Laying down the challenge for community foundations everywhere

“In five or 10 years, I fear that many of the institutions in this room won’t be here.” These were the words of Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, speaking at the Council on Foundations Fall Community Foundation Conference in San Francisco in September 2011.

In the global landscape of community foundations, Silicon Valley Community Foundation is among the biggest: over the past five years it has awarded over $1 billion, raised over $1 billion and increased its assets by over $500 million. Of the top 25 US foundations that support international causes, Silicon Valley is at number 13 (the only community foundation on the list).

The sheer size and scale of Silicon Valley Community Foundation propels it in an altogether different world (or even planet) from those community foundations and grassroots grantmakers in other parts of the world that the GFCF works with. Whether they are in Russia, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Ecuador or Egypt, most of these community foundations are still financially very small. Although there are a handful of community foundations outside North America and Western Europe that have built up endowment funds of several million dollars and whose annual budgets are in the million-dollar range, most operate on budgets that are much smaller. A report (“More than the Poor Cousin”), produced by the GFCF in 2010 showed that, across a sample of 50 community foundations worldwide, over half had an annual budget of $65,000 or less.

The often huge disparities between the size community foundations in the West (and particularly, the United States) and in other low and middle-income contexts can sometimes make for limited opportunities for real exchange and may even lead one to wonder whether the experiences are too different to merit even sharing the same name (but that’s a debate for another day). The experience of attending an international community foundation conference (whether in the United States, Canada or the U.K.) can be quite overwhelming: gratifying, yes, to see that community foundations, still largely so invisible and little known in so many developing contexts, can convene in such numbers and with such confidence, with legal recognition, tax concessions etc. all in place, but often the conference conversations are so far removed from the everyday experience of running a community foundation in India or Kenya as to make them irrelevant.

So what was Emmett Carson talking about when he made this ominous warning about the dangers that lie ahead for US community foundations? And might they apply to community foundations outside the United States too? Well, he made a number of points, and all of them have resonance for the range of community foundations and likeminded organizations that GFCF works with globally. Broadly speaking, his main points were:

1.      Community foundations need to be about more than managing and accumulating financial assets. As the philanthropic market place continues to diversify and grow, new players are likely to emerge that can manage these responsibilities more cheaply and/or effectively;
2.      Community foundations need to play to their strengths as conveners that can bridge across different parts of the community and with government, rather than just as managers of money.
3.      There should be different models for community foundations.
4.      Community foundations are increasingly ill-equipped to respond to the urgent issues of our time: “The structure of how we think about the work is increasingly at odds with how people live their lives and how they think about problems.”

On the first point: it is already the case that community foundations are about more than money in most developing and emerging contexts. Financial numbers are important, and easy to quantify – money received, grants made, the value of endowment funds etc. But, particularly when these numbers are small, it is important not to overlook or underestimate the importance of less tangible strengths that form the backbone of many of the community foundations the GFCF works with. These strengths include the knowledge, trust, relationships and judgment built up by groups that are deeply embedded in their communities. The story of the Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation in Cairo, a young organization which still getting itself established, which was propelled into a leadership role acting as interface between local authorities and the community when the Arab Spring swept through Egypt earlier this year, is a good example of this. This brings me to point two: while a community foundation might not always offer the best “deal” on managing philanthropic donations, its multiple networks – which might mean foundation staff having coffee in the morning with the local member of parliament, lunch with a local business and tea in the afternoon with a community group –  can more than make up for that. This gives community foundations a unique and distinct advantage in comparison with other more business-efficiency/ transaction-driven philanthropic service providers and one which they should be much more vocal about.

Point three: again, globally the community foundation community is already quite advanced in terms of embracing flexibility and diversity. In our GFCF convenings and conversations we are increasingly comfortable working and thinking as a “tribe”, with shared values and operational principles, while acknowledging the differences in the ways we operate. So terms like “hybrids”, “grass-roots grantmakers”, “community foundation-like” and community philanthropy institutions all work in our meetings. Similarly, if a community foundation isn’t making grants there is usually a good reason for it (like low trust or low capacities in a community or a reluctance to be seen as the “donor” too early on and thus distort the delicate process of cultivating local relationships). The same goes if a foundation decides to plant in trees as an endowment (because they offer a good financial return and can be seen growing by the community, so reducing fears about money being “put away forever” and never to be seen again).

Point 4:  Confronted with issues like climate change, poverty, mass immigration perhaps community foundations can sometimes appear parochial or conservative in their agendas. But again, globally there is a huge range of interesting organizations working from the bottom up of our societies, which include social enterprises, community philanthropies, social movements, protest groups, women’s funds, and hybrid forms that defy easy categorization. These organizations – which include community foundations among their number – are finding new and exciting ways to tackle these big issues and, with the help of the internet, social networking, peer-learning and convenings, are increasingly able to spread their ideas through the sector. The opportunities for shaking off our complacency and “business as usual” mindsets, as Carson warns, and for linking up creative and bold thinking around the world’s big issues are greater than ever before.

Jenny Hodgson