This piece originally appeared on the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation website.
It seems incongruous to work in the community philanthropy field when your head is in the clouds, yet that is what Justin Welch does. Costa Rica’s cloud forests drew him to Monteverde, but what keeps him there is the opportunity to address challenges facing the region’s residents and the environment.
Located in northwest Costa Rica, Monteverde appeared on the international radar screen after grassroots efforts succeeded in protecting what is now the Arenal Monteverde Protected Area. It’s the largest private reserve complex in Central America and is known worldwide for its vast biodiversity. “It seems like everybody knows about us even if they haven’t been here,” said Welch, Executive Director of the Monteverde Community Fund (MCF). “We are way up in the back woods, where it’s small and isolated, but are notably famous worldwide.”
Still, many eco-tourists make the trek to hear croaking frogs along streams, watch hummingbirds pollinate flowers and feel the trade winds while enveloped in mist. About 150,000 visitors annually outnumber the 6,000 residents, says Welch, an environmental science and policy specialist. He studied at the University of Georgia before moving to Costa Rica in 2006. Initially, Welch led the Water Resources Program and later the Community Programs Department at the Monteverde Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports on-site education, research and local extension programs.
MCF was a logical outgrowth of the Institute, he said, because there was a need for an organization to pool resources from and for the region to address its challenges. Created in 2012, the small philanthropic institution unites funders and community members. Its leaders work to engage and empower residents and organizations to work together in a democratic way to define their region’s development and conservation goals, Welch said. Among its services and programs, MCF offers the following:
- The Monteverde Travelers’ Philanthropy Program, which partners with the tourism industry and its customers to secure financial donations and volunteers’ time to improve the community’s well-being;
- The Small Grants Program, which awards mini-grants, typically $4,000 each, to local groups and organizations to fund projects in areas such as environment, social and cultural development, environmental educationand economic diversification;
- The Technical Assistance Program, which provides hands-on staff assistance and advising for local community-based organizations about ways to create, develop and finance community and environmental projects; and
- Workshops and courses for staff and volunteers of nonprofits on topics such as project management, community organizing and grant writing to strengthen their organizations overall.
MCF raises the money needed for operational support and an annual grantmaking budget of approximately $22,000 through the Travelers’ Philanthropy Program, as well as donors’ circles, which are composed of individuals with shared funding interests who combine their giving for greater impact. The institution’s organizational structure also is rooted in the community foundation concept — pooling local resources to meet local needs.
In fact, the GFCF, a Mott grantee, was an early supporter of MCF. So was the Inter-American Foundation, an independent U.S. government agency, that provides direct development assistance to non-profit organizations working in Latin America and the Caribbean. The GFCF provided an initial grant in 2012 to help fund a staff visit to South Africa as a learning opportunity with community-based philanthropy organizations from Vietnam, Romania and elsewhere. That first grant also supported development of the Travelers’ Philanthropy Program and printed materials for the field. MCF is a current grantee under GFCF’s newer Community Philanthropy and the Environment Programme, which is a Mott-funded project, said Jenny Hodgson, GFCF executive director.
According to Hodgson, MCF was created from a unique set of circumstances to become a community philanthropy institution that takes a broad view of “assets.” For example, MCF counts the region’s physical beauty and diversity of flora and fauna as one of its greatest assets. Consequently, MCF intentionally works to steward and preserve these assets in much the same way as cash-based endowment funds are managed and stewarded. Additionally, Hodgson said, MCF defines “community” broadly to include both permanent residents and visitors. That way, all who benefit from the region’s assets can be encouraged to donate to its sustainability. “The Monteverde Community Fund is a great example of a new kind of hybrid institution in a country that is neither super rich nor extremely poor. It is looking to bridge the sometimes competing interests of economic growth, social development and environmental conservation,” Hodgson said.
Throughout its work, MCF emphasizes the value of tangible impact. For example, a grant made from its Environmental Fund supported engineers to work with parents, staff and students at a public high school to improve the way wastewater is treated at the school’s dairy and pig farm, and to generate methane gas as a fuel source for the school’s food services program, Welch said. However, as the local economy shifts away from its primary dependence upon agriculture to a more tourism-based economy, its community leaders want to ensure the new economy contains enough diversity to be sustainable, he said. In response, the “Smart Economy Fund” was created within MCF’s Small Grants Program to support projects focused on linking, strengthening and diversifying local trades, among other areas.
“We’ve seen a lot of creative ideas come and go here, but I’d love for the Monteverde Community Fund to be a permanent fixture in the region,” Welch said. “Because we pool resources, some people think we’re competing with local groups for the same funds, but that’s not so. We are purposely generating new resources to benefit the greater good over the long term.”