Community foundations that have an established track record in their community, with strong networks of partners and allies, are well-positioned to initiate community-level discussion and to support local engagement. But when dealing with such enormous, even daunting, issues such as environmental degradation and climate change, is there a role for local community philanthropy actors to bridge global concerns and local action? How can community philanthropy organizations encourage ordinary citizens to see themselves as having a stake in (traditionally specialist) issues like the environment?
These were just a few questions raised at a two-day meeting of GFCF partners, held at the Tewa Centre in Nepal in November 2014, which set out to explore the intersections between community philanthropy and the environment. Participants included organizations from 11 countries that had received GFCF environment grants in 2014, as well as additional community philanthropy practitioners from Bangladesh, China and Kenya; all keen to hear from colleagues grappling with similar issues in their respective corners of the globe.
The GFCF spoke with Daria Samarina, of the Social Initiatives Support Fund Sodeistvie, about her takeaways from the Nepal convening, and about how their organization is bringing issues around the environment to life in Perm, Russia.
GFCF: Could you tell us about your environment work?
Daria Samarina: The Social Initiatives Support Fund Sodeistvie has been working on a project called “Rural Ecological Inspectors”, which aims to strengthen the capacity of rural populations in the Perm region, enabling these communities to better address environmental security issues. In 2014, the project was supported by the GFCF and it is now being realized in the Chastinskiy District of the Perm region.
The project brought together citizens of all ages, and various ecological-themed events were organized: mass volunteer clean-ups of the Kama river coastline, development of new waste collection and separation systems, and revitalizing one of the Perm region’s oldest springs, among others. Additionally, the project has introduced the technology of public environmental control to rural areas. These efforts have been used by Sodeistvie as opportunities for developing ecological consciousness among the general public, and to encourage this a colourful brochure, leaflets and banners were created which deliver the simple message: there is nothing difficult about saving natural resources!
Some of the main results of the project have included: direct interaction with local authorities around environmental concerns; building assets from the local population; and, self-organized mass ecological actions including the continuation of environmental control raids at the residents’ will. Many citizens are now also putting a focus on raising environmental awareness among their neighbors.
GFCF: Was the environment an issue that was already on the radar of citizens in your community? If not, how has your organization overcome this?
DS: When we first arrived in the Chastinsky District with the presentation of this project, we were faced with a general lack of understanding from the population: what was this environmental programme and what would the results be? In order to address their concerns, we ran a series of information and training seminars. We made this as lively and interactive as possible so as not to bore the residents, and to capture their attention. Through these seminars we built up a strong circle of residents interested in raising environmental awareness – they turned out to be a great asset and assisted in expanding participants to the project by carrying out massive environmental actions.
For example, assisting in cleaning the coastal area of the Kama River received the greatest response from the population, as well as participating in the fun New Year’s “Snegomania” campaign. During Snegomania residents were encouraged, using only natural ingredients (no plastic!), to create and model their own snowmen. These creatures then decorated villages throughout the region on New Year’s Eve. What we have learned is that to increase the public’s interest in such serious issues as the environment you have to grab their attention, make the issue seem accessible, and be creative in your interventions!
GFCF: In Nepal what did you learn from the other participants – in terms of differences and similarities?
DS: Taking part in such an international event was an important step for our organizational development. The meeting in Nepal was about much more than ecological issues but about the global community philanthropy sector more widely, and it gave me the chance to meet new people; new friends from faraway parts of the world with diverse, enormously catchy ideas. The participants were all eager and willing to share, proof that our sector is always open to change and growth.
If I answer the question from the perspective of similarities and differences, it is worth mentioning that, in spite of the country of origin or issues covered, it seemed all of the organizations in the room faced similar problems. Challenges such as securing sustainable financing, building dialogues with the relevant authorities, and so on. With such a complex issue as the environment, it is somewhat more difficult to identify similar practice, as in every country there are very specific local conditions. That’s why each and every participant in Nepal brought with them something special and unique, and I think everyone took home a suitcase full of new practices and interesting contacts.
GFCF: What is it like for community foundations in Russia right now to try and build philanthropy?
DS: As a result of the current political situation in Russia, economic sanctions have been introduced. Such sanctions, of course, have negatively affected Russian businesses and the corporate sector is certainly facing some difficulties. Therefore philanthropy in Russia is a difficult topic at the moment, since corporations and companies are allocating almost no money to social programmes. But there is potential for philanthropy, particularly around working with individual donors who may be willing to contribute funding as well as other types of in-kind resources.
It seems to be easier for larger federal funds, often targeting specific population groups and working in urban centres, to expand their outreach and ultimately to find additional resources for their activities. They do this by using the media and by utilizing different forms of giving, like SMS donations. Whereas in the more rural regions, without access to major media sources for greater coverage, organizations are experiencing many difficulties in attracting funds. This is why we don’t put all the emphasis on money, but rather consider the word “resources” in a different way, thinking about the involvement of volunteers, the consulting advice we can provide, etc. As for Sodeistvie, we work a long way from the federal centre, and during this difficult period we have focused on collections in the form of humanitarian assistance: funds, books, toys, warm clothes, etc. – what people in remote rural areas are in need of.
GFCF: Have you read “The Case for Community Philanthropy” which identifies assets, capacities and trust to be the building blocks of community philanthropy? How does this framework resonate with your experience in the Perm region?
DS: Yes, I have read “The Case for Community Philanthropy” and I think that this concept directly resonates with our experience. The so-called “building blocks” for our organization are, first of all, trust and respect. The activities of the foundation are known throughout the areas in which we operate, and Sodeistvie holds quite a high reputation, our Director in particular. For many years, we have been providing free advice to non-profit organizations and initiative groups, helping to foster dialogue between “power, business, and non-profits” and to stimulate more work with regional authorities. This process has especially allowed for two-way trust and respect building and, without having done this, we would not have been able to introduce and implement such successful initiatives.