Listen, Empower and Commit: Uplifting a Neighborhood to Create a Sustainable Economy
My grandparents, Joe and Vi Jacobs, wanted to try something different with their philanthropy. They believed that communities could, and should, be sustainable economies — and they had one local community in mind: Southeast San Diego.
This area is made up of a dozen or so neighborhoods and is designated as a Promise Zone and Opportunity Zone, government labels that call out this community of 160,000 residents — 82% of whom are people of color and 15% are at or below the poverty line — for having great potential with a rich culture, economic development opportunities and hardworking community members.
But how does this opportunity become reality?
Development of a Community-Run Nonprofit
In this historically overlooked area, like many others nationwide, there are barriers to economic development that need to be met with community engagement and solutions. Transportation, child care, business development, job creation, healthcare — they’re all connected and necessary to create a sustainable neighborhood economy and a thriving community.
My grandparents, along with my parents, founded the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. They built a shopping center, Market Creek Plaza, and the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center, a 75,000 sq. ft. conference center and office building for nonprofits, in the heart of Southeast San Diego with assets amassed from their business achievements from Jacobs Engineering Group.
Their entrepreneurial background, change-making mindset and philanthropic actions ignited a plan to grow a resident-led, community-based organization. They would get there by helping develop a sustainable community through real estate and economic development with neighborhood engagement.
For more than 25 years, the Jacobs Center has focused all its efforts on empowering this one community to make the biggest impact — via economic, educational and neighborhood-building work as a catalyst for revitalization in Southeast San Diego.
Big Picture Approach Instead of a Single-Issue Focus
Our organization is dedicated to this area to make real impactful change. The Jacobs Center doesn’t just focus on funding one project, but considers how everything works together. It’s about creating a network of support for individuals and families for jobs, training and entrepreneurial opportunities; resources for better housing, food, education, transportation, child care and community gatherings; and cultural and language-specific communications and events. No one person or organization can do this alone, and with partners, we can do so much more.
It is very rare that a nonprofit plans to turn over all its assets to be managed by the community, but this has been the goal of our philanthropy from the very beginning. In this way, Southeast San Diego has partnerships, events, infrastructure and programs to benefit generations to come, by and for the community.
Specific efforts have included developing the region’s first business accelerator focused on low- to moderate-income and diverse founders with public and private partners; building the area’s first major retail center and grocery store; and developing affordable and workforce housing projects.
Through creating partnerships and building financial initiatives, we are dedicated to making Southeast San Diego a place of business attraction, retention, capacity, growth and sustainability. We want people to own and be proud of their community — and for each of the neighborhoods in the Diamond District to be a place where residents can live, work, learn and enjoy for generations to come.
Incorporating Community Members Into the Mission and Leadership
Today, our family remains committed to this vision and is continuing plans to transition the organization to community leadership. In 2021, the Jacobs Center transitioned from an operating foundation to a public charity to work toward becoming a community-run organization.
Another step forward included establishing majority community leadership on the board in 2022. For me, this has been the most exciting part of our work so far, to include and empower residents and stakeholders — our dynamic, committed, intelligent and talented community board members — at the highest level of decision-making to help us achieve community transformation. Our hope is that, as my parents decide to slow down their involvement, we will add more community board members until the sunset of my family’s involvement — when my brother and I will also step back from the work.
In the first year of majority community leadership and community guidance, the Jacobs Center’s goal is to further strengthen its work and connection to the community. The Jacobs Center board members have an opportunity to work alongside staff and partners, support the organization’s mission to build community and lift lives through economic development, real estate development and community engagement.
As a third-generation member of the Jacobs Family Foundation and Jacobs Center, I gleaned tremendous insight observing my mother, father and brother in the board chair position over the years. Now, as chair of the board of directors, I take this insight I have learned about effective board service and look forward to passing it along to the vice chair, the first non-family member to take the helm toward the Jacobs Center’s next phase.
3 Things I Learned Transitioning a Family-Led Nonprofit Into a Community-Led Organization
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about discovering what the community Jacobs Center served needed and including them in the solution.
1. Begin the Work With Listening
Different communities need different things, and if you want to be truly philanthropic, you must address the specific needs of the community in which you are trying to work. One of the things I am most proud of is how involved community members have been since the start of our work.
Throughout the years, we’ve used a variety of methods to collect feedback from the community, including living room listening sessions, multilingual neighborhood surveys, one-on-one community feedback, focus groups, research and boots-on-the-ground work. We continue to identify ways to create and support connection with the community to help create needs-based solutions. We want members of the Diamond community to know they are not only heard, but have a say in our work.
2. Empower People
I am so appreciative to my grandparents for their unique views on philanthropy. They instilled in me that "charity is a dirty word" and we should be giving people a hand up, not a hand out.
It is crucial to empower stakeholders and community members to create the changes they want to see in their lives and homes. My favorite stories from over the years have been the ones where residents develop their own capabilities, and become engaged in transforming their community.
Our own staff member, Alvenesia, has dramatically increased her skills and capabilities since working at the center, and is an example of an individual transformation. Another community member complained to the city about a broken streetlight and needing a stop sign in her neighborhood. She didn’t realize that one individual had the power to improve their community.
3. Align the Work You Do With Your Personal Values
In my work as a psychotherapist, I see how essential community resources and support are for families to thrive. This has always been our focus, especially in the education field, as families and education are critical to fostering the next generation. That drives my interest in the work we do at the Jacobs Center. This has also been true for my family from the start of the foundation. Because we believe so highly in the importance of family and community, we have been able to push through the hard times in service of a bigger mission.
I would encourage other nonprofit organizations and family foundations to focus their support on one neighborhood. Being involved in one neighborhood and community and developing relationships and allies has given us focus in addition to helping us achieve a more targeted impact. I have found it so rewarding to really dig in and try to understand the problems facing this community on every level.
Because we have a longitudinal view (more than 25 years), we are better able to understand the unique conditions facing this community and how many of the challenges it faces are interrelated and interdependent. If we came in and just focused on one issue, we'd be missing so much important context.
I have been visiting Southeast San Diego for about 25 years. It has become part of my being. I love this community and hope that the work we have embarked on reflects that. There have been hard times and difficult decisions, but there has been no doubt or regret about the crucial work in this unique and vibrant community. I am thankful to all of the Diamond community residents for their input, support, pushback and patience in this work.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Claire Hapke is chair of the board for the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice, and an adjunct professor at New York University. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University, as well as a master’s degree and doctorate of psychology from Alliant International University Los Angeles.