With Millions to Give, Foundation Takes Urban-Improvement Ideas from Anyone

The Knight Foundation begins accepting applications for its new Cities Challenge program Wednesday. Unlike other competitive grant programs, anyone can apply.
by | September 29, 2014
Carol Coletta is the Knight Foundation's vice president of community and national initiatives.
Carol Coletta is the Knight Foundation's vice president of community and national initiatives. FlickrCC/Business Innovation Factory

The Knight Foundation has announced a new Cities Challenge, which aims to give out $15 million in grants over the next three years to fund projects designed to make cities function better.

The process is going to be wide open, with the foundation encouraging applications not only from cities themselves but anyone -- social workers, students, nonprofit groups, entrepreneurs -- with ideas about how to make cities better. "One of our real objectives here is to surface new people who have good ideas and ought to get a hearing," said Carol Coletta, the foundation's vice president of community and national initiatives.

The application process opens Wednesday and will run through November 14. Ideas can come from anywhere, but ideas approved for funding will be implemented in one of the 26 cities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers and where the foundation tends to invest.

To get a sense of what Knight hopes to accomplish, Governing spoke with Coletta. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.

What are cities not doing that they need to be doing?

There are some things that we know are important to the success of cities -- talent attraction and retention, creating opportunity and creating a culture of civic engagement. We know those things are important, but we know that not enough cities are doing them. We don't know how to do them all here at Knight, but we want to get ideas.

With federal grants, sometimes local officials will say that teaming together to write the applications and breaking down silos is the most valuable part of the process. Do you worry about losing that effect by opening it to everyone?

That's a very good question. I think in this case, we will see some collaboration once we get to a finalist stage. We're really trying to make it very open so we'll surface some new people, people we don't know. That's why we've made the bar to enter so low.

Why limit the grants to the 26 cities where you already operate?

The Knight brothers had newspapers in those 26 cities. That's where they made their money that established the foundation and we continue to invest in those communities based on the intent of our donors.

Will all 26 cities see funds?

I wish. We've got $15 million over three years. We're expecting to invest $5 million this year that can be executed in one or more of our 26 cities. We may give three grants, we may give 50 grants in this round. The ideas can come from anyone anywhere but need to be executed in one of our 26 Knight cities.

There are a lot of grants for cities right now, with money coming from Bloomberg and Rockefeller and other groups. Why do you think there's this widespread interest in cities among foundations just now?

It is a glorious time for cities. As someone who has been working for successful cities since the 70s, I am thrilled. It was hard to imagine we would get to this point, but we have.

Cities are enjoying population growth in a way they hadn't in 50 years, appealing in particular to a younger demographic who are moving to cities at a faster clip than others. Because we're a mobile society, there's a sense that cities today are offering what the most mobile Americans want in a lifestyle. Cities are the greenest way to live and they can also offer a more efficient and productive lifestyle.

They are also, very importantly, the place where people who are starting families at the bottom of the ladder have their best chance to climb up, the best place to offer op to people in need.

For a lot of reasons, people are focused on cities today and that's a very good thing.