In mid-September, a group of community philanthropy practitioners and supporters gathered for a two-day meeting in the hill station of Shillong, capital of the state of Meghalaya, one of the “Seven Sister” states of Northeast India, which is connected to the rest of the country by a narrow corridor squeezed between Nepal and Bangladesh. This part of India is quite isolated from the rest of the country and it has seen decades of conflict and separatist insurgency. The meeting was organized by the Global Fund for Community Foundations and the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace Network and it was hosted by the Foundation for Social Transformation – enabling north east India.
In 2011, the GFCF convened a meeting of South Asian community philanthropy practitioners at Tewa Women’s Fund in Nepal. The aim of that meeting had been to begin a regional conversation about the state and practice of organized community philanthropy in South Asia, a field which is still quite scattered and disconnected. This time, the geographic net was extended even further: so, in addition to foundation representatives from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, there were also participants from southeast Asia – Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
We asked three participants, Gayatri Buragohain (Foundation for Social Transformation and our excellent local hosts), Nhu Ngo (LIN Center for Community Development, Vietnam), and Amelia Fauzia (Social Trust Fund, Indonesia) to tell us about their impressions of the meeting.
GFCF: Firstly, Gayatri, as the local hosts, how important was this convening on community philanthropy in Asia to the Foundation for Social Transformation?
Gayatri: Northeast India has suffered much over the last few decades due to on-going conflict, both in terms of economic and social development and in the recognition and protection of human rights. Although there are many local initiatives all over the region working to restore peace and support development, it is a big challenge for such groups or organizations to access resources that are needed to support and sustain their work. To fill this resource gap, in 2005 a group of people from the region got together to create the Foundation for Social Transformation as a local philanthropic organization.
Foundation for Social Transformation – enabling north east India [the organization’s full name] is the first philanthropic organization in the North East that has been started by local people and that is exclusively dedicated to giving grants for development projects in the region. However, the concept of ‘community philanthropy’ is quite new in this region. Although community giving has existed in the various different cultures of the region, with community dwellers pooling resources to help one of its members in distress, the concept of organized philanthropy is still at a nascent stage.
For the team of FST, the Asia Community Philanthropy Peer Learning and Exchange came at a time when we were seeking some much needed support. We were happy to organise the meeting on behalf of the GFCF and the PSJP Network and felt a great sense of pride that it was going to be held in our part of the world! We feel it helped us highlight the region on the global “map” of community philanthropy. It was also very helpful for us to see the larger picture of community philanthropy in Asia, meet with others and understand our place in this larger picture. It reconfirmed the need for an organization such as ours. Being located in a geographically less accessible place, and working on very different social context from mainland India, we do feel a little lonely and disconnected. More importantly, we have a very new team on board for whom the understanding on local philanthropy is new. This meeting helped us feel connected, inspired and gave much needed conceptual clarity on local philanthropy.
GFCF: Gayatri, Nhu and Amelia, what were you impressions of the meeting, in particular, in terms of the similarities and differences between different institutions and different countries as well as the current state of community philanthropy in Asia overall?
Gayatri: FST has been struggling to survive over the last few years due to a serious financial crunch. We started recovering towards the later part of 2012 following some major strategic changes in the way we function and raise funds. In this meeting we realized that the challenges we are facing are very similar to what many other community foundations are facing, especially when it comes to raising operational costs for the foundation. It also came out from our various conversations that the strategies other organizations have used or are considering are also very similar to what we have adopted or are considering. It was certainly clear that through networking, sharing of experiences, we can share best practices and not reinvent the wheel. A lot of discussions also resulted in identifying possible collaborations which we are very excited about. At the same time, however, we did feel that there were some ideological differences with some tactics of raising funds [in particular, in engaging corporates], but we feel that discussing those helped us to examine and reflect on different perspectives on resource mobilization.
Nhu: We were honoured to participate in such a convening that lets us exchange and learn from other institutions building philanthropy. Although we come from different countries, our issues and concerns are similar. This was my first meeting with other community philanthropy institutions in the region. I was so impressed by the way that we were all so open with each other about our successes, experiences and challenges. In one group, for example, we were five people from five different countries; when the first one finished talking about his institution’s goal and challenges, most of us said, “Same here!” Each different institution has different programmes for fundraising and different approaches to serving its local community.
Amelia: The meeting was very productive and useful for us all to learn from each other on some very practical issues related to community foundations. It is also a great opportunity for everyone to reflect on his or her own organization and to define where it “sits” in the working concept of the community foundation concept.
Previously, I had thought my organization, Social Trust Fund, had a rather uncommon or unusual form, but in Shillong, I found that my institution is not alone at all. There are many similarities in terms of activities, visions, and organizational characteristics (such as grantmaking and capacity building) among the different community foundation-type institutions in different countries. Culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, are all big issues that have caused particular problems across Asia. Because of this, it seems to me that these Asian-based community foundations try hard and are perhaps more outspoken in their missions of pluralism, inclusiveness, and targeting non-discriminative approaches and aims. Community philanthropy in Asia is not yet strong enough in terms of asset and numbers, but it is certainly rising as an important force. It matters because change or transformation should be led and done by the community itself.
Yes, I learnt the importance of grantmaking, community leadership, community money and cause, and capacity building within community foundations, which are very important for growing community foundations in Indonesia. Although the term “community foundation” is not familiar in Indonesia, there are similar types of institutions (although they tend to involve less grantmaking, community leadership and capacity building). I have many ideas as to how to build up my own institution (Social Trust Fund-STF) as well about how to seed and grow community foundations in Indonesia. …In terms of the national context, I think there is an urgent need to transform “traditional” foundations into more community foundation-like institutions.
GFCF: From our grantmaking experience over the last few years, we have observed that although community philanthropy institutions around the world may be quite diverse and operate in very different contexts, some of the particular aspects of their work that bring them together as a distinct cohort include an interest in a) building assets b) building agency of local institutions (often by strengthening them through small grants) and c) building trust across and within different parts of a community. What are your thoughts on this as far as your own institutions are concerned?
Gayatri: I agree with all three points you have mentioned. For FST, it is a top priority right now to build trust within the local community around the notion of civil society and also build assets within the community to support local progressive development projects. It has become important for two reasons. The first is that accessing traditional funds from foreign foundations and donors has become more and more difficult for local NGOs because of both a reduction in international funding and the introduction of new government rules and regulations that restrict access to such funding. Secondly, we feel it is important for people of the region to own the responsibility of development of the region and peace building in the region. There are many local institutions that are doing remarkable work for the region. They need support from the local people to sustain their work. Otherwise they will always find themselves flowing against the tide. So even for us, building assets, building agency of local institutions and building trust are key priorities – all of which need to take place within the framework of a rights based approach.
Nhu: LIN’s approach to community philanthropy indeed seeks to achieve all three of the objectives you mentioned:
(1) We build assets in our community by attracting and pooling resources from as many sources as possible to address the needs in our community.
(2) We build agency of local nonprofits not only via small grants but also by other means, including the creation of organizational development tools, peer working groups, workshops, introductions to skilled volunteers and information sharing.
(3) We are working to build trust across and within different parts of our community by being transparent about our activities, income and expenditures and proactively communicating what we are doing to as many people as possible. We are also trying to support our local non-profit partners that want to do the same.
Amelia: Yes, these three are very important to us. They are inter-related: trust, agency and assets. Social Trust Fund chooses to start from building trust. We are very new organization, almost two years old. Trust aspect is very important to us, and it is explicitly stated as name of our institution. Trust should be started from our internal institution (staff, board, activities) and then transformed to our wider programs and communities. Based on trust, we build agency and we build our assets.
Read more PJSP Coordinator, Chandrika Sahai’s blog here and Drishana Kalita’s (Drishana is a staff member at FST) here. Also on the PJSP Network’s website is an interview with Sumitra Mishra, Country Director, at iPartner India, who talks about the unique and important role of “intermediary” organisations and their “value added” in the process of philanthropic giving