, Ms. Drollinger says. She recommends that organizations in other communities start building relationships now so they are ready to respond if they find themselves facing the kind of crises that have touched Charleston, Baltimore, New York, and other places.
"Proactive conversation around collaboration is really, really important," she says.
There are signs of progress. The Ferguson Commission is considering 200 recommendations, several of which address nonprofits and foundations. The recommendations include creating a 25-year managed fund to "support regional racial equity infrastructure for all sectors" and calling on nonprofits, grant makers, and donors to create a "shared set of guidelines, language and benchmarks for philanthropic organizations addressing key causes of systemic inequality."
Nearly 2,000 people have participated in 75 community dialogues about racial equity hosted by Diversity Awareness Partnership, a St. Louis nonprofit that provides diversity training. The early conversations were tense, with some people more interested in defending their own opinions than learning from other perspectives, says Reena Hajat Carroll, the nonprofit’s executive director. But she has since seen the events help black and white strangers forge new relationships.
Meanwhile, at the former site of the looted QuikTrip, the Urban League broke ground in July on its new facility, the Community Empowerment Center of Ferguson. But the group isn’t waiting for an official ribbon-cutting to get to work. Its Save Our Sons program, which began work in January, has already graduated four classes of students trained in work skills.
Of those 86 students, 82 percent have found jobs.