Representing Brooklyn from the Ground Up


Sabrina Hargrave

A woman giving a presentation to a group of people.

Originally published by the Fund for Shared Insight


As the community foundation for the most trendsetting place on the planet, we at Brooklyn Org (BKO) have always set out to do philanthropy differently. One way this plays out is through our commitment to consistently integrating the insights, ideas, and lived expertise of our communities into everything we do.

When our president and CEO, Dr. Jocelynne Rainey, joined the organization in 2021, she wanted to expand our community engagement work to ensure we were constantly in conversation with residents across our borough to truly understand their challenges and lift up their solutions. Brooklyn is home to nearly three million people living in dozens of unique neighborhoods. To fully represent their interests and aspirations would require us to rethink our approach to listening and engagement in new and exciting ways – getting our team out of the office and into coffee shops, cafes, and catering halls in every community.

Video courtesy of the Fund for Shared Insight

In 2022, we embarked on the first leg of a three-year Listening Tour that would bring Brooklyn Org to 30 neighborhoods across Brooklyn, hearing from community members about the issues impacting their communities the most. Inviting people from all walks of life – small businesses owners, educators, parent advocates, faith leaders, and, of course, representatives from nonprofits – has allowed us to get the most holistic sense of what Brooklynites need and helped us figure out our part in helping them move toward solutions.

Each year, we hold Listening Tours in 10 neighborhoods, and then share our findings during webinars open to the entire Brooklyn community. These gatherings, after all, aren’t just about listening – they’re about elevating the concerns of our neighbors, strategizing how to best support their efforts, and being held accountable in our role supporting the borough’s outstanding nonprofits.

Our 2023 Listening Tour debrief, a webinar that took place in February, gathered more than 100 community members eager to hear what we learned from our meetings in Greenpoint, Red Hook, Weeksville, and other neighborhoods – and to hear their own insights amplified to a boroughwide audience. We are so grateful to have their trust in sharing their stories as they lead the charge for a better Brooklyn.

We view the Listening Tours as a crucial start to knowing how to approach our work, especially by partnering with and uplifting those who are closest to the challenges and already trying to get at solutions.

Sabrina Hargrave, VP of Programs

The needs of these neighborhoods are as diverse as the people who call them home. Spanning structural problems like environmental distress, zoning, and food insecurity, and specific initiatives like anti-violence programming and an effort to strengthen local media, changes these communities need won’t happen overnight. But we view the Listening Tours as a crucial start to knowing how to approach our work, especially by partnering with and uplifting those who are closest to the challenges and already trying to get at solutions.

As part of our February webinar, we were thrilled to announce our Neighborhood Collective Impact Project, a grant program exclusively offered to Listening Tour participants. One of the most common sentiments we heard during our listening sessions was that folks didn’t know who else was doing similar work in their own communities – and this Impact Project funding strives to address exactly that. We plan to provide $25,000 to back three separate collaborations of nonprofits addressing unique issues impacting their neighborhoods.

Our evolution as Brooklyn Org is built upon a powerful and clear strategic plan, and continuing our Listening Tours is part of our dedication to giving communities a platform to voice their needs. We continue our commitment to making funding decisions across our entire strategic grantmaking portfolio (about $4-million a year) through participatory models. We’re also diving headfirst into capacity-building opportunities for all nonprofits in Brooklyn, whether or not we currently fund them.

Last fall, we added the position of Nonprofit Engagement Manager to our team and launched a brand new Leader Salon series, which offers free, low-stakes, high-connection breakfasts that are designed to bring local nonprofit leaders together in one room to discuss the issues most top of mind for them. Even with only two meetings under our belts, they’ve already been a huge success. Nonprofit leaders have left these morning gatherings feeling energized, heard, and eager to develop their connections with one another.

Our brand-new Brooklyn Org grantmaking RFP model also ensures that nonprofit leaders are in the drivers’ seat of the change their communities need. Rather than asking organizations to tailor their grant proposals to specific issues or focus areas, this rolling universal application encourages nonprofits to identify the full scope of their racial justice work beyond any one priority issue or focus area. In tandem with our expanded areas of impact, we hope to cast the widest net and create opportunities for as many nonprofits as possible to be BKO grantee partners, which will receive multi-year, general operating support grants. And we will continue to work with our advisory councils, comprised of community members who are paid to serve, to help make grants decisions.

This year, we’re looking forward to the final leg of our first three-year Listening Tour cycle, with stops in neighborhoods as unique as dynamically developing Downtown Brooklyn and shorefront Sheepshead Bay. We plan to produce a full report on our findings that will inform not only our grantmaking and partner-building, but also how we write our policy agendas and engage elected officials and candidates in the 2024 citywide election.

At Brooklyn Org, we like to describe ourselves as “the Foundation of Our Future,” creating a new model for local philanthropy designed to involve everyone in shaping and achieving a shared vision for our communities. Democratizing philanthropy isn’t just a tenet of our strategic plan, we are walking the walk, grateful for all our partners, the people and neighborhoods embarking on this journey with us.



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