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Respect the Experts

A common refrain in the impact world is “those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” At BALLE (now known as Common Future), we remind ourselves that those most directly impacted by injustice have the greatest insight into opportunities for change.

Authors: Common Future

A common refrain in the impact world is “those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” At BALLE (now known as Common Future), we remind ourselves that those most directly impacted by injustice have the greatest insight into opportunities for change.

The leaders who we’ve been privileged to work with through the BALLE Fellowship live in and work alongside the communities they serve. They’ve tirelessly fought on behalf of their communities for years, oftentimes decades.

It’s time we look to their expertise.

We’ve made it our work to seek out leaders who represent the diversity of marginalized communities. These communities have been targets of public disinvestmentsystematic redlining, and legal loopholes, leaving many to question the hard truths of trying to save local economies.

Fortunately, our people are doing just that (and doing it well).

Over the past 10 years, Common Future has been investing in community leaders and their work through the Local Economy Fellowship. Take José Corona, Director of Equity & Strategic Partnerships under Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a 2016 BALLE Fellow and BALLE Board Member.

José creates, coordinates, and facilitates public/private/philanthropic partnerships that foster equitable opportunities and benefits for the people of Oakland. He previously served as CEO of Inner City Advisors, overseeing a portfolio of companies that created over 5,000 jobs and $150 million in wealth for local residents. José believes his ties to the Oakland community are key to learning what folks need.

“Over the years, I’ve learned that people are not seeking handouts; they are seeking opportunities and a level playing field to access those opportunities. We must recognize that some communities, namely Black and Brown families, are still being left behind. So, we — the public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors — must be intentional in naming this and unapologetic about investing resources that will facilitate long-term wealth-building opportunities.”

Tim Lampkin has had similar experiences in the Mississippi Delta. As a 2018 BALLE Fellow and co-founder and CEO of Higher Purpose Co., a nonprofit economic justice agency building community wealth with Black residents across Mississippi, Tim recognizes the importance of building trust between funders and communities. He explains:

“We can bring all kinds of resources into the Mississippi Delta and we can start all kinds of programs to eradicate poverty; but the most difficult challenge is shifting mindsets. For the most part it’s because a community’s collective trust, morale and confidence is negatively impacted when change agents come into the community to help but don’t really do it with and for the community.”

We’ve built a network of people like Tim and José from rural towns to urban neighborhoods across North America.

These are leaders who know what is needed; they are guided by friends, neighbors, and lived experience.

Despite this, philanthropic and investment dollars are limited. To mitigate rural poverty and disenfranchisement, for example, the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta benefited from just $41 per person in foundation funding between 2010 and 2014, compared to $451 per person nationally and $995 per person in New York state.

On these funding inequities, Tim adds: “When you create certain mechanisms that only give funding and resources to organizations that look the part, the same people are getting help, and the same people that didn’t receive help in the first place are continuing to be overlooked. Foundations should be supporting organizations that are led by local people of color and African Americans who work with their communities. It is essential that there is representation, trust, and transparency.”

It is not uncommon for funders to admit in private that they simply do not fund rural work. One of the key mechanisms that is used to divert funding away from rural areas is what we call “devaluing small.” Funders often seek out the multiplier effect — a guarantee that funds will stretch far and enable leaders to pursue a grand vision of scale.

There is a clear disconnect between big philanthropy and community leaders. Beyond this, money flowing to overvalued startups losing billions of dollars each year proves that the investing industry desperately needs better alternatives.


At Common Future we are flipping the paradigm and challenging the notion of what it means to be investable. Our goal is to shed light on an entire sector of viable economy-building investments.

Sean Campbell is one of BALLE’s Social Entrepreneurs in Residence (SEIR), a Rhodes Scholar with 15 years of experience in investment management. On investing in community partners, he notes:

“Institutional investors need expert local partners to make their investments successful, and community leaders are great partners because they know their hometowns best. They understand what investments will work in their communities and can, for example, identify the best locations for retail and housing and determine fair rental rates.”

On assessing investments, he adds: “Investors’ traditional underwriting methods (such as focusing on comparable transactions) unfortunately often don’t work outside places that are already prosperous or gentrified. Investors must be more creative about how we think about risk and return, but that creativity will be rewarded with access to a diverse portfolio of great investment opportunities and partners.”


It’s time to think out of the box. When it comes to community investment, we believe that deep relationships are the best due diligence. To right injustices, we must engage, listen, and channel capital to the folks who know best. It’s just smart investing.


Editor's Note: This blog was updated to reflect BALLE becoming Common Future in 2019.

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