Boston Neighborhood Fellows

Do you want to support inspiring and effective individuals? 

Julie Leven is a professional classical musician. Three years ago, she went to the Pine Street Inn and said she wanted to try performing classical music in the shelter. The staff member she approached laughed and said she could try it once, but warned her that “our guests will not listen to classical music.” She was happy to be proven wrong, and that early experiment has now grown into Shelter Music, an enterprise that regularly brings professional musicians of the highest caliber to seven shelters throughout Greater Boston.

Shelter Music has also earned Julie the honor of becoming a Boston Neighborhood Fellow.

The Boston Neighborhood Fellows is a program administered by The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) and funded by an anonymous individual. Twenty-six years ago, the donor came to us with firmly held beliefs and a desire to change lives. Rather than supporting nonprofit organizations or specific programs the donor wanted to be hands-on – meeting authentic people who believed in their work and were committed to change. Our task was to develop a program that could find and support the inspiring and dedicated individuals our client sought to recognize.

The donor wanted to support individuals who often go unrecognized – the change agents who quietly make vital contributions to the quality of life in and around Boston. Given this intention, we considered various ways to celebrate the overlooked social entrepreneurs, community leaders and builders of tomorrow. We decided upon an awards program that recognizes individuals who are quietly making Boston a better place to live and work.

Researching various structures and similar programs, such as the McArthur Genius Awards, we created the Boston Neighborhood Fellows (BNF) program. BNF is an annual program that provides recognition and direct financial support to individuals of creativity, vision, initiative and leadership who work in community service in Greater Boston.

Each year, individuals are nominated by anonymous “spotters” throughout the city. Nominees may work for a government agency, community organization, or do regular volunteer work. Some may be hard working community activists while others may be the dedicated cop on the beat, the inspiring teacher or youth worker, or people with special talents who enhance community life. Whatever they do, they represent the best practitioners of their form of service, contributing to the community in ways that go beyond the scope of their specific job description.

A selection committee reviews the nominations and selects five individuals to receive $30,000 “no strings attached” awards - $10,000 each year for a period of three years. Those funds are absolutely unrestricted.

Julie Leven is just one of the hundreds of lives this anonymous donor has touched. Since inception, the Boston Neighborhood Fellows program has awarded 154 outstanding individuals and more than $3.5 million dollars. The program has also been replicated in other communities throughout the country.

Julie recognizes that Shelter Music will not end homelessness, but it can make the experience of living in a shelter more humane. Shelter staff report that on concert nights residents often go to bed earlier, sleep better and conflict – so often a part of shelter life – diminishes. The entire atmosphere and dynamic are changed for the better.

Julie says if she could thank the donor she would. “I know you are a remarkable person,” she says, speaking directly to the anonymous individual, “because you decided to honor people who look around and see something that needs doing, who go about doing it, and who don't let anything get in their way. I am lucky to know people who are driven to live in this way and I am full of gratitude to be part of the group of Bostonians who have received this tremendous gift. Thank you for your generosity and your belief in the good in people.”