Ye are the light of the world. A city
that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
— Matthew 5:14, King James version
Lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul visited Ulster County last week and touted Kingston’s award of $10 million under the state Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) as the city’s opportunity “to re-imagine your entire future based on a one-time infusion.” The award was like winning the lottery, the state’s second-ranking executive official enthused. The grant had been “a way to shine up the gem we all know Kingston to be, and with a new shine, a chance to become a real destination.” In two years, she predicted, the city was “going to be transformed before your very eyes.” Oh, my.
The DRI grant to Kingston was announced by the governor a year and a half ago, and so far nothing other than planning has occurred. Two years from now, some of the physical changes will have occurred. I’ll bet dollars to donuts, however, that several of the six DRI projects and programs will not be complete by then, and that even if they are that these positive public-benefit infrastructure initiatives will only begin to achieve the transformative effects predicted for them.
Pinning all one’s hopes in ten million bucks of state money and the private investment the DRI will generate is unrealistic, a simplistic illustration of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come fallacy. Though a well-meaning and beneficial initiative, DRI is unlikely to be transformative even when supplemented by local infrastructure improvements.
What if an additional ten million dollars was spent in the immediate region with the focus on grants to demonstration projects and key intermediaries? The funds would go not for physical capital but for the strengthening of community-building human capital. What kind of transformation might that approach add to the mix?
That could never happen, you say? You’re wrong. It’s already happening. Here and now.
According to IRS 990 returns, the NoVo Foundation made grants of almost $13.8 million in 2017 to not-for-profit organizations within an hour’s drive from the center of Ulster County. It also committed an additional $3.4 million for the same territory in future years. And there’ll be news of more NoVo money committed locally when the 2018 tax returns are posted in the fall.
“The NoVo Foundation is a resource that wasn’t here a few years ago, and there’s a lot of big dreams,” said Peter Buffett, NoVo Foundation co-president with his wife Jennifer, in an interview last week. “We have to figure out what’s aligned with what we want to hope see. We are going to make mistakes because what we are essentially is venture capital, but instead of a billionaire investing in tech startups we’re a billion-dollar foundation investing in human startups.”
Why here? The answer is simple. “NoVo has deep relationships here,” he said. “Being here and having trusted partners. You trust your own intuition and knowledge because we’ve been doing this awhile.”
Peter Buffett first came to public attention locally when a Buffett-connected foundation bought the 1255-acre Gill farm in Hurley for $13 million in December 2013. It was one of NoVo’s first major local philanthropic commitments. Since then, NoVo has been providing annual funding to what is now the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (HVFH). According to the IRS, it granted the HVFH $6.1 million for project support and equipment in 2016 and $10.45 million in 2017.
Buffett said the farm hub proved for him “an aha! moment” in terms of the possibilities of making change in a small place like Kingston. “We have an opportunity here with a small community, a like-minded government and all of these wonderful people doing what they do without resources,” he explained. “If we could start to knit that together — the food, the land it’s grown on, the community and the government that I think is doing its best to make a more just place.” The HVFH is described in one NoVo publication as “a community of growers and artisans focused on rebuilding local knowledge and partnership.”
Funding for HVHF was the sole area grant recipient for NoVo in 2016.
Radio Kingston came next. Peter Buffett, a musician and composer by trade, is not unfamiliar with the broadcasting industry. In August 2017 a Buffett entity purchased local radio station WKNY for $500,000 and announced “a radically different path” for the station, which was to be “a commercial-free platform dedicated solely to a vibrant, just and healthy Kingston.” An eccentric Midtown historic structure on Broadway was purchased for rehabilitation as Radio Kingston’s offices. NoVo’s tax return for 2017 records grant allocations of $1,736,400 for the station.
The support of key intermediaries like the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley (NoVo granted it $20,000 for general support in 2017 plus re-grants of $400,000 to People’s Place and $1.5 million to Farm Fresh Food), the Good Work Institute ($250,000 in 2017) and others is part of the strategy. According to the IRS data, NoVo grantees for 2017 and future commitments in the region included a million dollars for Bard College, $750,000 to the Hawthorne Valley Association in Ghent, $300,000 for the Kingston Land Trust, $215,000 to Omega Institute, $200,000 for Cornell Cooperative Extension, $175,000 for Hudson Valley Agribusiness, $150,000 to the Kingston school district, and relatively smaller grants or promises to the YMCA of Kingston farm project ($75,000), the Wild Earth Wilderness School ($58,000) in High Falls, the Herstory Writers Workshop ($40,000) in Greenwich, Feminist.com ($25,000) in Woodstock, and Philmont Beautification ($20,000) in Philmont.
Support like that is a great financial boon as well as a vote of confidence in local organizations. Many other Ulster County initiatives have been announced in the past year that include NoVo support, such as the Kingston greenline program, the county restorative justice program, funds for underprivileged SUNY Ulster students, rehabilitation of housing taken over because the property taxes haven’t been paid, the support of activist groups like Rise Up Kingston, and several others.
Instead of a metric-driven process for decision-making, Buffett practices a more let’s-do-these-things-because-it-feels-correct approach. “It’s not like we’re going in blindly,” he explained in the interview, “but we’re going on with the strong intuition and knowledge from other places.”
After a year of significantly deeper local investment in 2018, Buffett said in the interview that NoVo’s work had now reached “a reflection phase” of “waiting to see what emerges.” He claimed he doesn’t have any clear ideas about what might emerge, “just a broad belief that knitting together a community will pay off.”
Worldwide, NoVo made grants of $159.4 million in 2017 and already committed to another $179.5 million in subsequent years. However, the amount granted in the Hudson Valley won’t break the bank — even after NoVo’s list of expenditures is substantially augmented when the 2018 IRS filing is released. Despite the foundation’s impressive record of spending, the net value of NoVo’s non-charitable-use assets, $251 million in 2012, has steadily increased every year since. It was $332 million in 2013, $422 million in 2014, $491 million in 2015, and $544 million in 2016.
In 2017, as per usual, only a single contributor, Warren Buffett, “the Sage of Omaha” and Peter’s father, was listed as providing support to the NoVo Foundation. His 2017 contribution was $169.5 million. It was $152.9 million the year before, and $151 million the year before that.
NoVo was ahead of the curve, Peter Buffett said, in its focus on the relevance of local initiatives. In the larger cities, more people were saying that since no one was coming to save them they’d have to do it themselves. “And they do it block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood.”
NoVo’s work in Kingston is one part of a nationwide initiative focused on supporting thriving local communities. The foundation also supports demonstration projects in Baltimore, Detroit and Jackson, Mississippi.
How can a philanthropy willing to support a lot of good work in a smaller city like Kingston have an even greater impact on community self-empowerment? A few months ago, 25 organizations gathered at the Methodist church on Clinton Avenue to talk about what a more just Kingston would look like. A comprehensive survey is being planned for this coming summer.
So different in style, approach and goals, the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative and Peter Buffett’s vision of empowerment both begin with a community focus — and Kingston is the central community both have focused on. Both rely on injections of seed money to spark a transformed community. The former counts on a state investment stimulating private capital spending, the latter relies on the evolution of community human capital.
Kathy Hochul expects to see the gem we all know Kingston to be with a new shine two years from now.
Buffett warns that philanthropic resources “pale mightily” in the face of the challenges NoVo seeks to address. He believes that the role of government and public investment will always be primary. A comparison between public and philanthropic investments can be misleading if carried too far, he says. He modestly sees NoVo as excited to take one seat at a much bigger table in those small areas where it can make a difference.
Peter Buffett hopes to see indicators of the success of the approach in Kingston that NoVo has pioneered within five years. “I’m not expecting to see all the outcomes,” he said, “but I’m hoping there’s indicators while I’m still around that it’s going in the right direction, and it’s a 20-year-old telling me that.”