I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Council on Foundations’ Fall Conference for Community Foundations in New Orleans.
Romania has a growing movement of community foundations: there are currently eight active foundations and interest from another three communities. So how does a conference which brings together over a thousand community foundation practitioners from across the United States look from the eyes of a practitioner from Romania? Are there common themes when we look at the development of community foundations in the U.S. and in other parts of the world or are we actually talking about completely different realities?
Alina Porumb, Association for Community Relations
The first part of this article covers some of the key topics of the conference, as I saw them through participation in plenaries and some specific topics which I followed in the concurrent sessions. With limited experience of the U.S. community foundations field, I can only claim a sort of ‘tourist’ approach to my understanding on that side and more in depth understanding of community foundations in Romania and, more broadly, in Central and Eastern Europe.
I: Notes from the Conference
Stories are the soul of the sector. Look beyond metrics to the passion that drives this field
Stories are the soul of the sector and they are essential in helping people to learn about philanthropy, what it can achieve and the role it can play in society. At the heart of this conversation lie the people, ideas, initiatives and the differences that they make around the world, said Vikki Spruill, the new President and CEO of the Council of Foundations. It is about balancing process, metrics, measurement (the “how” of it) and passion, motivation, desire to make a difference (the “why” of it).
Yes, impact can be measured in numbers, but we should also look for the authentic soul invested and translated into hard work, ingenuity, compassion, connectedness. Then community foundations can truly become ‘foundations of community, centres for change, centres for hope’.
Business model and designing innovations for the future
Over the last few years, various concerns have been voiced around the long-term viability of the community foundation business model. They include the charge that is is not designed for sustained periods of market decline, the existence of more, better-priced, competitors and, finally, a changing definition of community.
According to Grant Oliphant, President and CEO of Pittsburg Community Foundation, it is time to ‘stop being shocked by the fact the there are challenges to the community foundation business model and value proposition’ and look at this as an innovation challenge. We should be less concerned about “quick fixes” to the revenue model and more focused on substantive content of the community foundation model, i.e. the value that community foundations bring to their communities, how they uniquely contribute, why that matters and who cares about it. In short we need to adapt to the context and imagine a way forward for ourselves. Indeed, it was observed, organizations that survive periods of disruptive innovations are those who reframe and act upon this reframing with a sense of urgency. A reframing in terms of the future we want to see and the role we want to play.
Donor advised funds and their strategic contribution
According to John Kania, Managing Director of FSG Social Impact Advisers, “the story begin 1931 with the New York Community Trust, which was the first community foundation that created donor advised funds as a way to make it easier for donors to give to the community during their life time.” Kania presented new data about donor advised funds that looks at the strategic value that these funds bring to community foundations (the study included 31 community foundations and data about over 6,000 donor advised funds). There are currently U.S. $14 billion in assets in donor advised funds and they represent half of community foundations’ grant dollars. For every U.S. $1 in planned gifts, there are U.S. $3 in donor advised funds. If ten years ago the conversation was about giving donors more choice and reconfiguring community foundations around donor needs, this has now shifted. ‘Now many community foundations see these funds as a gateway to deepen the philanthropic commitment, to inform donors about local needs and nonprofits and to find new partners for community grant-making and leadership’, observed Kania.
II. Reflections: comparing community foundations in the United States and Romania
I decided at the conference that if I take out the numbers (assets, years of history, numbers of practitioners, number of grants, number of donor advised funds, etc.), I feel pretty familiar with many of the topics of discussion and the challenges discussed.
Coming from an emergent movement in Romania, I see that the passion that drives the field is key, and that a fierce acceptance of the context with its opportunities and its limitations, coupled with a strong long-term vision are also vital. While issues of value articulation for community and other stakeholders are very important in the start-up phase, as our foundations develop I can see that it also becomes essential to focus on issues of sustainability and appropriate revenue models which can support the vision and values over the long term too.
Successful community foundations in Romania are using collaborative approaches and engaging other stakeholders in ongoing discussions around community issues and desired outcomes. We also face opportunities and challenges around engaging philanthropists – of all generations – and keeping them engaged both as donors and as community leaders. While these donors are starting to give, assets are not yet exactly “pouring in” – mainly because the model is new and still somewhat unfamiliar. And certainly, gathering more and better stories of community philanthropy and its contribution is vital in raising the profile and understanding of the movement at this stage too.
Well, we’re back to the size of community foundations’ assets as well as the size of the field. However, it was interesting for me to find out that beyond the large and established U.S. community foundations, there are many of a similar size (at least in terms of staff) as you would find in the more experienced community foundations in Romania, with around 4 or 5 staff. While the conference highlighted how many community foundations in the U.S. are trying to look “beyond the numbers”, the numbers are definitely there in the form of data collection systems. For me it was impressive to see the degree of documentation of foundation practices and how there is a always a baseline which serves to informs the strategies of the community foundations field. Donor advised funds are not yet well established in Romania and in Central and Eastern Europe more broadly, and it was interesting to think about how they might be developed long term and also how important it is to see them as a form of partnership rather than a tool, mechanism or service. Also, I would like to see a strong documentation of practices and an equally strong professional infrastructure for support in Romania too, but numbers may be important here as well.
Perhaps the most significant difference is the long history of community foundations in U.S. and how most have been shaped by different influences over time (of course with the exception of newer community foundations). So new ideas emerge in a context of established practices and the experiences of what has gone – and I suppose this also means there is always the danger of reinventing the wheel and doing exactly the same as what worked before. However, change and redesign certainly seem to be key aspects of the community foundation field discourse: perhaps for us in Romania we are still learning for the first time, experimenting and seeing what works.
So, can we talk about a global field of community foundations or is the U.S. field so different and distinctive that the idea of a global identity is impossible? Opinions on these may of course differ, but my view is that the commonalities are stronger than the differences, particularly if we choose to focus on the community foundations value and role in community, on their leadership capacity to engage with and shape the context and on the sheer determination to make a critical contribution to communities over the next 100 years.
On the other hand, if we look at the revenue model of more established community foundations and sheer size of assets that they have, this may appear more like science fiction to community foundations in many developing countries. Those U.S. community foundations which focus their interest on growth, numbers and the revenue model might not find many opportunities to engage with the broader global field, as business models may be quite different there. But for those interested in community engagement, passion, leadership, stories of collaboration, empowerment and change, here we are and open for dialogue!
Alina Porumb is the Community Foundations Programme Director, Association for Community Relations, Romania