“If you want to get far, travel together”: Community philanthropy tackles environmental issues in Mexico

How can philanthropic support for grassroots social and environmental action be intensified and improved across Mexico? This was the big question on the minds of the nearly forty participants, representing twenty-five different community and private foundations, who assembled in Mexico City in December 2014. The primary outcome of the two-day meeting was an agreement to work together on a common agenda moving forward, which will be coordinated by a committee of philanthropic organizations and which will welcome the participation of other interested organizations and networks. Specifically, looking ahead, those present agreed to cooperate around: exchanging information, developing the field, promoting grassroots philanthropy, and targeted research and action. The GFCF spoke with Artemisa Castro Félix of the Fondo Acción Solidaria, A. C. and Luis Ruíz of the Fundación Comunitaria Oaxaca to find out more.

GFCF: You have identified grassroots groups as being essential if real, sustainable development is to happen in Mexico, but one challenge identified is that there is a dearth of information on Mexican grassroots philanthropy. How do you therefore begin to make the case for this set of organizations as important social change agents, largely in the absence of quantitative proof of their effectiveness?

We need to understand what grassroots groups do and can do. Quantitative proof of their effectiveness is still so difficult to come by because this is unclear. While groups can do a lot, they also learn, grow, change, educate as they move along and this impact can get buried or may be impossible to see. The first thing we need to do is to carefully collect information about what they are doing and where the successes are, and then to use this information to begin to explore the quantitative aspects of the work.

For us, the key question is: “Do we know what we are measuring – what changes do communities need to experience, in order to be more sustainable?” Most of the information that we can collect is qualitative, but it doesn´t necessarily mean that is not useful. We have made an impact evaluation of our work with an external firm, and the results show that grassroots philanthropy does contribute to triggering social change, and that communities and grassroots are real social change agents within their communities and regions. Grassroots funding is a powerful force for change, especially when victories at the local level “trickle up” to join and to build larger movements. The positive effects of empowered communities cannot be understated. Communities with strong social fabric are resilient, creative, and equipped to help their neighbors make gains toward sustainability. Empowered communities also demand accountability and the better use of resources from their government.

 

GFCF: What do local philanthropic traditions or systems of self-help look like at the community level in Mexico? Do they provide a basis from which to build?

Our sense is that local philanthropic traditions are very informal, but that neighbours and family do certainly address issues collectively. We come together around crisis but, importantly, we also tend to be there for each other on a daily basis. This does not include much money – people tend to equate giving money with the Catholic Church – but, on the other hand, includes food, moral support, transportation, etc. Addressing problems as communities is very normal: we tend to eat and spend time together, and this is a strong foundation on which to strengthen our philanthropic traditions. On the other hand, economic turbulence, violence and insecurity have been very hard on communities.

 

GFCF: In general, is the environment a topic which is on the radar of average citizens, or are Mexican civil society organizations (including community foundations and grassroots groups) having to push this agenda?

“The environment” is generally seen as low on the list of priorities we are seeking to solve in Mexico as a society. Our sector has been very successful in raising awareness, however, because we see the environment as central to all issues. Civil society organizations have done a lot of work already related to natural resource conservation. Lately, the environment has become more integrated into the respective agendas of the government, schools, corporations, etc. This does not, however, mean that the intentions and priorities of all these different actors are clear.

After our meeting last December with a group of community and corporate foundations, we can see that a lot of them talk about the need for sustainability, but only a few of them really know how to approach the issue. We must recognize that this is a huge challenge. Our next step is to share among this group all of the information, tools, strategies, etc. that help us to promote environmental conservation among the communities we work with.

GFCF: Could you tell us a bit more about how Mexican community foundations plan to build philanthropy around social/environmental issues, rather than just channelling resources to social/environmental issues?

We emerged from the meeting with a common agenda that can strengthen our individual institutions to address these challenges. Developing such a concrete, shared agenda, was a new experience for us, and it was a wonderful discussion! We may not all think exactly the same but there are some strong agreements moving forward:  building a socio-environmental field that currently doesn’t exist; collecting data and information on current activities; improving the fiscal environment in which most of these organizations work; and, increasing the support available to grassroots organizations. We need to build that agenda together with communities as well as at the grassroots, in order to build long-term partnerships in which the main outcome would be the construction of a solid social capital – allowing for future action and for communities to take care of their own natural resources.

 

 

GFCF: The GFCF has often looked at the notion of building trust and of the role of community foundations in trying to build it within and across communities. Does this resonate, particularly in relation to your experience working with grassroots groups?

Yes, absolutely! It is the number one thing that we have to build from. Marginalized people and communities generally don’t receive or benefit from trust in their dealings with other actors – that’s what makes us different.

GFCF: Community foundations in Mexico have a strong tradition of working together, exchanging knowledge, etc. Why was this particular issue identified as one which would benefit from coordinated action?

As organized civil society, we have a history of working together but we are really just beginning to think through how to strengthen the community philanthropy field collectively. We believe that just as we promote our own work, cooperation brings with it a higher possibility of success for everyone. There is a saying: “If you want to get somewhere fast, travel alone, but if you want to get far, travel together.” Building confidence and trust among the sector is therefore very important; we have to learn to work together to achieve long-term success, for the good of everyone and for the conservation of our resources.

 

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