Zilber Family Foundation, Milwaukee, WI

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Background and Project Description

The Joseph and Vera Zilber Family Foundation (Zilber) is dedicated to enhancing the well-being of individuals, families, and neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2008, the foundation started the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative (ZNI), a 10-year, multi-million dollar initiative to improve the quality of life in Milwaukee neighborhoods. ZNI funds projects that connect access to healthy food and physical activity to economic and workforce development, environmental transformation, and policy change. With the support of the Innovation Fund, the ZNI concentrated on Lindsay Heights and Clark Square, two neighborhoods that are home to predominantly low-income communities of color. The effort focused on projects identified as priorities by community members. Funded projects seek to align the built environment, open space, food access, physical activity, and health and wellness.

Community Impact

In its target neighborhoods, Zilber capitalized on the abundance of vacant land and other local assets—including trusted community-based nonprofits—to engage neighborhood residents in re-imagining their communities as vibrant and sustainable. To date, local organizations have restored 13 acres of parklands, developed 90 community gardens and started wellness programs, walking clubs, and cooking demonstrations at schools and community centers. Zilber also helped publicize the successful community protest of a fried-chicken franchise where hundreds of people demanded better access to healthy food. Zilber supported the advocacy campaign started by the process which resulted in an ordinance governing vacant land, as well as a precedent-setting Common Council statement and vote to limit the number of new fast food businesses permitted in oversaturated areas.

Zilber is investing in efforts that support food production to strengthen neighborhood economies. The foundation funded the Fondy Food Center and Market, a nonprofit open-air food market that links 35,000 customers annually to locally grown food. With an 80-year history in Milwaukee's African American community, the market is a valued institution in Lindsay Heights. In the spring of 2011, Fondy leased land to Hmong farmers who had previously been paying predatory rates for access to farmable property. Fondy assembled an advisory council of community residents to advise the Hmong farmers about African-American vegetable and fruit preferences, further strengthening the relationship between these two communities of color and investing in the farmers' financial success. Zilber's IF grant to the food center also provided additional resources to support an effort by the Brico Fund to help Fondy develop operational, physical design, and financing plans for expanding the market.

Zilber has also supported collaboration between community members and planning officials to develop more equitable land use plans in Mitchell Park. The resulting updated master plan, which was funded by the foundation with matching support from the IF and LISC Milwaukee, was well received by community residents and county officials alike. While strong resident and nonprofit engagement in land use planning has an uneven history in Milwaukee, public officials now seek opportunities to be associated with such projects and to align public investments with philanthropic resources to advance the common good.

Foundation Impact

The Innovation Fund supported Zilber's efforts to focus on community-driven priorities, undertake novel grant making practices, and develop new partnerships with community groups, funders, and corporations. As part of its strategy to support projects identified by community members, Zilber did not use a competitive application process. Instead, the foundation awarded grants to local groups to plan with people who live and work in the ZNI neighborhoods. Zilber then worked with community leaders to determine the allocation of funds. Zilber also met with potential grantees and the Brico Fund, a new philanthropic partner, in order to align grants and support work in the ZNI neighborhoods.

The partnership with Brico resulted from Zilber's outreach campaign to other funders and corporate partners. Through presentations, webinars, and site visits Zilber disseminated information about its emphasis on community-driven place-based change. Zilber formed new partnerships, engaging in joint planning and aligning funding opportunities. For example, Zilber is collaborating with Target on Milwaukee Matters, a long-term initiative to implement large-scale volunteer and physical development projects at sites located in ZNI neighborhoods. Zilber has also worked with a collaboration of community groups to develop a joint capital campaign to influence philanthropic policy and raise funds for several health and wellness projects.


"The Zilber Family Foundation's work in distressed neighborhoods has changed as a result of our involvement with the Innovation Fund. We have a deeper appreciation of how place-based investments can be leveraged to stimulate immediate benefits for the people who live and work in very poor communities and how the lessons of these efforts can help influence public policy and lead to lasting improvements across multiple neighborhoods." --Susan Lloyd, Executive Director