New book on the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland: a valuable resource to the global community philanthropy field

All communities have their own dynamics and tensions but few come with quite the same level of complexity as can be found in Northern Ireland, a society fraught with divisions and, at various periods in time, violence. A new book, Then, Now, the Future 1979 – 2019: The Role of Community Philanthropy in Progressive Social Change, tells the story of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI), which was originally called the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust (NIVT). The context in which NIVT was established was highly complex and tense – according to official reports, in the seven years leading up to its creation there had been 25,127 shootings, 5,123 bomb explosions, 5,927 armed robberies and 1,683 deaths in Northern Ireland, all fallout from the political situation and sectarian divide. (This video clip shown at the opening plenary of the recent European Foundation Centre conference in Belfast gives a flavour of that complexity).

Written by Avila Kilmurray (Director of CFNI and a GFCF board member), the book offers a fascinating counter-narrative to the more familiar story of politics and violence in Northern Ireland. It focuses on the spaces and opportunities that arose among community and voluntary groups as a result both of the political instability and of economic deprivation, and on the role of the community foundation, working below the radar and with often modest resources, to support community-led initiatives across a divided society.

Avila Kilmurray with the new book on CFNI

For staff, trustees and grant partners alike, whether past, future or present, the book serves as an important historical record of the origins of CFNI and of the important role that it has played, in the words of CFNI’s current chair, Tony McCusker, in “the struggle for social justice, social inclusion and an end to violence.”

The book also has much to offer to the broader field of global community philanthropy both on “big” issues of social justice and peace-building, and also on some of the very practical nuts and bolts of community grantmaking and community development. Whether it was due to the need for complete transparency in terms of strategy and thinking from the start (essential in a society where levels of trust across community were so low), or whether it was CFNI’s overriding commitment to a community development ethos (a “nothing about me without me” type of approach), the organization has been consistently open, reflective, intellectually rigorous in articulating its strategies, assumptions, and theory of change in the context of the highly complex, sensitive and often fast-moving environment in which it has operated over the last 33 years. For those community philanthropy practitioners around the world – whether in Haiti, Tanzania or conflict-torn Southern Thailand – who are currently engaged in the processes of establishing the first community foundation, women’s fund or peace fund in their city or country and who are working against a backdrop of low public trust or community division, this book is rich in grounded wisdom and actual, practical experience, which makes it a wonderful resource to the broader field. For example:

–        On governance: When NIVT was first set up in 1979, there was a very clear understanding that if the organization were to take root, it would be essential to gain public trust from a broad cross-section of the community and that public perception would be everything. That meant selecting trustees who reflected the two main communal identities (Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist and Catholic / Nationalist / Republican) as well as a gender and geographic balance. It also meant choosing people who had the respect and confidence of community and voluntary sectors as well as of business and finance (as potential donors to the Trust). Obvious really but, sometimes in the rush to get programmes going,  spending time recruiting the right board can so easily be overlooked;

–        Leading with community development: the roots of CFNI lie strongly in a community development ethos articulated around a set of beliefs and assumptions which link to issues of social inclusion and reconciliation. These include the belief that community development “increases command of local communities over resources by bringing new resources into the community and by mobilizing existing resources / skills” and that “community development builds self-confidence and empowers individuals who become a key resource, and sometimes, leaders of the development process”.

CFNI’s Voices Programme initiative focuses on those on the margins of society

–        On the value of being a local funder, locally connected: complex political and security environments can make many funders nervous, particularly if they are not based locally. For CFNI, its proximity to the community (it has offices in Belfast and Derry), its network of grantees, its staff who are all grounded in community action have all been instrumental to its success, enabling the foundation to have an ear (or several ears) to the ground and to respond to – and sometimes pre-empt – sudden changes in political, social and economic landscape.

–        More than a grantmaker: CFNI has always been about more than money. Although grantmaking has been an important tool in building trust across the sectarian divide and building relationships with community groups who are empowered to determine and devise their own activities, grants have always been offered in the context of other forms of development support, including, training, facilitation, convening etc.

–        A risk-taker: the foundation has always been prepared to take risks “when no one else would” (a grantee). In the words of another grantee: “It did require some organization to stick its neck out and back an untested idea and, quite honestly, at that stage only someone with your local knowledge would have understood the need and been able to assess our capabilities”. The foundation’s work with marginalized groups such as the victims / survivors of the Troubles and political ex-prisoners are further examples of this.

–        Working alongside rather than “over” local people and local organizations: this is been at the heart of CFNI’s approach and it has been creative in using strategies such as consensual grantmaking (where decision-making over the allocation of grants is devolved to community grants committees) to reinforce the principles of participation and voice;

–        A clear commitment to the articulation of social justice: sometimes social justice can seem to be an elusive or woolly concept but CFNI has been particularly clear around its understanding of social justice (and what that looks like on the ground), particularly in the context of peace-building where a sense of injustice can seed further conflict.

–         A learning organization: not only has CNFI always been ready to reflect and apply learning from own programmes but it has also sought fresh and new inspiration from other parts of the world, particularly from places suffering from conflict and division. It has also (and this isn’t necessarily in the book) been extremely generous in terms of sharing its own experiences and welcoming visitors from overseas with open arms and quality conversation.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a thoughtful reflection on the role of community philanthropy in progressive social change, as well as some very concrete examples and guidelines. At the moment, it is only available in hard copy: I do hope that it becomes available in electronic form so that it can be more easily accessed by community philanthropy and social justice practitioners around the world.

Jenny Hodgson

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