From tinkering to transformation: why Africa needs a strong community philanthropy sector

The familiarity of the scene was both startling and sobering. A couple of months ago, I joined a field visit to a village in eastern Uganda, a stunningly green and mountainous part of the country, rich in coffee and banana trees. The experience transported me back twenty years to my first proper experience of Africa.

Back in 1992, fresh from university, I had spent a year in a village in the far southwestern tip of Uganda, teaching English (one text-book per ten students) and Health Science (which depended too much, unfortunately, on my rather inadequate chalkboard drawings). I learned how to crochet (and spent many an hour producing intricate seat covers in white and dazzling pink and discussing the relative merits of Uganda village life versus that in large British city with my crochet friends, the school’s secretary and the librarian), attended several weddings in far flung corners of Kabale’s surrounding hills, and wondered why tins of World Food Programme fish were being sold at our local shop. And all against the backdrop of booms of gunfire, that were the sounds of a civil war being fought over the border in Rwanda.

At school, each term a nurse would come to school to check if any of the girls were pregnant. If yes, they were promptly expelled. And, too often, bright students would disappear for weeks on end to return, after a severe bout of malaria, with less of a sparkle in their eyes and less ability in their schoolwork. I also got to see how various government policies played out at village level. Uganda’s World Bank-supported Structural Adjustment Programme was then in full flow: in the village this meant that the school closed and all teaching was halted as “ghost” teachers were weeded out from the pay roll. It was a mystifying process to all of us. In terms of elections, years of brutal civil war and a complete break-down in trust, had led the government to introduce a new, fully transparent system that dispensed with ballot boxes and involved voters actually lining up behind their chosen candidate so that there was no doubt as to the result (and on voting days, there also seemed to be more beer in circulation than usual). Most people seemed to feel it was a more credible process than closed, and often stuffed, ballots boxes.

But what I learnt more than anything during that year was how different the world looks from a position of poverty. Obviously I was a comparatively wealthy foreigner, but as the months went by, I got to understand and appreciate the forces – so often random and unstoppable – that shook and shaped the community: heavy rains wiping out a field or a home, cerebral malaria or AIDS taking away a breadwinner. The effect was to limit people’s expectations, and to foster a sense of passive fatalism, powerlessness, and ultimately acceptance. And beyond that, I learnt how the community saw the forces of “development” – as something wholly external, something “done to” a village, a project or initiative that might seem bewildering to those on the receiving end, but which would be accepted dutifully with the conclusion that “someone up there” must know what they are meant to be doing. 

And here we were two decades later, in a very similar looking village in Uganda. Although the overall story we were there to hear was a positive one (a small grant had helped the community to organize itself through a goat farming project, people who had never really spoken to each other were now working side by side and the women “had found their voice”), it was hard not to feel a sense of disappointment, and by extension, of something close to guilt. There was the deep curtsey of the woman who greeted us, eyes cast down, hand extended in the formal elbow-hold African handshake that is sign of respect although, sometimes, feels like supplication – that the outsiders must automatically be better or superior; the hint of gender dynamics that dictated that the woman stoop so low but not the men; the village school – that looked exactly like the one in which I had taught my more memorable classes on water-borne diseases – more suited to housing cattle than learning, and with a metal roof that would be the cause of an almighty and deafen clatter whenever it rained; stories told of children still being sent home from school because although primary education is free, there are still various hidden fees needing to be paid and parents still failing to manage this.

Don’t get me wrong, the overall trajectory of social development indicators in Uganda is generally positive. Under-five mortality rates are down from 178 per 1,000 to around 60, and there has been a significant reduction of mother to child transmission of HIV. What was striking, however, was how the overall conversation in the village had remained the same: the goat story was a bright spot in a broader scene of stagnation, poverty, and isolation. No one we spoke to could think of anyone from the village who had actually ever left to get work in the nearby town, let alone Kampala.

The term “brief-case NGO” is a well-used shorthand across Africa for the dodgier parts of a civil society sector that is not particularly well trusted. And indeed, in the village, the stereotype rang only too true: its only previous experience of an NGO had left a bad taste – promises had been made, but this was followed either by a change of heart or downright dishonesty on the part of the NGO which was never seen again.

Standing there, watching and listening, I felt a sense of sadness and shame. How could it be this way? I have spent the last twenty years studying, learning about, working in philanthropy and development – a fast-changing field where new ideas, approaches, the next “silver bullet” pop up with an astonishing frequency. Structural adjustment had come and gone. Then there were the Millennium Development Goals and, coming soon, the Sustainable Development Goals. In philanthropy we’ve seen grantmaking and non-grantmaking approaches, the emergence of “strategic” philanthropy, venture philanthropy, impact investing…  And yet, here in this one village, it struck me that fundamentally very little had really changed for people; that an isolated community had never been aware of – let alone been involved in – the lively and dynamic conversation that the rest of us in development have been having.

Of course, critiques of aid are not new and there are some particularly good and urgent ones around at the moment. In fact, it was a meeting to explore ways to demonstrate and advocate for more community-driven approaches to development that had brought me back to Uganda this year (the goats project was the result of a highly engaged grant made by the meeting organizers, Spark Microgrants). For two days, against the stunning backdrop of Mount Elgon, a group of NGOs and a couple of donors had mulled over the contradictions and complexities of development aid, all united in the belief that there had to be better ways to work and that each of the organizations present possessed some component of that “better way”.

I note, with no small sense of irony, that too many meetings in hotel conference rooms can only reinforce the sense of displacement I’ve already described. What is the alternative? (Ideas please! There’s a comments section below). But I am afraid I am going to have to take you to one more conference room before I finish here.

A few weeks’ before the Uganda visit, the GFCF had brought together a group of community philanthropy partners from across Africa in Arusha, Tanzania, to meet and learn from each other and to also to work together to better articulate a development approach that can be more reflective of the interests and abilities of the people it’s meant to serve. So we were joined by people from Egypt, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ethiopia, who each represent the various scattered and multi-lingual outposts of this emerging conversation about community philanthropy as an alternative development approach.GFCF Partners convening in Arusha, June 2015

One of the main topics of discussion was around a piece of research that the GFCF has been working on with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in South Africa. We were interested in testing the hypothesis – often aired but harder to demonstrate – that local grantmakers and foundations bring something distinct to the table; that, beyond money, local foundations can play all sorts of other roles, as mentors, connectors and long-term sources of support; that they can support and help build local organizations which can indeed bring in local people and not just leave the business of development to “experts” (I lost track of how many people had joined savings or self-help groups and contributed to village funds on our site visits to Limpopo for the research, but it was a phenomenal number); that when such local foundations are themselves fundraisers trying to address issues of their own long-term sustainability, such preoccupations get – consciously or unconsciously – passed on to their grantees; and that issues around decision-making and governance – and therefore power – become more important than ever. The kinds of things that might move a community from being passive recipients of development to engaged participants.

We wondered whether we could identify, together, some of that “magic mixture” and if so, whether we would be better able to say why, for example, local African foundations are better than external donors at doing things like reaching deep into communities in meaningful ways, in listening to local people (without the same complications that can often arise from visits from “outsider”) and in building trust. If that village in Uganda had had a ten-year relationship with a local grantmaking foundation (as in the case of the Makutano Development Association in Kenya) would the situation have looked any different?

It is clear that there has to be a fundamental shift in how development is done and it needs to offer a framework that connects people to people, ideas to ideas, concepts to concepts, vertically from communities to big donor institutions and, as importantly, horizontally across communities in all their diversity. Tinkering at the edges of development is fine but what is needed is big change.

We were fortunate to be joined at our meeting by the redoubtable Joyce Malombe, author of the first report commissioned by the World Bank back in 2000 to examine the potential role for community foundations to play in fostering community-driven development, and someone who can be relied upon to bring a conversation down to brass tacks. We asked Joyce to reflect on the current state and relevance of the African community philanthropy field. Here are some thoughts that stayed with me:

 

  • There is nothing more powerful than when people / communities know what it is they want, and can be supported in voicing those aspirations, and building the institutions that can deliver them.
  • That’s the magic so often missing from “development.” If communities are left behind, or out of the mix, development will never get anywhere
  • If we, as practitioners, believe the above, then we have no choice but to make it happen: we need to get better at talking about what we mean with clarity and confidence and at demonstrating what successful community development can look like.

 

Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director

Join our next webinar on Community Funds – a strategy for building philanthropy from the grassroots

Hear how two community foundations – one in South Africa and the other in the United States –are using community (affiliated) funds to build grassroots philanthropy as a development tool and to stay local.

The last two decades have seen a dramatic growth in the number of community foundation around the world, particularly in low and middle-income countries. A key feature of many community foundations is that of an endowment fund, which can provide both a buffer to communities in the case of sudden shocks, and a long-term resource which allows communities to plan for their futures. However, building an endowment is not an easy process: in low-trust environments it can be hard to convince people to give in perpetuity to a general “pot” of funds. And when you are trying to demonstrate the importance of local assets and local action in building vibrant and connected communities, it becomes very important to engage people where they are.

In recent years, local level funds have become an increasingly attractive and effective strategy for bringing community philanthropy “to the people” and for engaging communities in local level decision-making and asset development. In the United States, such funds are often called affiliate funds. The Nebraska Community Foundation uses the affiliated funds model as a way of building grassroots philanthropy as a tool for economic development. Elsewhere, the Kenya Community Development Foundation has supported the creation of a number of “community funds” for over a decade, in Russia, very local level “rural funds” have become a key feature of rural community foundations and the Haiti Community Foundation Initiative is also exploring the idea. And in South Africa, the West Coast Community Foundation has just launched its very first community fund.

 

Date / time

Monday 19th October at 3:30pm (British Summer Time, corresponding to 4:30pm in South Africa and 9:30am in Nebraska).

 

Speakers

Johanna Hendriks, CEO, West Coast Community Foundation (South Africa)

Jeff Yost, President and CEO, Nebraska Community Foundation (US)

 

Registration

Please register at the following link:

https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7550245561925480450

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. For any technical difficulties, please contact Wendy Richardson (wendy@globalfundcf.org).

New GFCF grants in China, Mongolia and India!

A grant for US $20,000 to the Guangdong Harmony Foundation will support a project to map the community foundation landscape in China, focusing on the characteristics, purposes and relationships with other sectors of this emerging set of institutions. Meanwhile, in Mongolia, a grant for US $15,000 will MONES, the Mongolian Women’s Fund to develop an online giving portal to promote local philanthropy. And in India, with a grant of US $10,000 Gramin Evam Nagar Vikas Parishad (GENVP) will be exploring the feasibility of creating a Dalit community foundation in Bihar.

A full list of GFCF grants made in 2014 and 2015 can be found here

Sri Lanka to South Africa: Reflections on my community philanthropy study visit

I joined the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT) in February 2015 as I was keen to work with grassroots initiatives in Sri Lanka. After working with the Trust for four months, I was offered this spectacular opportunity to meet with organizations and activists in South Africa that do similar types of work as NTT. The visit was organized by the GFCF and though I am not new to the subject of community development, community philanthropy is a new area for me. This is a subject that did not cross my path in my academic or career experience before. I equipped myself for this study visit with background reading about South Africa and some studies/research done on the subject of community philanthropy. Despite this groundwork, it was a surprising experience to see how “real” community philanthropy can be!

I was able to understand more about community philanthropy with every conversation I had. I heard many powerful stories of community philanthropy initiatives from the GFCF and learned about its support for such initiatives. In fact it surprised me when I understood how broad community philanthropy can be and how practical it is when I met with the Community Development Foundation Western Cape. They have creatively used seed funding from the GFCF to inspire community contributions for a small-scale environmental project, thus community “giving” is extensively defined. Witnessing and understanding the well-established systems in place for community philanthropy initiatives such as YouthBank and other community projects at the West Coast Community Foundation was equally impressive and inspiring. Meetings with other individuals broadened my definition of community philanthropy, as I heard about relevant academic research, and heard numerous simple and practical examples of the field in action.  Gayathri Gamage (C) with Beulah Fredericks of CDF Western Cape (L)

Inspired to be an advocator for community philanthropy, I plan (in fact have already started) to prepare the findings of this study visit as a paper, along with a step-by-step practical plan, that can be used by NTT and other grassroots initiatives in Sri Lanka, looking to add a community philanthropy lens to their work. This will not only help to contextualize my learning from this study visit, but will also allow us to introduce a new, strategic approach to development that empowers communities to make decisions about their own future. The importance of such a community-driven approach will also be examined through building an evidence-base around the work, which will be achieved through surveying our partners on the ground. I plan to continue updating this paper like a journal, adding the findings and good (replicable) practices of community philanthropy as I grow in this area of work. I found the materials developed by GFCF for community philanthropic organizations to be very helpful and believe they can be contextualized for replication in preparing the above plan.

I think that opportunities like this study visit broaden horizons and make us reflect. It helps one to understand the bigger picture, and to put into perspective what they do in their small communities / or in their countries. Engaging in discussions with colleagues doing similar types of work has helped me gain more confidence in my own work, and how I can best contribute to society. Hearing success and failure stories has especially motivated me to look for more innovative approaches to implement in my country. We should all take these opportunities to learn, share and reflect on our work: it is like this, I believe, that the case will really be made for community philanthropy, and the sector will continue to grow.

By: Gayathri Gamage, Programme Officer, Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust

Alliance magazine requests your input – Sustainable Development Goals survey

Sustainable Development Goals: How much do you know? What do you think the role of foundations should be? Where will they be most effective?

Alliance magazine’s special feature in December will investigate philanthropy’s role in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A proposed set of targets to ensure that global development serves the poorest people without creating new environmental problems or exacerbating climate change, the SDGs replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) once they expire at the end of the year.

The goals reflect the experience of the MDGS, which aimed to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, introduce universal primary education, reduce infant mortality, improve maternal health, and ensure environmental sustainability. The MDG process was designed to build partnerships for development among bilateral donors, government and private sector givers and businesses. Most countries have made progress toward the MDGs, but few achieved every one of them.

The SDGs are more comprehensive. The long list of goals starts with unmet millennium goals — beginning with “end poverty” and “end hunger.” The SDGs also include “well-being”, water and sanitation, “safe cities”, and reducing inequality. Goal 17, “mechanisms and partnerships toward achieving the goals”, is thought to resonate most among philanthropic institutions.

Unlike the MDGs, this is a universal agenda: all governments will be expected to adopt it and to report on its progress and achievements. The SDGs will drive policy-making and the bulk of official development assistance, as well as the work of development ministries and government departments around the world. Organizations and governments have been negotiating post-2015 plans and strategies for many years.

This Alliance survey is aimed to provide its readers an opportunity to express their views and their knowledge about the SDGs. The results will form a part of Alliance’s coverage of these issues in its December 2015 issue and help both writers and readers plan their own SDGs approach.

Please take a few minutes to respond to the questions at this link. Your answers will be completely confidential. Alliance will report the aggregated findings in December.