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The power of local philanthropy

Rebecca Riccio, director of the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern University, was recently asked to justify the practice of local philanthropy in the United States when a dollar can go so much further in other countries.

In response, Riccio acknowledged the math behind that statement but emphasized that local philanthropy is much more than just a transactional equation. “I see local philanthropy as a deeply held value, a trust, that is not just about money, but about engaging in and taking responsibilities for our communities,” Riccio said.

Riccio shared this thought with the 230 people in the Curry Student Center Ballroom who attended Northeastern’s third annual Social Impact Conference on Monday. Attendees included nonprofit leaders, policymakers and government officials, social entrepreneurs, researchers, students, and faculty. This year’s conference, “Know Your Place: Unleashing the Power of Local Philanthropy,” was presented by the Social Impact Lab in collaboration with Associated Grant Makers and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. It was sponsored by the Arthur K. Watson Charitable Trust.

The conference focused on celebrating how local philanthropy helps cities and towns achieve their aspirations, and it explored innovative approaches to grant making, problem solving, and collaboration.

This year marked the first time the conference was presented under the auspices of the Social Impact Lab. Launched earlier this year, the lab serves as a learning and innovation hub and empowers aspiring social change agents to think, work, and collaborate across disciplines.

“Today as we celebrate local philanthropy, I think we must also accept the responsibility to continually learn how to do it better,” Riccio said in opening remarks. “We can start by rethinking what we mean by local.”

Lisa Wong, mayor of Fitchburg, delivered the conference’s keynote address, in which she highlighted how local philanthropy has benefited the Massachusetts city of about 40,000 residents.

“I think the challenge all of us here have is how do we get people to have that concentrated focus on these issues so we can work together to get something done,” Wong said.

One example Wong gave of local philanthropy’s benefits in her city was Animal Care and Education, a volunteer-run program that started in 2011 to educate children about domestic and sexual violence. The program brings animals into classrooms as part of an effort to teach students about good and bad behavior when taking care of pets.

“We are teaching every kid what is right and what is wrong,” Wong explained, “and almost immediately, the number of kids who reported domestic and sexual violence increased dramatically. That means we intervened, and we were able to save a number of kids.”

In addition, Wong said there have been so many volunteer signups and donations for Animal Care and Education that the city was able to open an animal shelter that now helps meet the needs of other animal shelters in the central Massachusetts area.