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November 1, 2013 / Christian Clansky

Stormwater, lettuce, and the promise of community wealth building

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

When thinking about starting a business, one typically focuses on two key elements: the market potential for the proposed product or service and its profitability. Funders in the Greater Washington region are thinking about starting businesses. But they are approaching the task in an unusual way.

Like any business owner, grantmakers seek profitability and long-term sustainability. But beyond these common objectives, the philanthropic entrepreneurial vision shifts a bit. Funders also want to ensure that new businesses lead to positive social changes in our region. They want businesses to create jobs that provide entrance into the workforce for low-income individuals. They want businesses to tap into the procurement power of local anchor institutions, like universities, hospitals, and local governments, to ensure their long-term sustainability in the community. And, they want these businesses to be employee-owned so that they generate true community wealth, not just paychecks.

To achieve this ambitious goal, funders have launched the Community Wealth Building Initiative.

Last year, the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland was commissioned by a group of funders to meet with nearly 100 leaders in the region to determine their receptiveness to and the feasibility of the community wealth building model. With overwhelming support for the project, the funders hired City First Enterprises to identify cooperative business opportunities that hold the most potential for success. Yesterday, before a packed room of funders, John Hamilton, head of City First Enterprises, shared his vision for taking this effort to the next level.

City First has identified two potential enterprises: stormwater management and the greenhouse production of lettuce. The feasibility of the first rests in high public interest in improving the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The possibility for the latter is related to the high demand – approximately $170 million a year – for lettuce by area hospitals and universities.

Conversations are now underway with local jurisdictions and anchor institutions to determine where best to locate and launch these businesses. What started out as an idea in 2011 has been researched and nurtured, investigated and analyzed. The opportunities are there. The funding community is ready to take the next steps. The Community Wealth Building Initiative may truly be transformative for some low income residents in the region.

This effort isn’t about having a job. It’s about owning one’s future.

Note: This Initiative is housed at the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. For more information, contact Angela Jones-Hackley.

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