What’s next for community philanthropy?

It is appropriate (and no doubt deliberate) that launch of the “What’s Next for Community Philanthropy?” toolkit has come half-way through 2014, a year that sees the Cleveland Foundation – America’s first community foundation  – mark its centenary. Now I should probably say that the extensive toolkit, which has been produced by Gabriel Kasper and his colleagues, Justin Marcoux and Jess Ausinheiler at Monitor Institute, has not really be designed for someone like me. I do not work for a community foundation in the United States, and U.S. (and Canadian) community foundations are really the main target audience for this suite of tools and essays. So my comments and observations on the toolkit are framed by my vantage point at the Global Fund for Community Foundations, a global grassroots grantmaking organization, working to support the development of community philanthropy worldwide.

Evolving concepts, changing terminology: Let’s start with “community philanthropy”.  In my everyday work, I find myself constantly juggling language and terminology, driven by a desire to be inclusive and yet specific, to use the right kind of language that will resonate in particular contexts, that captures the essence of what happens when the magic ingredients of local asset mobilization, grantmaking for community development and multi-stakeholder governance combine together under one institutional roof. Unlike in the U.S. and Canada (where community foundations alone can be counted in their hundreds), there are far fewer of these types of organizations (whatever they are called) in most of the rest of the world, and so by focusing on one particular institutional form, you end up with very small numbers. So although community foundations form a large part of our constituency (and we even prioritise them in the name of our own organization – a fact that is not lost on me), we have always embraced other forms of “community philanthropy institutions”, including women’s funds, local grantmakers, environmental funds etc. So I was pleasantly surprised (and also curious) to see that the more inclusive “community philanthropy” is used throughout the toolkit (defined as “community foundations and other community philanthropy organizations”).

A global world – fact not choice: One of the perils of working locally (and most community philanthropy organizations tend to be place-based) is that it is easy to become inward-looking and insular. The excellent essay, “Shift Happens: Understanding how the world is changing” does a great job in providing a succinct overview of six different types of global trends that are having a profound effect on the nature of communities. If you are a community foundation leader or board member in need of evidence to convince your colleagues that the community that your foundation was set up to serve is no longer the same, and to find examples of how other community foundations are responding, then this document, which provides excellent sources as well as cogent examples, will save you many hours of Internet searches. Although much of the specific data is geared towards a U.S. audience the essay demonstrates to any reader how global trends (both good and bad) are driving huge changes in our communities the world over.

Community foundations as specialist generalists:  Community foundations tend to make grants across a range of different portfolios. This is well understood within the community foundation field, but it can sometimes like to outsiders like a lack of focus or being overstretched in terms of technical expertise. (In fact, I once got involved in a very long rather heated conversation with a U.S. immigration official in New York, who doubted my professional credentials because he was very sceptical about the community foundation idea, insisting that all philanthropic organizations and NGOs should have a focus – he suggested water, healthcare or education – and that it was poor form to try to do everything in a community). What the toolkit also highlights in its examples is quite how specialised and sophisticated specific programmes clusters and approaches have become within the community foundation field. In our grantmaking at the GFCF, we have also been looking at how to deepen community philanthropy practice around particular issues (such as youth engagement or the environment) so that community philanthropy organizations can deliver excellent programmes but within the context of a broader, holistic and networked approach.

A launching point for a more linked-up global field? Certainly, there are some valuable tools in the kit that a community foundation or community philanthropy organization anywhere in the world could use to test assumptions, stimulate reflection and inspire creative thinking (although for those community foundations operating in contexts where local giving is still very nascent, the level of sophistication around different kinds of donor services might still seem like wishful thinking). It is also good to see strategies that have been adopted by many of our community foundation partners, often driven more by innovation and instinct than blue-print, are listed and named in the tool kit.  So when in the “Bright Spots” tool, which looks at “Promising approaches in community philanthropy”, there is a question, “What if you solicited small gifts from less affluent individuals?”, I think immediately of Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation in Romania which created a “Community Card” programme through which over 13,000 donors give small amounts each month. And another “bright spot” on “Sharing Community Information”, asks “What if you conducted routine check-ups of your community?” which takes me to a recent blog by one of our partners in Ukraine. Moloda Gromada (“Young Community”) is based in Odessa, which has seen its own fair share of violence which resulted in the deaths of 42 people on May 2nd 2014. The foundation’s director Inna Starchikova describes how, following the violence, the foundation conducted a survey to “check the state of health” (her words) of the community by asking people about how they saw their own personal role in allowing the violence to happen and their thoughts on how future violence might be prevented.

What’s next for “What’s next”? A separate essay, which focuses specifically on examples of community philanthropy innovation from the global field, is in the pipeline and I look forward to that. And finally, I wonder whether this kind of reflective, big picture exercise might provide new opportunities for those community foundations, wherever they are in the world and which are interested, to create spaces for engagement, solidarity and collaboration. Although there may be huge differences in the financial asset bases of community foundations in different parts of the world, it seems to me that energy, innovation and commitment to community-driven development are plentiful the world over.

Jenny Hodgson

Executive Director, GFCF

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