Community foundations from around the world shine in Cleveland

In 1914, Frederick Goff came up with the idea of an institutional mechanism for pooling local philanthropic resources under a single institutional framework which could be deployed to address a range of community needs in perpetuity: and so the first US community foundation was born. It was entirely appropriate, therefore that the 2014 Council on Foundations opted to celebrate this centennial by holding its Fall Community Foundation Conference in the place where it all began. And so it was that 1,400 delegates – including a sizeable international delegation from countries as far afield as Nepal, Brazil, Kenya and Hungary – gathered in Cleveland on 20th – 22nd October,

Today, there are more than 1,800 community foundations around the world. Much of the current growth of the field is taking place in developing and emerging markets contexts of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. At the conference, the recent growth of the community philanthropy field as a truly global phenomenon really hit home when the Community Foundation Atlas was formally launched. Leslie Dunford (Cleveland Foundation) and Nick Deychakiwsky (Charles Stewart Mott Foundation) unveiled this new online portal to the conference, showing how it the identities, locations, assets, roles and achievements of community foundations across the world, and which will constantly be changing as individual organization update and edit their information.

For community foundation practitioners coming to the Fall Conference for the first time from other parts of the world, the experience can be overwhelming and even alienating: the financial size of some U.S. community foundations puts them on a different scale altogether, as though they are a different breed of organization altogether. And so it was refreshing – indeed, inspiring – to listen to Ambassador James Joseph’s opening speech. Money was barely mentioned. Instead, he emphasized the need for strong local institutions that could build strong, equitable and cohesive communities. James Joseph was appointed as U.S. ambassador to South Africa in 1995, just after the county’s first free and democratic elections and, interestingly, at a time when the community foundation concept was being explored as a potential new model for community building in a multi-racial South Africa. His remarks to the Cleveland audience appeared to be shaped more by the influence of traditions of solidarity and reciprocity that exist across Africa, the concept of Ubuntu, and ideals of equity and inclusion than anything to do with business models or endowment-building. Indeed, he reminded the audience that “Charity is good, but justice is better,” challenging community foundations to be the authors of a new narrative of social justice.

There were a number of opportunities for international participants to share their work and experiences.  In a session “Assets, Capacities, Trust: Why Community Philanthropy Matters from Austin to Zagreb,” speakers from Kenya, Nepal (Tewa) and the United States (Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo), reflected on how community philanthropy, in all its diversity, can drive positive and lasting social change in very different contexts. Irungu Houghton, Chair of the Kilimani Project Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya enthusiastically warned his audience that his mind was overflowing with new ideas from the conference: he subsequently prepared a paper, “Six lessons on building community assets, capacities and trust over 2014.”

“You bet they are!” Avila on stage in ClevelandPerhaps the highlight of the week for the GFCF was the plenary on the final morning that focused on the global evolution of the community foundation field. Practitioners from Brazil, Canada, Latvia, Northern Ireland, Kenya and Slovakia each told their story, speaking to slides that showed the range and extent of their work. Avila Kilmurray, formerly with the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and now with the GFCF, and speaking in her own inimitable (and slightly provocative) way offered examples from different parts of the world – including from northeast India and a Bedouin community in Egypt among others. She asked – rhetorically, it turned out – whether these were community philanthropy, answering her own question with a resounding “You bet they are!” Beata Hirt, from Healthy City Community Foundation in Slovakia, expressed her gratitude for the “Superheroes” from various US and Canadian community foundations that had helped her navigate the process of establishing the first community foundation in continent Europe 20 years ago. And Janet Mawiyoo, from the Kenya Community Development Foundation, brought home quite how different local contexts can be when she explained that the reason that a Masaai community had decided to raise local resources to build a local school was because their children were being attacked by lions on their way to a further school. The plenary in its entirety can be viewed online.

Check out the Twitter highlights from the conference.

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