Swimming against the tide: Building local philanthropy in Northeast India

Drishana is celebrating; in fact she is ecstatic. As September draws to a close she has reached her fund development target: USD $5,000 from a range of individual donors by means of Global Giving.  The money will open the doors, and meet the running costs for a year, of a Safe House in Aizawl, to provide for women and children that are victims of domestic violence. The project is run by a woman who herself is a survivor. Working across the seven regions that comprise the Northeast of India (Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh) the Foundation for Social Transformation (FST) highlights essential community-based work and engages in an active programme of fund development. But more than this, they are planning for the long-term, recognizing that community philanthropy brings an important new dimension to social action – the ability to mobilize local resources for positive change. This has been the first time that Drishana has been involved directly in fund development. Judging from her smile and sense of achievement it won’t be the last.

Avila, Jenny and Rita meet with FST staff and board

As the crow flies, Guwahati, where FST has its office, is closer to Hanoi than to New Delhi. When we visited it in September 2014 the city was suffering from late monsoon flooding that closed local primary schools and ruffled the coconut trees up into a bad hair day. For areas across this far flung region the unremitting rain brought a number of deaths and considerable disruption through flooding and landslides. This didn’t prevent Gayatri Buragohain (CEO of FST) from bringing us out to meet social activists in Kokrajhar, an area under the control of the Bodoland Territorial Council. Gayatri used the lengthy travel time to explain the importance of the work of the foundation given the complexities of the Northeast region. The related aspects of grantmaking and fund development lie at the heart of her mission, but there is also a strong value base of social and gender justice alongside a society free from want, fear and discrimination.

Building Trust Through Solidarity

In the political and demographic complexity that is the Northeast, there is always a danger that donors fund where it is easy rather than where it is most needed, as Gayatri explains. Sporadic, and multiple, guerrilla movements have long been agitating around demands for autonomy and/or sovereignty based on sub-national identities, bringing them into violent conflict with the Indian state forces as well as other communities, such as migrants from Bangladesh. Some 90% of the border areas are both international and porous, edging up against Bhutan and Myanmar, as well as Bangladesh. Members of the Bodo community spoke angrily about how its language, script and culture were in danger of disappearing. One of their demands is for the building of universities and colleges in their area – this is now happening.

Monisha Behal, Chair of FST, and Avila Kilmurray

Not surprisingly the ongoing violence brings its own challenges. Relations have to be nuanced with a wide range of social organizations that may have very different ethnic and political aspirations. Resources allocated by FST are carefully judged and must be seen to be allocated in an inclusive and even handed manner. The next fund development target, entitled Northeast Rising, is to provide 14 Youth Fellowships on Peacebuilding (two for each of the seven regions) and seven organizational grants to women’s initiatives (one for each region). Inter-regional convenings can then draw out shared issues while leaving space for the examination of difference. The FST Chairperson, veteran women’s rights campaigner, Monisha Behal, recognizes how discussion can build an understanding of difference, if not necessarily achieving agreement. A previous FST partner, Nonibala Narengbam from Manipur, spoke about how “working with FST for one year gave me incredible experience of working with women who lost their loved ones (husbands) in the armed conflict. I also feel that the coming together of these women itself is a process of healing from their traumas. I witnessed women changing from the first time I met and saw them.” This is trust-building, in the most difficult circumstances, from the bottom-up. Sitting on plastic chairs in the mud of a camp for a Muslim community that had been displaced from their homes due to internal area violence the plea was the same: “Who will listen to us?”

Challenges amidst Beauty

From the stately Brahmaputra River to the vibrancy of sub-tropical forests this is a region of environmental beauty. On the basis of a recent bio-diversity mapping, FST Programme Officer, Rashmi, introduced us to the startling fact that the Northeast, which comprises almost 8% of the area of India, has 80,000 species of flowering plants; 836 bird types; multiple forest animals; and 51 forest species. Little wonder that it has been declared one of the 34 environmental “hot spots” in the world. She also charted the adverse impact of pollution, illegal mining and the depletion of both cultural resources and indigenous rights. A creative approach to women’s empowerment through the funding of traditional therapies and medicines is a current priority for FST. There is also an appreciation of the need to fund win-win solutions to the conflict between rural communities and elephants set on following traditional routes. Evidence is being gathered of those approaches that work. Rashmi shares her knowledge of locally based environmental partners that FST can support.

Kangkana, on the other hand, puts her energies into working with young people. Youth development is a key theme that FST has identified and Kangkana works to support a gathering of young men and women that are bubbling with ideas. Drawing from the Assam custom of Husori some of the young participants are already practicing Bihu folk songs and dances. During Bohag Bihu, one of the biggest festivals in Assam, the Husori teams visit homes to perform their dances and bring blessings. In return the household offers gifts and whatever they can afford. This is to be the new fundraising approach that will hopefully bring in resources for the establishment of a YouthBank within FST.

Rita and Gayatri in conversation with members of FST’s Youth Collective

The aspirations and rights of young people are also on the agenda of the activists that we met in Kokrajhar. Youth caught at the sharp edge of political conflict can be the first to suffer. There is talk about holding a conference on children’s rights. This could look at the recruitment of young people as informants by the security forces; it could also focus on the execution of a 16 year old local girl by guerrilla fighters due to accusations that she was an informer. This was all caught and circulated on social media as a stark message to others. Youth and peacebuilding remains an ongoing priority for FST – not just in fund development terms, but also in supporting community-based organizations to challenge and share new ideas locally. An impressive Meghalaya local partner, Prince Thangkhiew, is working to organize regular meetings of a Children’s Dorbar (traditional gathering) to encourage children, and especially girls, to become community leaders in identifying issues of importance.

There for the Long Haul

If navigating the virtual road from Kokrajhar to Guwahati was difficult given cows, goats, geese and the descending dark, equally Gayatri and her FST board members are under no illusion about the difficulties of putting FST on a secure long-term footing. The organization was initially incubated in 2005 and gained the support of the Ford Foundation. Since 2008 it has become registered as a community foundation and has struggled to put in place a fund development strategy. There is a clear recognition that its effectiveness is linked with the mobilization of funds that can support social change organisations and initiatives. Alongside the fundraising campaigns highlighted on its website (www.fstindia.org) there have been fundraising events and increasing contacts with potential donors, local, national and international. Anju, the Finance Administrator, takes a firm line on transparency and accountability to donors. Gayatri acknowledges that such accountability is particularly important in a situation where NGOs may be regarded with a degree of scepticism. She is determined that FST can model its principles of effective social change in such a way that it will make sense to local people. If we were looking for a metaphor we saw it within an hour of landing at the regional airport. A solitary elephant trundled its way down the white line at the centre of the nearby road as a departing jet airliner roared overhead – the traditional and the modern in one frame: FST as a model of community philanthropy in practice able to draw from both the local and the global.

Avila Kilmurray travelled to Guwahati to meet the Foundation for Social Transformation with Jenny Hodgson (GFCF) and Rita Thapa (Tewa, Nepal and GFCF board member) in September 2014.

Adapting YouthBank to South Africa’s West Coast

YouthBank has a huge potential in South Africa, says Jeremy Maarman, Grants Manager at West Coast Community Foundation. He tells the GFCF about the last two years of WCCF’s YouthBank programme, about its experiences so far, and where he sees this heading.


GFCF: WCCF completed its first year of YouthBank activities in 2013 – how did this differ from WCCF’s past activities with youth? What about YouthBank is different/interesting?

Jeremy Maarman: In the past WCCF focused mainly on funding youth projects through our Grants Program. This meant that the engagement with young people was really limited seeing that we did not interface directly with the youth. With YouthBank, the foundation was able to have a more hands-on approach to young people and also the relationship was more as equal partners. This was the biggest difference between our past activities with young people and the functioning of YouthBank. YouthBank is different because young people are not only the recipients of the development interventions but the YouthBank projects puts them in the position of active players in community development.


GFCF: Who were the youth that WCCF involved and what do you think they gained from their experience?

JM: The youth we identified were all from the Bergrivier Municipal area and we recruited them by engaging with the local municipality as well as the local high schools. The young people involved in YouthBank gained immense knowledge on community development and how they themselves can play a role in their communities. As part of the YouthBank project young people also gained knowledge about active citizenship and that the strength of a democracy lies in the responsibility that citizens take to not only keep public representatives accountable but also to themselves take ownership of development.


GFCF: Was it difficult to introduce the concept of philanthropy, particularly to young people? How has the broader community reacted?

JM: Philanthropy is a word that is not used in everyday vocabulary on the West Coast. Therefore WCCF introduced youth philanthropy by explaining what it “does” and not what the definition “is.” We realized that bringing development “words” (like youth philanthropy) to the communities is further alienating people from realizing that in actual fact African communities have been sharing their talents, skills and treasure with each other without ever using words like philanthropy to define their actions. The broader community are starting to see young people as real assets for development and are also beginning to realize that young people do become enthusiastic about and involved in projects if they are given the power to decide what they “can” and “want” to do.


GFCF: What were the lessons learned for WCCF during this first year? As WCCF expands YouthBank activities into two additional communities in 2014, will the programme be adapted at all?

JM: We learned a very critical lesson: trying to replicate projects as blueprints from other countries (like Westernized countries) is not the best strategy. We also decided to engage with school-age young people, similar to YouthBank projects in Europe, however we quickly found out that the South African education department are not very open to having non-profit organizations engaging with children via the school. The reason for that was that schools were just more focused on getting through the curriculum, and didn’t necessarily want to be seen as adding extra activities to the burden on students. We also found it very challenging to move the grants from YouthBank during that latter part of the year due to the school examination period – it became very difficult to get hold of the YouthBank members.  

The biggest adaptation of the YouthBank project in 2014 lies in the fact that our recruitment strategy is now focused on out-of-school youth who are unemployed. We are hopeful that this strategy will allow for more active participation by members. This is a very significant adaptation as it is also very different from how YouthBank is implemented in other parts of the world. We however believe that we need to be conscious of the local conditions and what works best for us in South Africa.


GFCF: How important has it been for WCCF to be connected, through Youth Bank International, to other community foundations running their own YouthBank programmes? How important has it been that it is a community foundation that has led this work?

JM: Connection with other community foundations running YouthBank in other parts of the world gave WCCF a frame of reference for what works and what does not. YouthBank International also makes WCCF part of a community of actors in youth philanthropy. The importance of having YouthBank implemented by a community foundation gives the community foundation another avenue through which we can make grants and also to explore how best to bring young people into philanthropy. This, I believe, is groundbreaking work for a community foundation as youth philanthropy still needs to be defined in a way that is understandable and applicable to different conditions and this can be a really exciting niche for community foundations.


GFCF: What do you think it is about YouthBank which resonates across communities in all regions of the world? Do you think the concept has the potential to spread in Southern Africa?

JM: The notion of young people as active players in community development resonates with all people in all cultures and countries because it is a globally held truth that youth are the leaders of the future; in order to sustain development it is important to bring young people into the fold as soon as possible. The transfer of leadership skills to young people is also a very important issue that is gaining recognition. Finally, the point is that organizations too often lose contact with young people because they don’t deal with them as equal partners, but merely as recipients/beneficiaries of development interventions. Such an approach leaves young people feeling apathetic and uninterested all over the world. I absolutely think that YouthBank has the potential to spread in Southern Africa as it is a project that puts young people in a position of power.

Community-based philanthropy and peacebuilding

Members of the Foundations for Peace Network were clear about their message to the wider world of independent philanthropy and development aid when they met in Istanbul over the weekend of 10th – 13th October. Representing a range of locally-based funders from Serbia, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Indonesia and Northern Ireland, they agreed that grounded community reach, knowledge and connections were essential for building the relationships that are necessary for effective peacebuilding strategies. Experience shows that grantmaking is an essential calling card, but trust and relationship building is also essential. The importance of mobilizing a diverse, and extensive, range of partners that can share their views about the specific challenges and opportunities in a contested society was also highlighted as an important remit. Conflict transformation needs uncomfortable questions to be asked in order to create space for different views and experiences. Community-based foundations can offer the safe space for this to happen.

The crucial area of mobilizing resources was not ignored, although it was accepted that this can be difficult in the midst of violent conflict when many external funders, and potential internal donors, might prefer to play it safe. From its experience of working in Sri Lanka, Ambika Satkunanathan from the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT) argued that this was the very reason that external funders should utilise the insight and local knowledge of organisations such as NTT. Funding partnerships, that might include the potential for a locally-based re-granting facility, were felt to be important.  Shaheen Anams, representing the Manusher Jonno Foundation in Bangladesh, made the point that organizations such as hers had a track record in transparency and accountability which could alleviate some donor fears.

Another message that was agreed on was the importance of offering more than the financial grant.  The added value work provided by community philanthropy in times of conflict ranged from cross-community meetings in order to challenge divisive stereotypes, to introducing new ideas from other societies that have successfully negotiated settlements. The Foundations for Peace Network members have already engaged in peer exchange visits and information sharing around the re-integration of victims/survivors of violence, a topic that is central to many of the members.  Proactive work to ensure that minority ethnic, and other marginalised groups, are given a chance to have their voices heard in the midst of conflict is also important, with Slavica Stojanovic describing the work of the Reconstruction Women’s Fund in Serbia.

The long-term nature of addressing the complex, and often sensitive, issues of peacebuilding was reflected in the final message emerging from the network deliberations; that of the importance of sustainability, which entails local buy-in to philanthropy. Although it was accepted that this will inevitably take time, the fact that community philanthropy was placed on the agenda was itself a powerful message. If good politics is cited as “the art of the possible”, then effective community philanthropy in societies emerging from conflict might well be described as the creative art of the impossible, where vision and values combine to take local ownership of making society better. But then as the Foundations for Peace members know all too well, the concept of the impossible is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

For further information on Foundations for Peace Network (including publications) please visit www.foundationsforpeace.org.

Latin America and the Caribbean: New report on philanthropy for social justice and peace

Read the report here

US peacebuilding theorist John Paul Lederach talks about achieving “critical yeast” in difficult circumstances, with this arguably being of greater importance than “critical mass.” If the recently circulated report on philanthropy for social justice and peace in Latin America and the Caribbean is to be believed that is exactly what exists: critical yeast. The 32 foundations located and working in the region that participated in this study are mainly public or community foundations. They display a depth of experience that ranges from a focus on women to an expertise in human rights and social activism. A shared concern is shown about the extent of inequalities, lamented by one participant as the “big gap between the haves and have nots”, across the continent. These are foundations that are themselves activist, participative and mission-driven in nature.

The Mobilization of Assets

The importance of mobilizing assets and resources for both grantmaking and organizational sustainability in order to achieve a critical mass of philanthropy is clearly recognized as essential. For most, however, talk of foundation endowments might be the ideal but is often seen as a utopian step too far. The pervasive influence of giving for charitable purposes through the Catholic Church continues to frame the general public understanding of philanthropy. The vogue for corporate social responsibility (CSR) has paralleled this more traditional giving through a proliferation of corporate foundations that promote “private social investment.” Neither of these philanthropic models are felt to address entrenched systemic and structural issues, although the work of community foundations in Mexico and Brazil to influence private sector and individual donors is noted. This work is described as being particularly important given the marked decline in both philanthropic and development aid resources from the Global North.

Efforts to design effective fund development strategies in order to mobilise resources that can support aspects of civil society that promote progressive social change in the region has resulted in some collaborative platforms and alliances. One such is Conmujeres, which involves the Women’s Funds working in Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia. However the challenge of fund development is still formidable.

“Part of a Process”

What is striking about many of the quotes from locally-based funders contained in the report is a certain sense of humility. There are no grandiose claims about being at the “cutting edge” of development (although many of the survey respondents are) or to assert strategic impact. Instead the emphasis is placed on collective impact between funders and their grantees, with the latter encouraged to be co-designers and protagonists of their own change. Working to ensure that individuals and groups have the power to have a say on issues that affect them is central to what funders for social justice are all about. This was explained by a women’s fund respondent: “We respect the decision of women and their organizations and empower them to define their priorities and use their resources accordingly.” This entails listening and responding to people rather than making them jump through hoops (however strategically crafted) by the foundations themselves.  Another foundation offered the view: “Our partners are a reflection of us: if there is a weakness in their political or external persona that affects us.” For this reason an emphasis is placed on building mutual trust and good communication between funders and their grantees, as well as encouraging peer learning amongst the grantees themselves.

Translating relationship building into effective organizational alliances is reported as being a harder ask. It often requires “paso a paso” (step by step), that can be particularly fraught when the local foundations themselves are struggling to achieve even medium-term sustainability.

“There is a Tremendous Need for Help”

The report, which was issued by the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, concludes with the warning that the relative scale of the community philanthropy institutions involved appears miniscule when measured against the issues that they are seeking to address.  There is the challenge of fund development but also the uneven spread of mission-driven funders across the region. Faced with the problem of diminishing external funding and a local philanthropic culture that tends to shy away from addressing social justice issues, foundations that are committed to social justice and peace have a major task in shifting the accustomed approaches. It is accepted by the study participants that there is an urgent need to hone their messages. As one foundation staff member argued: “Much of the time we are assessing what we do, but not necessarily communicating it, or creating narratives that would convey what we do.” This is an honest critique that may apply to other areas of the globe in addition to Latin American and the Caribbean. It is clear, however, that when the appropriate narrative is crafted – and work on this is ongoing – it will continue to assert the importance of activism and social participation. Community-based philanthropy for social justice and peace in Latin America and the Caribbean may well have its weaknesses, but equally it has the benefit of impressive programmatic experience and commitment that can usefully be shared with others.

For more information on the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, please visit their website at: www.p-sj.org.

A global line-up of community philanthropy in Cleveland!

It is a hundred years since the first community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation was established, the vision of lawyer and social entrepeneur, Frederick Goff. It is very fitting, therefore, that Cleveland is the location for the Council on Foundations (COF) 2014 Fall Conference for Community Foundations, which kicks off with pre-conference events from 17th – 19th October and the main conference from 19th – 22nd October.

The conference will reflect on 100 years of community foundation development and it will also look ahead to the next 100. With most of the growth of the community foundation field now taking place outside North America and Western Europe the conference has a strong international theme to it, with participants coming from 25 countries.

Some of the international highlights will include:

  • A welcome reception for international participants and US community foundation leaders on Sunday 19th October at 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm, hosted by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, COF and GFCF;
  • The launch of the Community Foundation Atlas, the most comprehensive dataset and online directory community foundations worldwide, a project led by the Cleveland Foundation in collaboration with WINGS, the Foundation Center, CENTRIS and the GFCF with grant support from the Mott Foundation. The big launch will take place at the opening plenary on Monday 20th October.
  • A session reflecting on “Global Perspectives for Local Action” from 2pm – 3:15pm on Monday 20th October, including a presentation from Anderson Giovani da Silva of Icom in Brazil.
  • An invitation-only session for GFCF partners and supporters to reflect on the state of the global community philanthropy field, its strengths, its vulnerabilities and opportunities for growth. The meeting will take place on Monday 20th October from 3:15pm – 5:15pm in Room 14 of the Cleveland Convention Center. For further information, please contact Wendy Richardson
  • A whistle-stop tour of global community philanthropy! Set your alarm for the breakfast plenary on Wednesday 22nd October from 7:30am – 9:30am which will consist of short “Ignite-style” presentations from community philanthropy practitioners all around the world, which will highlight the dynamic growth of the global field in recent years. Speakers will include Anderson Giovani da Silva (Icom, Brazil), Beata Hirt (Healthy City Community Foundation, Slovakia) Ansis Berzins (Valmiera Community Foundation, Latvia), Ian Bird (Community Foundations of Canada), Janet Mawiyoo (Kenya Community Development Foundation) and Avila Kilmurray (GFCF and former director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland). Jenny Hodgson (GFCF) will moderate the plenary and there will be opportunities for the audience to pose questions and join in the discussion.
  • Immediately following the plenary on Wednesday, GFCF board member and President and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Clotilde Dedecker, Chair of the Kilmani Project Foundation (Kenya), Irungu Houghton and Executive Director of Tewa – Nepal Women’s Fund will be in conversation in a breakout session: Assets, Capacities, Trust: Why Community Philanthropy Matters from Austin to Zagreb. Although the three organizations have evolved in very different contexts, they share much in terms of their aspirations and ways of working. Come and join the discussion, which will take place in Room 25C.

For information on conference programming, please visit the COF conference website

Social Good Brazil Summit live stream in English

Since 2012, the Social Good Brazil Program has annually organized a summit to debate and promote the use of technology and new media for social change. During the event, experts, entrepreneurs, opinion makers and great names of social innovation in Brazil and worldwide gather to discuss Social Good. The summit counts on the partnership of +Social Good, a global community formed by innovative people from more than 120 countries.

You are invited to join this global conversation watching the 2014 Social Good Brazil Summit via live stream! The seminar will be held in Florianópolis, Brazil, on 5th – 6th November 2014. For more information on the Summit itself or how to stay tuned from your own computer, please consult the Social Good Brazil website.