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Building Better Communities Through Small Investments with Eric Avner of The Haile Foundation

“We weren’t changing the definition of philanthropy. We were changing what it means to develop community.” -Eric Avner, Vice President of the Haile Foundation and CEO of People’s Liberty

Why do stories matter to the innovation process? What values can be instilled in innovators who share stories? How do innovation leaders inspire creators to tell and share their success and failure stories? We speak with Eric Avner, Vice President of the Haile Foundation and CEO of People’s Liberty. Eric explains how People’s Liberty began with the goal of making a difference by giving out community grants.They found the most important part went beyond giving money and into fostering a community of change-making people.  Focused community building continues to shape the future of PL’s work. Eric explains why this shift in focus is important for all people, innovators especially. To see videos of People’s Liberty and what they promoted, check out their videos here.

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Eric Avner is the Vice President of the Haile Foundation and CEO of People’s Liberty. People’s Liberty sought to invest in the next generation of leadership in Cincinnati, focusing on individuals instead of businesses and corporations. The power of one person, the ideas of one person, the collective identity that arises from many passionate individuals should not be underestimated and the success of People’s Liberty is proof of such. Although the foundation technically ended in 2019, the message and quest carries on still, with many who were provided with grants continuing their ventures past the given year. The Haile U.S. Bank Foundation, the foundation behind People’s Liberty, seeks to improve the Cincinnati community that Carol and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. loved.


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Katie: [00:00:00] Our guest today is Eric Avner. He is V.P. at the Hale Foundation in Cincinnati. Welcome to the podcast.

Eric: [00:00:07] Thank you. Pleasure to be here. 

Katie: [00:00:09] So tell me about the work that is done by Haile. People who are local to Cincinnati, all, most of us know about the Haile Foundation, but for people outside of Cincinnati, could you describe the mission a little bit? 

Eric: [00:00:20] So I think we’re with a lot of others that we’re a place based private family foundation. So it’s kind of a confusing thing. We’re not a community foundation. We’re not a corporate foundation. We’re not like the United Way or something. But we’re just a private family foundation. That means we’re a pretty small board. We have a pretty small staff. And we get to manage the legacy basically of some generous people who set up this trust. So we are trusted now to make investments in the community that involve arts and culture or education or human services or what’s most important. My purview is our community development and economic development work. So we’ve been in existence for about well since well we’ve been up in rolling since 2008. So we’re relatively new as far as the foundation concerned. But right out of the gate, we were one of the larger ones in town. So we had to learn pretty quickly because people were watching what we were doing. 

Katie: [00:01:20] Absolutely. And can you tell us about some of the current projects and initiatives happening there, Haile? 

Eric: [00:01:27] I think there are a couple of things that probably stand out that people know us for. They. One of the big ones was Blink. That was over the last. That’s happened a couple times now. This sort of city, entire downtown wide arts and projection and light festival, which has been, which was remarkable and overwhelming and chaotic and fun.

Katie: [00:01:50] I think in terms of foot traffic, I’m not sure I’ve ever been to an event that packed the streets of downtown, felt like we were in Times Square, for an entire four days in downtown Cincinnati.

Eric: [00:02:01] So fantastic.

Katie: [00:02:02] So beautiful and so artistic. Light is everywhere. It’s an evening event. So the lights go down. The city just comes to life. And we have murals all around the city. But so many of the light installations would bring those murals to life literally through light. It was Incredible.

Eric: [00:02:18] It was, it was really that was one of those wonderful moments to sort of see the city in a different light, not the pun intended, maybe a little bit. But I think that sort of got a lot of us thinking or encouraged that that we can be audacious and we can be thinking about big scale things for Cincinnati and World-Class things for Cincinnati. So, I mean, that that was in my mind, I wasn’t directly involved every day on the Blink stuff, but I was involved in a project called People’s Liberty that we built over the last five years, which was an experiment again on something different for a foundation. I should step back a second to say that the foundation itself is rather traditional in the sense that we basically give we have a pool of funds and we give them to nonprofits and those nonprofits do good work and make some difference in the community.

Katie: [00:03:11] Yes.

Eric: [00:03:14] But that we’re sort of in this unbeholden foundation in a lot of ways where we don’t have this huge community board, we don’t have shareholders. We have this ability to be quite flexible and quite innovative in what we do. 

Eric: [00:03:28] So the thought of why should we as a foundation always operate in the exact same way that every other foundation does? Part of that’s there’s some laws around that. But the bigger point is like we can think differently. So we’re allowed to and we have the opportunity when we have an incredible board and staff that does that. So the People’s Liberty Experiment was like, what would happen if instead of being on the 11th floor of an office building, we were in the middle of a neighborhood? And what would happen if instead of just always giving grants just to nonprofits, what would happen if we opened that up and actually gave grants to individuals? So there are a lot of things that we learned, a lot of things we tried in different ways. But this idea. 

Eric: [00:04:15] We built essentially an innovation lab for the foundation for five years and occupied eight thousand square feet of space near Findlay Market up in Over the Rhine. And it was that again, it wasn’t immediately evident, if you looked at it, that it was the Haile Foundation behind it. It was this thing called People’s Liberty, that had its own place and its own staff and its own brand and its own identity. But it really was sort of a learning lab for the foundation for the last few years. So those are, I mean, two things that we were constantly doing work in education and investing and striving and all the great work they’re doing or in Homeless to Homes or some of their projects like that to certainly help those in need. But we also get to think on the other side of what would push this community forward in being bold and audacious and reasserting Cincinnati’s place in this world of really exciting places. And I know areas that are shooting for the stars or what other kind of analogy, swinging for the fences. 

Katie: [00:05:18] Right? Yes. Yes. 

Eric: [00:05:20] That’s been great fun to be in a place that allows us to do that. 

Katie: [00:05:22] It’s been such an encouragement. I can speak from a personal level to some degree that when I was forming my startup, knowing that organizations like Centrifuse and People’s Liberty existed was so incredibly encouraging. And to see some of my fellow startup founders get People’s Liberty fellowships and be able to use a year of funds to grow their startups. And to do that with a social mission was incredible to me. I look at almost pretty much every project that’s come out of People’s Liberty and support of the Haile Foundation with awe. How did you first come up with the concept to use a foundation to experiment and create a project like People’s Liberty? 

Eric: [00:06:07] Well, there are a couple things. One was a few years ago we worked with the American Sign Museum, another since treasure to create this project called Cosine. So cosine was this way that we were thinking about how we could learn by doing as a foundation as opposed to just learning, by giving a grant and asking for a huge report at the end, which is typical. So what we did is we worked with the sign museum because they were looking at ways to be more active in the community and we worked with them to build out this process where we could match up a small business owner and a sign a designer and a sign fabricator and or just a local designer, an artist, and a sign fabricator and a small business and mash them together, have a design competition and basically install a critical mass of new signage, custom designed, one of a kind signage in a business district in the course of six months. And so we did a couple times in the Northside neighborhood. We did it once over in Covington across the river. And it got us really interested in. Well, this is really more interesting about doing and learning by doing as opposed to just learning, by watching. So that got us thinking about what else we could do with our philanthropy. And then there were a couple other things that were in play. One was I’ve been in Cincinnati since 1996. And I think a lot of the people that I first came in contact with and kept in touch with and kept working with, there was this group of people that I probably have too many ideas and some would say so I would call up these people. And I’m like, hey, let’s here’s another idea. What do you think? So most of them would go along with it and we’d come up with these. We would build things at some point. A lot of those people were like, you got to find more. People were exhausted. We were trying to build our lives or trying to build our own businesses where this is just you got to find more people. So it was like, well, okay, well, how do I. Where are more people who are interested in growing the city and being a part of these kinds of crazy ideas? So part of it was like, how do I know there’s more people I know there’s people here. But it was always the same 10 people who were showing up on the same committees, the same 10 people who were running for office. And I know there’s more than 10 people who give a damn. So where are they and how do we get them off the couch and in the game? That was one. Second piece was this notion of we’re an unbeholden foundation. We keep doing normal philanthropy. So how do we change that? And how do we leverage our philanthropy to be more active and more engaged in the lives of people in the city that was another piece. And then there was another component of a lot of cities that were coming up with these civic innovation labs and whether there was an arts focus or whether it was a welcome center for the neighborhood or was a research center and university or an innovation lab in it. In a mayor’s office, all these cities were creating these things. Now was Chattanooga and Detroit and Pittsburgh and Indianapolis and wherever all over the country is from coast to coast. They were coming up with these ideas, right? Why isn’t there one here? What can we do? So we went and looked around at them and ultimately realized that none of them had philanthropy in them anywhere. I mean, they were chasing money, but they weren’t at the core philanthropic. So we’re like well, could be interesting. What if we mushed all these things together, what if, if we could actually use our funds differently by creating a civic innovation lab to find more people to get engaged in this community? And so that’ll mash up became this sort of People’s Liberty idea where like, well, we need to find–. Well, let’s just do this thing. And that also turned into a whole – that created a whole other domino effect of, well, we need a space to do this and we need staff to do this and we need money to do this. And what where does all this stuff come from? And so we start, like, just knocking down one at a time. And it was but it was really at this core that we can do things differently. We have the ability to. So let’s try this. Let’s experiment. Let’s go learn from other places what’s being done, maybe not exactly apples to apples, but what was what were some interesting parallels. We could find other places, learn from that, and then really build something unique that could work in this environment. And that appealed to our expertise and our interests and  really what we want to learn from it. So that’s I think that’s where that’s sort of the genesis of it. 

Katie: [00:10:34] It’s such a powerful lesson for individuals in charge of open innovation at large enterprises or for those leaders who are involved in economic development or growing a startup ecosystem or in general trying to create economic vibrancy in their regions, that we can honor the individual and its – and our roles as individuals to sort of dream big and have unique and interesting ideas for projects that can then get supported and executed. 

Eric: [00:11:03] Well if you think about Cincinnati. I’m sure most cities have this where we’ve had this tradition of everything being big. So you had to be part of a lean innovation, you had to be part of a big company that has been like we’ve been blessed with the always big companies, but there’s big companies and a big united way and a big United Arts fund and a big… 

Katie: [00:11:22] Big cultural scene.

Eric: [00:11:24] Big cultural scene. Everything was big. So the notion of little things mattering in a collective, a collection of little things being a big thing, that is a little different to Cincinnati’s DNA. So when we were putting this idea out there, there was a little it wasn’t it wasn’t hesitancy, but it was certainly like is this gonna actually work? 

Katie: [00:11:46] Sure. Yeah. Yeah.

Eric: [00:11:48] We have to try. So we did. And I think the interesting part of that was that a philanthropy’s is pretty good at thinking about that. They know their own. They know the problems. They know the solutions. They. I mean, there’s a foundation friend of mine in another city I won’t talk about, but they kind of took pride in the fact that they kept saying that they do their own thinking. Thank you very much. Like, though we can do, we can look at other people’s research, but we’ll do our own thinking. Thank you. And that was just such a  weird model to think that we would know best about what’s right for the community so that even just asking people in the community, like, what would you want or what would you do to make this place better? Whatever this community meant to them, whatever this place meant to them, you know, what would you do? And then by providing some resources, providing some space where people could actually see each other and build relationships, providing other connections and some legitimacy and some camaraderie and some some teams around this. It was just remarkable to see people get up off the couch and submit ideas. And we had probably over five years, we probably at 12 hundred applications for what ultimately became one hundred five grants. And it was just remarkable. But just to see the ideas and the creativity and and a sort of even for people to bring forward an idea that maybe it wasn’t fully baked, but that was fine. But to listen to people’s passion and to hear about that. And we learned about issues and parts of neighborhoods that we were not engaged in as a foundation. So we did use this as a bit of a test on an a measured about the work, the regular work we were doing at the mothership and whether the base of the foundation is we were testing that a little bit to see like well wait a minute we’re we’re getting a bunch of grant a bunch of People’s Liberty requests around food availability. 

Katie: [00:13:47] Yeah,yeah.

Eric: [00:13:47] Well, at the same time, we’re giving three grants to three organizations in that exact same neighborhood for food availability. So why aren’t those connecting? 

Katie: [00:13:55] Yeah, absolutely. 

Eric: [00:13:56] It turned out that well, there’s reasons for that. But it was fascinating… 

Katie: [00:14:00] And aware of it in a way that you wouldn’t have been without. The kind of boots on the ground experimenting was individual level. Okay. Can we play a game of ping pong? 

Eric: [00:14:10] Okay. Okay. Sure. 

Katie: [00:14:11] Let’s share some of our favorite people’s Liberty… 

Eric: [00:14:15] Oh no. 

Katie: [00:14:16] …Projects or moments.

Eric: [00:14:17] Okay.

Katie: [00:14:18] And I probably won’t name them correctly because I’m more a citizen… engaged citizen. 

Katie: [00:14:24] OK. One of my favorites is Nicole Armstrong’s Queen City certified work and how she, through People’s Liberty Fellowship, created the first certification for businesses to be able to commit to gender pay equity in their organization. So incredible that one year fellowship for her and I watched her scale and now that’s thriving.

Eric: [00:14:47] And so there were like these three different programs. Right. So we had the small grants, these like ten thousand dollar grants, which like six, you know, six months. Do something. Don’t quit your job. Just do something in six months. On the side. Yes. And then there was a storefront. So we had a series of three installations every year in that storefront where we give people the keys to the storefront to make it into something. And then we gave two people a year, basically a hundred thousand dollars and a year of time, basically, tell them to quit their job for a year. 

Katie: [00:15:13] Yes.

Eric: [00:15:13] And build something. 

Katie: [00:15:15] Yes.

Eric: [00:15:15] So now what Nicole did was really amazing. And then at the same time, she was working on her project,the other fellow at the same time was Elisa Hoffman, who was building School Board School. she’s a former school board member who’d said she was going to, like, train people about before they would run for school board. What’s involved in that job?

Katie: [00:15:38] Yes. Yes. And how to do it well.

Eric: [00:15:40] And how to do well. And I’m really prepared. And then ultimately convince some people to run and other people not to run. But the ones who didn’t run became really great advocates for the school system in Cincinnati. I think another one of those fellowships, the one hundred thousand other ones, was definitely I would say like Tracey Brumfield, who this is Tracy came to us with this idea that she had she was in recovery. She had been incarcerated. She had been unemployed. She’d been homeless. She was like she was because she had this felony on her record, a felony, five for some drug possession years and years and years go. She’s like she couldn’t get a really good job. So she was working third shift on clean up at a recovery center and volunteering at the Hamilton County Jail in their women’s recovery pod. And she’s like all these people who are being released from jail, not prison, but jail, the county jail. Every day they go back into this cycle because there’s the people who are waiting for them on the outside, aren’t waiting to help them. They’re waiting to prey on them as they come out of the jail. She’s like, if we could communicate with people inside the jail and let them know what resources are available when they come out. I think we could change that. So she tapped into her or her like publishing background before her life went down the spiral and she ended up creating a newspaper that is circulated inside the jail called Rise News – Rise Up News, which basically talks about all these all the different resources that are available to people who are coming out of jail, like all treatment resources and housing resources and education and transportation and basically all these things that this really, really generous community provides. But if you’re coming out of jail with a dead cell phone and four dollars in your pocket, you have no idea how to find them

Katie: [00:17:27] So these resources existed. But.

Eric: [00:17:29] Yeah, they existed.

Katie: [00:17:29] Actually informing the people who are in jail. 

Eric: [00:17:33] And now she’s doing that. She has this new – she, basically, instead of taking a year off of her job, she created a whole new economics for herself, because now she’s a publisher. She’s a publisher. She’s the president of a publishing company. 

Katie: [00:17:46] Yes.

 Eric: [00:17:46] That’s circling thousands of issues every month into I can’t remember how many. There must be 15 or 18 different facilities. She’s doing thousands of issues.

Eric Avner Quote Image

Katie: [00:17:56] Right.

Eric: [00:17:57] And it’s just like.

Katie: [00:17:57] This. It must be scalable too, this must be… 

Eric: [00:17:59] Right. And so she’s going all over the country and interviewing with people and talking to people how she did it. But it was when she came to us and said, OK, here’s this idea. And it went through this community jury because we didn’t even make the decisions on what that was part of the innovation too, that we wanted participatory grant making.

Katie: [00:18:13] Yes.

Eric: [00:18:14] But that we didn’t make the decisions as the foundation. We let the community members decide what were the most interesting projects that were being proposed. The jury’s you almost unanimously said Tracy needs to get one of these fellowships. Hundred thousand dollar grant. We brought that back to our official process. We’re like, OK, I don’t know if we can give to somebody who has a felony. So we called up our attorneys and we’re like: can we give to somebody with a felony? Well, there’s nothing saying you can’t. OK, like, what do we do? Drug tests and well do drug test. Anybody else? And we’re like, No. Well, then don’t. Don’t. Trust her. So we didn’t do that. And it was just like we took this risk. But it was a truly passionate idea of – from somebody who would never, ever, ever have walked in the door of a foundation.

Katie: [00:19:01] That’s right. And that’s right.

Eric: [00:19:02] To believe in that, to believe in someone like that was changing for us because we got to know somebody that we would never have met. She’s changing the world.

Katie: [00:19:10] Yes. I just think about access…

Eric: [00:19:11] And it’s turned into this thing that’s sustainable now.

Katie: [00:19:14] Exactly. It’s really about access. What’s so unique about this – this wholePeople’s Liberty experiment is Flipping access on its head. It takes quite a few resources to start up a nonprofit. Not only that, but to get your nonprofit far enough in its development that it’s trustworthy from the eyes of a foundation to lend it grant money.

Eric: [00:19:34] You know, we did this one thing. Sorry. I mean, we did this kind of soul searching as we closed people’s liberty down because it was a five year project. And me, as we promised, we were in close to five years. Nobody believed we would do it, but we did close.

Katie: [00:19:47] That was hard.

Eric: [00:19:49] Tell me about it. But at the end of this, we did a lot of survey work. We talked to a lot of our grantees and tried to understand, like, what did we really learn over the course of the five years? And one of them, one of the really interesting findings was that the money was important. It got people motivated. It got people to listen, it got people to notice what People’s Liberty was about. It gave us a tagline that we were giving grants to people. 

Katie: [00:20:13] Yeah.

Eric: [00:20:14] When people actually went through it on the other side, when they came out and they finished their project, everything there was almost to a person would say the money wasn’t the thing that actually mattered. It was important. But it wasn’t the most valuable thing. The most valuable thing was the belief in me as a person, my opinion, my knowledge, my expertise, that my thought process matters and I can make a difference. That  was this credibility that they were all of a sudden given that they had all along, but they just didn’t. It sounds very Wizard of Oz like. But. 

Katie: [00:20:52] No, but it’s true. It’s absolutely true 

Eric: [00:20:53] There was that and and there was this great camaraderie, hard of a community. 

Katie: [00:20:56] Right. And mentorship.

Eric: [00:20:57] And mentorship and the connections. And it’s just that the softer side of things were, by and large, the things that people found even more valuable than the money. And they were like, if we would have halfway through, you said, you know what? Actually, you don’t get the money. They would probably have figured out a way to do this anyway.

Katie: [00:21:15] Sure. 

Eric: [00:21:16] Because now we had these connections and we had this expertise where these teams and we had this like these partnerships and credibility and profile. So it was an interesting thing to think that. Well, OK, we’re gonna make a difference by giving a bunch of grants out. Part of it was that, but part of it was actually building a community of people who really wanted to make a difference. And I think that that’s been one of more valuable things that’s shaping the future work. I think what we’re doing at the foundation is that we, at least for me, think about a community in a different way, especially one that wants to make a difference. It may or may not be that community and neighborhood are synonymous anymore. Like usually community development meant we’re gonna invest in neighborhoods, which we’re still going to do. But if a community is just a group, people that have a shared interest in some way and those really effective and tight-Knit communities are ones, they have a physical place where people can actually see each other and build relationships. Maybe we need to spend more time making these places to build community. And it’s really changed the way I’ve been thinking of what we’re into with community development and the foundation’s work going forward. 

Katie: [00:22:27] Absolutely. Did you ever do any follow up research to see of the 12 hundred applicants and the thousand or so that didn’t get grants? Did. Was it the process of even applying and putting their thoughts on paper? Did you ever follow up to see. Did they actually do…? 

Eric: [00:22:45] We’ve been following them. I mean, I think there’s also this question of where do the 105 people, where do they go next? Right, cause I think there was a short term impact of where People’s Liberty was like. Yes, there were all these great projects that came out when we only went through a couple of them, but. But there was like. 

Katie: [00:23:00] Yeah. 

Eric: [00:23:01] There’s probably 40 of them that are remarkable  and spectacular and, you know, make my heart work. But I’m sorry. I love them all.

Eric: [00:23:13] Some were even more compelling than the others. So I think it. 

Katie: [00:23:16] And measurably successful. But I guess the thing that I was trying to express is the act of. 

Eric: [00:23:22] But even those who didn’t participate. 

Katie: [00:23:23] Even being able to say I have an idea and it may matter to someone enough that I’m going to try to articulate it. And that in itself is creating a culture of innovation inside of a city. But there’s. I mean, I would love to run a follow up experiment to see if even if they didn’t get a grant, do they… Are they now sharing more of their ideas publicly? And I know for me, even just as an observer, knowing that People’s Liberty and those grants were there, I always sort of had it in my periphery vision as an encouraging reminder that the city cares about its individuals and the power of their individual ideas.

Eric: [00:23:59] Yeah, I think that was one of the big risks I think we had when we were closing it because we didn’t want to lose that. I think one of the more successful things that I think happened was we did shift this mindset where people were like wait a minute. I can do this as a person like this is really unusual. We didn’t want that to be unusual anymore. I think we wanted that to be the norm. So trying to figure out where there are now opportunities, if People’s Liberty is going to be funding, like, how do you do that? So the foundation isn’t going away, right? There… there… 

Katie: [00:24:27] Yes. Yes. 

Eric: [00:24:28] There’s still this opportunity. 

Katie: [00:24:28] What’s in the future now? 

Eric: [00:24:30] Well, I think we’re gonna build something else. I think we didn’t want to rush into, like, what was next, but I didn’t want to lose that culture of me as an individual, you as an individual, like having an idea and being able to take that somewhere and to have people listen and help and convince them. So we still have like the People’s Liberty Web site is still up and it’s still it’s still accepting. They’re still at the bottom of it and do you have an idea? Let us know because. The foundation is gonna be here. We’re set up in perpetuity. We can still figure out ways. There are some organizations in town that are willing to be fiscal sponsors so we can still give a grant. We’ll just go through a nonprofit to help a person. So there are there’s still this opportunity for people to talk about their ideas. And we’re trying to figure out how we keep that door open? And then part of that, too, is introducing a couple other entities into town as we were exiting stage right. There’ll be a couple of those entering stage left. But I think the idea was that. So when we closed down People’s Liberty, we introduced IOB, for example, which is a crowdfunding platform that actually has somebody on the ground helping with technical expertise on how to produce products so that they were bringing them into town. There’s a couple of other organizations that we helped do that we ramped up that provided some funds that they could use for re-granting for small ideas, givebacks Cincinnati has a fuel program. That is that kind of way to that… It’s for small grants for individuals who have ideas. There’s still something about that. And yes, there’s all the people who didn’t get the grants. Where do they go now? Then there’s all the ones who did get the grants. Where do they go now? Because I think in addition to the projects, they were great. The bigger outcome of the foundation of the bigger outcome of People’s Liberty, and the thing that’s going to make us determine whether or not this was a really, really brilliant endeavor or a really, really expensive folly is what happens to those people that went through it, three and five and seven years down the road. And how many of them are starting their own businesses or running for office or taking over their neighborhood associations or just. 

Eric: [00:26:54] And then you can show this bigger social impact. 

Eric: [00:26:57] Right.

Eric: [00:26:58] All of a sudden, like, I started a bunch of people who didn’t think that they were really part of this community. We had to. To your point of follow up study, there was a class up at UC in community psychology that interviewed a subset of our grantees to find out what they get out of it and what they are gonna do next and the kind of other thing. And it was interesting that through that research and through their study, which is I guess it’s statistically relevant, but it’s a pretty small sample. But they said one of the biggest outcomes of People’s Liberty, was that people felt more connected to this community than they had before. We knew anecdotally there were a few people who were on the verge of leaving Cincinnati, who all as a fluke applied. Got it. Got one of the grants and all of a sudden decided that this is actually a place they can make some stuff happen. You don’t have to move to Detroit and buy a three dollar house. You can actually make things happen here. And there are people who are willing to help you here. So this idea of building a tighter knit and a more receptive community that would make people feel more part of it as opposed to being a consumer of it was a really lovely and heartwarming finding from this that we didn’t know. I mean, we sort of hoped it would.

Katie: [00:28:19] Yeah.

Eric: [00:28:19] But to have someone basically tell us that that wasn’t just an anecdote, that was actually true.

Katie: [00:28:26] I think there’s so many takeaways from what you created and not just for people who are invested in economic development or social enterprise or a nonprofit and such social impact. But even for large corporates who are starting to use more open innovation approaches, People’s Liberty and that experiment is such a powerful example of empowering people at the individual level to know that they can make a difference and matter. So I’m thinking of this trend toward open innovation and asking the public and inviting them into your innovation process to help you solve your greatest challenges. And in a world, too, where content creation and sharing your opinion is easier than ever. There – there’s a lot of opportunity to use that for lending a voice and giving problem solving challenges to the public and doing that. I think that can still align and doesn’t have to necessarily compete against those internal innovation teams. It’s just a difference like you said, it’s changing the culture and changing the way we’ve always done things. 

Eric: [00:29:34] Yeah, there was a relief, I guess, within People’s Liberty because it had to be charitable. Right. So that we weren’t do we weren’t we were separate and distinct from. So the startup ecosystem. 

Katie: [00:29:45] Exactly. Yeah.

Eric: [00:29:45] That we that people could try an idea that its sole purpose was to try to make the community a better place. Now, if it turned into a business idea, they were free to go off and run with it. But if it was just like, I just wanna make a difference in my neighborhood and here’s how I think I can do it. To give people that chance to try and to listen and then for us to learn from that, to say we didn’t even think of that as a solution was really powerful. The one piece that we compared notes a lot with some other places around the country. And one of the interesting things that we did do was. Because we had all these people who had never… a lot of these people had never done a grant before, had never produced a civic project before. What we ended up doing is we followed every single project with a video team to basically tell their story in a packaged way. So they see that they had something at the end of this process that they could use to communicate what they did. So that if they decided to go on and do something else, they could – or they wanted to do it again or they wanted to expand, they wanted to scale it. They had that proof of concept documented without them even really having to worry about it.

Katie: [00:30:58] Yeah.

Eric: [00:30:58] It was just on us. We took that on.

Katie: [00:31:00] How many videos are there now?

Eric: [00:31:01] Well, if you go to our Vimeo channel, there’s probably … there’s going to be one for every single grant.

Katie: [00:31:06] Oh, my goodness. So is that Vimeo? Is it a Vimeo? 

Eric: [00:31:10] Yeah.

Katie: [00:31:12] OK.

Eric: [00:31:14] Yeah, and all the videos are there. And you can watch these people who have like and the best part was we didn’t use a single video team. We ended up using as many different video teams all over the city as we could because everyone’s telling stories a little differently and could see and we tried to match them up based on interest a little bit and personality and come and that. And it’s amazing to see this variety of all these different projects. The only thing that’s in common with all the videos is that the and there’s like a little thing that flashes up and talks about how this project was powered by People’s Liberty. That’s like the only thing that unifies them – other than the fact that we paid for them all – but they but this is this fascinating way that you see those videos live on as people take their projects or take their next step in the community. It’s like evidence that I did do something here. I didn’t just, like, mess around for six months. 

Katie: [00:32:05] Wasn’t just like, I documented a grant report. 

Eric: [00:32:07] I didn’t do a report that sits on somebody’s shelf. I get to have this really interesting, compelling story to share about what I did, what I learned, how I went through this process. It’s like you start getting some more faith that there’s like really smart people here. There’s some really energetic people here, a lot of them don’t get the platform to really act on their passions, and that was really one of the best things about People’s Liberty. 

Katie: [00:32:34] So if you want to be inspired to create a culture of innovation, whether that’s for social purposes, whether that’s for business concepts, I would definitely recommend checking out that Vimeo channel and absorbing that and thinking about, you know, I know a lot of listeners to this podcast are responsible for sparking a culture of innovation inside of a company. But I know others listening are economic development and governmental leaders. And so thinking about or just citizens actively wanting to care and engage in their communities, so really thinking about how we can get creative and keep not forgetting really that there’s a heart and soul behind every individual. And and they all have ideas where we’re missing out as a city or as a region, as a country if we’re not capturing those, inspiring them. 

Eric: [00:33:32] They have the knowledge. They have the understanding of what’s going on in this community more than anybody who’s sitting on the 11th floor of a nondescript office building. So it was that it took a little bit of courage, but not that much courage to trust the people to actually decide what was right. I think there was when we started People’s Liberty that the big goal was we wanted to change philanthropy. We wanted to change the way that foundations interacted with their communities, specifically placed based foundations like we are that are limited to this place, like we are not giving grants in Detroit and in San Diego and where all of our grants are in this region. So we really want to change how philanthropy interacted with its community. What we ended up realizing was we weren’t so much as changing the definition of what philanthropy meant. We actually changed the definition with what we understood to be community development. 

Katie: [00:34:22] Yeah.

Eric: [00:34:22] So it’s actually a much bigger topic than just what do a bunch of foundations do with funding? It was really how does a community develop and what support can we give them and where does knowledge come from or where does – where does leadership come from? And all of these things which we weren’t thinking we were gonna find, we thought we were gonna change the world of philanthropy, which probably wasn’t the right goal. I think we do in hindsight, the idea of changing the definition of what community development means is going to be more impactful for both the world of philanthropy, but also the world of community development. 

Katie: [00:35:05] That’s a really great point. How interesting. I think there is so much innovation. You know, I love that you called the whole project an experiment. Right. So much of innovation is about setting out with a certain expectation of what you’ll find, but being willing to readjust and use a new lens as new unknowns are uncovered. 

Eric: [00:35:25] You know – I do have to mention, too, that the name People’s Liberty was something that was intentional, like we had to have. We couldn’t call that effort the Hale Foundation Idea Lab or something like that. There was just it wouldn’t have had the same kind of impact. It would have been too associated with the foundation. We needed that other identity. So when we were actually the identity, that People’s Liberty name was really quite interesting that are our donors. Carol and Ralph Haile. Right. Those hills, they built a bank in northern Kentucky. Actually, Carol’s father started it and Ralph ran it. And then Ralph’s grew it and then sold it to what was First National Bank back in 1988, which turned into Star Bank, which turned into First Star Bank which turned into U.S. bank. Anyway, all that to say, in 1988, their bank kind of got consumed. The name of their bank was People’s Liberty. 

Katie: [00:36:19] Oh how interesting. 

Eric: [00:36:19] So when we were looking for a name for this, we wanted something that conveyed and had a nice tie back to our donors and their legacy, but also had the right tone and a right personality about, OK, we’re gonna give people this freedom and this liberty to do the things that they want to do. 

Katie: [00:36:38] That is an – an incredible story, yeah. 

Eric: [00:36:38] So it was this really… this really lovely kind of mash of like wait a minute, we have this name in our history. Let’s let’s breathe some life back into that and use that and bring that back to this community. So when we launched it… many people were like, where’s that name? What’s the name? That’s a weird name. And then there were a bunch of people who were like, I had my first savings account at People’s Liberty Bank. You’re starting a bank? No. We’re not starting a bank. So the name of what you called this and that personality that that brought to it also raises the level of discourse within the building. 

Katie: [00:37:15] It’s really neat. I love intentional use of history to remind us of legacy and to inspire us to keep sort of adding to that legacy. How incredible. Thank you, Eric. I’m so grateful for this conversation. I know that listeners will be inspired on a personal level, but I hope that you’re also able to take some of these approaches and culture change pieces of advice and apply them to your life and your city and your work. And thank you, Eric, for being here to inspire them. 

Eric: [00:37:48] Thank you. This has been a pleasure.

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