Behavior Change Case Study: People’s Liberty

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

People’s Liberty is a community development-oriented philanthropic experiment initiated five years ago as a project of the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, based in Cincinnati, Ohio. To quote the organization’s website: “People’s Liberty is a philanthropic lab that brings together civic-minded talent to address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati. People’s Liberty invests directly in individuals through funding and mentorship, creating a new, replicable model for grantmakers in other cities.”

Over a five-year period ending this year, this new model has been implemented and tested with local changemakers across Cincinnati. By investing in and supporting residents who seek to create change directly on the ground in their community, People’s Liberty aims to catalyze deeper and broader impacts across the community and its institutions, governance, and culture by positioning grantees to grow through their work, develop their capacity as leaders in community, and ascend to positions of leadership and influence over time.  

Eric Avner is the Foundation’s Vice President and Senior Programs Manager for Community Development, and as such, is CEO of People’s Liberty. His vision for people-centered philanthropy is informed by his career as a community development practitioner who realized significant and tangible impacts across the Cincinnati landscape. In his vocational experience, Eric cites the power of being given wide creative latitude and trusted with the capacity to affect change as he saw need and opportunity. It was this realization that spurred in him a desire to change the way foundation philanthropy has traditionally operated, which is to grant funds to nonprofit organizations that use the money to develop and deliver projects and programs. Eric saw the ways this model rendered nonprofits as the “middleman”, perpetuating the disconnect between everyday people and their capacity to affect change in their immediate community.

In dreaming big about the potential impact his employer could create in the Cincinnati philanthropic and community development realms, Eric led with two questions:

  • What difference would it make in our city if we were to grant money directly to people who desire to affect change in their own community?
  • And if we did so, could we affect change at scale, essentially powering the next cadre of Cincinnati’s leaders?


Guided by these questions, and to inform the development of the foundation’s own community development initiative, two members of Eric’s team, Megan Trischler and Kate Creason, designed and conducted a national fact-finding trek to seventeen cities across the United States over a summer to visit and learn from civic innovation labs and other places and people who were testing these kinds of ideas. Eric says: “Our team learned something from each place, but a common thread running through all of these experimental labs was the fact that foundations were nowhere to be found. So, in witness of that vacuum, our foundation set out to create People’s Liberty.”

Eric and his team quickly established a storefront presence for People’s Liberty. They curated a communal event celebration to announce the launch of their philanthropic lab, to which they invited hundreds of people. When the phrase “philanthropic lab” appeared to lack resonance or recognition among members of their audience, the team stripped down their language, saying “We are going to give grants to people who want to make a difference in their community,”. Suddenly, the audience, and by extension its networks, were abuzz.

Soon after, the team developed and issued a simple Call for Proposals, which they distributed broadly using a retail approach that featured advertising on public, pop, and talk radio stations, in both newspapers of record and small neighborhood weeklies, on posters around the community, in direct postcard mailings, by word of mouth, and more. Central to each of these Calls was an in-person informational session designed to demystify and democratize the application process. Any individual who possessed an idea and an interest in applying was offered a 20-minute one-on-one consultation with a member of the People’s Liberty team. In these meetings, potential applicants were invited to ask questions, seek feedback on their ideas, and receive constructive input to draw out and refine what they had in mind to include in their grant application. Applicants were invited to submit proposals using an online interface, and all were offered support should internet access or use create a constraint or barrier to participation.

For each round of its grant review process, People’s Liberty assembled a jury of people who reviewed and ranked the proposals, and selected the winning ones. In each instance, the juries were carefully composed of community stakeholders who, together, were reflective of the racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity found across Cincinnati. People’s Liberty awarded grants to groups of people in waves every four months, using a cohort model, so that grantees could be supported and engaged alongside one another in community, thereby cultivating a culture of collaboration, connection, and a shared desire to create impact among grantees. Grantees were funded to complete their proposed work over a period of either three months (storefront installations), six months (projects), or twelve months (fellowships). Both during their grant period and afterward, grantees were invited to frequent and regular in-person events at which they could connect, learn from, and lean on one another.

Now in its final year of implementation, the People’s Liberty team is moving from grant-making and grantee engagement to reflection, analysis, synthesis, and sharing of results and insights from the past five years of work.


Behavior Change Analysis

The People’s Liberty philanthropic lab was established with the intention of changing the field of foundation philanthropy and the potential scale of impact such institutions can bring about in the community development realm. While Eric acknowledges that the actual change realized by People’s Liberty was in the way it redefined community development, it’s clear there is much to be learned from the behavior change aspects of this initiative.


People’s Liberty is a model that is SOCIAL by design.

From the initial celebratory event where the Foundation announced its launch, to its granting of funds to cohorts of recipients, to the un-conference it hosts for its grantees each year, People’s Liberty set out to develop and nurture a community of people who desire to affect change of some kind in the city and neighborhoods immediately surrounding them.


The People’s Liberty experiment embraced the concept of TIMELINESS in a number of different ways.

Fundamentally, the project was predetermined to last for five years. This time-bound feature communicated a sense of urgency for aspiring grantees to “apply before this opportunity disappears.” Eric described the extensive thought he and his team gave to the notion of creating an initiative that would be perceived at once as both accessible and somewhat rare, and the time-bound nature of People’s Liberty helped to create that duality.


People’s Liberty was forthright in offering potential grantees the obvious INCENTIVE of $10,000 project grants,

$15,000 storefront installation grants, or $100,000 fellowship grants, all of which were meant to go directly into the pockets of community members rather than that of an intermediary organization. Over time, however, as the number of grantees and cohorts grew, the added incentive of a grantee’s membership of the community lovingly referred to as “the People’s People” became more attractive to aspiring grantees. The cohort model embraced by People’s Liberty helped foster relationships and connections amongst grantees in early cohorts, whose members quickly grew to become enmeshed in the community via connections with their fellow grantees as they were learning from one other, and sharing advice, inspiration, and encouragement. Even as the People’s Liberty grant-making experiment is drawing to a close, the community it has nurtured– which is now driven by and for the grantees themselves– shows no signs of stopping.


The People’s Liberty experiment demonstrates the way AFFECT can be an important driver of human behavior.

As demonstrated by dozens of grantee testimonies, people who became People’s Liberty grantees experienced a profound emotional experience as a result of receiving their grant and carrying out the work they were funded to implement. Eric shared that many grantees have expressed an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gift of “believing in me”, as the grants served as a means for affirming and legitimizing their ideas, desires, and lived experiences, even and especially harrowing ones.

This deep emotional experience helped many grantees engage deeply, and to persist in their involvement with the grantee community, even going so far as to constructively shape “the People’s People” events, communications, and other engagement activities. But, says Eric, “This emotional connection and gratitude goes both ways. All of us at People’s Liberty are intensely moved by and thankful for the personal connections we now have with more people in the community.”


The People’s Liberty team considered use of various MESSENGERS to get the word out about their Call for Proposals.

Because the philanthropic lab endeavored to grant directly to people instead of nonprofit organizations, the team knew they had to tap a variety of networks and messengers in order to reach a broader range of everyday people who don’t typically see Calls for Proposals. Knowing people are influenced by those who communicate information to them, the People’s Liberty team utilized a variety of retail methods to reach those individuals and groups, who were trusted by many, to spread the word. While the team used talk radio, public radio, the local alternative weekly, local black-owned newspapers, posters around town, and postcard mailings to share their Call for Proposals, what ultimately ended up diversifying the pool of grant applicants and grantees was the promotional efforts conducted by word-of-mouth.


The People’s Liberty team was devoted to making the application process as accessible to all as possible and took extensive steps to MAKE IT EASY.

The team streamlined the Foundation’s more traditional Call for Proposals. The team used simple language in the Call for Proposals aimed at lay people rather than Development Managers at nonprofit organizations. The Calls for Proposals were rolling, with calls being issued roughly every four months. Frequent grant cycles helped more people apply, and minimized the discouragement that might come from needing to wait a year between application cycles.

With each Call for Proposals, the People’s Liberty team held informational sessions at which a simple presentation of the program was made, and where anyone could ask a question. Additionally, People’s Liberty held steadfast to the practice of offering a 20 minute one-on-one meeting with anyone who had an idea to listen, ask questions, flesh out ideas, give feedback, and help them refine their ideas. Potential applicants came away understanding quickly what would make for a more successful application, which eased their process. The team also required applications to be internet-based, and offered direct assistance to anyone lacking internet access or encountering trouble with technology or the online interface.


People’s Liberty also shook up the NORMS of grantmaking,

By offering one-on-one feedback to applicants who weren’t successful, in many cases sharing verbatim comments from the jury that reviewed their particular proposal. This resulted in many examples of people reapplying in subsequent rounds, and in a number of cases, being selected for a grant after a second or third attempt.


Finally, the People’s Liberty model embraced the notion of SALIENCE in its design.

Eric says: “We were intentionally vague in the Call for Proposals about what the topic or aim of the proposals should be. We weren’t prescriptive. We wanted to solicit and receive proposals that were topically relevant to individuals. We designed this project to center the expertise of everyday people in the community, to be trusting of that expertise rather than being prescriptive as foundations typically are.” Keeping the Call for Proposals open-ended meant that aspiring applicants could be seen and validated for their ideas, and for the salient needs and opportunities for affecting change they saw around them.



The People’s Liberty model is a great example of how to create an emotional and immersive experience by intentionally building a community that felt supportive, accessible, and malleable. Aspiring grantees found deep meaning in receiving grant funds directly, and felt validation to pursue their vision for change in the world around them. The deeply emotional experience of joining a cohort and a community enabled grantees to become vulnerable in the presence of fellow grantees, and speaks volumes about how creating a “sticky” experience can motivate human beings to engage, and stay engaged, in a meaningful endeavor over a long period of time. Please visit for more information about this inspiring philanthropic experiment.


Special thanks goes to Eric Avner of People’s Liberty for his willingness to be interviewed for and participate in this project.

The theoretical basis for the Behavior Change Blog Series is informed by two mnemonic frameworks shown in detail below. The MINDSPACE framework is a list of the elements that inform cognitive biases and human behaviors, while the EAST framework is a list of directives that are derived from MINDSPACE and help inform strategies for influencing behavior change in humans. These two frameworks were established by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a social enterprise based in the United Kingdom.


MINDSPACE Framework EAST Framework
Messenger – We are heavily influenced by who communicates information to us. Make it Easy – Harness the power of defaults, reduce the ‘hassle factor’, simplify messages.
Incentives – Our response to incentives is shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as reference points, aversion to losses, and overweighting of small probabilities. Make it Attractive – Draw people toward preferred behaviors, design rewards and sanctions to maximize effect.
Norms – We are strongly influenced by what others do. Make it Social – Show people the norm, use the power of networks to encourage and support, encourage people to make a commitment.
Defaults – We “go with the flow” of pre-set options. Make it Timely – Prompt people when they are most likely to be receptive, consider immediate costs and benefits, help people plan their response.
Salience – Our attention is drawn to what is novel and also to what seems relevant to us.
Priming – We are often influenced by subconscious cues.
Affect – Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
Commitments – We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and to reciprocate acts.
Ego – We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.


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  1. PLEASE Provide the name of the cities that are posted on every paper!!!!


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