Aga Khan highlights need for strengthened global civil society in Ottawa speech

“Increasingly, I believe, the voices of civil society are voices for change – where change has been overdue. They have been voices of hope for people living in fear,” These are the words of His Highness the Aga Khan in a speech to the Canadian Parliament on February 27th 2014, in which he expressed clearly, and in personal terms, many of the values that underpin the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.

He spoke about the pace of change in the world alongside the opportunities and challenges that this brings.  Addressing the Joint Session of Canadian Parliament the Aga Khan made reference to the constitutional reforms adopted by 37 countries over the past decade, with a further 12 countries still engaged in this work in progress.  This has thrown down a gauntlet to good governance and has highlighted the primacy of the task of transforming countries of conflict into countries of opportunity.

The Aga Khan also addressed the divisions and tensions within and between faith beliefs in the world today. Speaking about the contribution of Muslim culture and historical achievement, he emphasised the diversity that exists within the ummah – the entirety of Muslim communities around the world.  Arguing that faith should deepen concern for the world’s environment and for the well-being of humanity, the Aga Khan described the work of the Aga Khan Development Network which is informed by the age old Islamic ethic of the elimination of poverty; access to education and social peace in a pluralist environment.   A focus of hope in translating this ethic into action was identified as the voices of civil society, particularly through the work of non-profit organizations that are working both within, and between, countries around the world.

The Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. is a member of the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy

Today’s charity, tomorrow’s philanthropy

So says the newly established Bermuda Community Foundation which was launched in January 2014 with the aim of building endowments for local philanthropy alongside working to help people to give effectively and efficiently. This is a community foundation for an island that is just 26 square miles, with a population of just over 64,900. However, the statistics suggest that 19% of the population live below the poverty line notwithstanding the impressive office buildings, and shining name plates, that house many well-known Fortune 500 companies.

It is a tribute to the industrious work of the Board of Trustees that the Bermuda Community Foundation opened its doors with four Donor Advised Funds; two Designated Funds; three Agency Funds to support local organizations; four Field of Interest Funds; five named Community Funds established by the Bermuda Community Foundation with open contributions from the local community; and an Endowed Fund with founding investments from Atlantic Philanthropies and RenaissanceRe. The overall venture has been proactively supported by Atlantic Philanthropies that is currently in spend down mode in recognition of its long-term relationship with Bermuda.

The dynamic Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of the Bermuda Community Foundation, Myra Virgil, pointed out that the ambition of the Community Foundation is to achieve the “long-term strengthening and sustainability of Bermuda’s non-profit sector.”  Despite the tidy white-roofed villas and the stunning pink-sand beaches there are multiple issues of deprivation and racial inequities that the local non-profit sector continue to grapple with. Early childhood development is one priority that has been identified. Peter Durhager, Chairperson of the Community Foundation adds that “many charities are engaged in a daily financial struggle to continue to offer their services and some are shutting down completely when Bermuda needs them most.” He recognizes that the emphasis on growing an endowment can work towards mitigating the impact of future uncertainty given that it is essential to have a vibrant, non-profit sector in the interests of community solidarity.

The Bermuda Community Foundation working strapline – “Dedicated to the good of Bermuda forever” – clearly needs to be translated into practice.  However, a carefully crafted initiative has been launched after a considerable investment in local consultation and identification of potential donors.  The fair winds of Atlantic Philanthropies support also made for good conditions of sail. All in all a successful launch of a welcome venture!

Taking a stand while finding a position: Africa’s evolving philanthropic discourse

Africa, as we are often told, is rising. The continent has been dubbed the “next economic powerhouse”, its countries “lions on the move” which include six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies. With this growth has come the arrival of a new set of African foundations on the philanthropic scene, which is becoming both more vibrant and more diverse. New networks – such as the African Grantmakers Network and the African Philanthropy Forum – have also emerged to support the fast-growing sector.

The rapid changes in the African philanthropy scene were brought home to me recently when I attended the East Africa Grantmakers Association conference in Mombasa, Kenya. I had last attended an EAAG conference in 2010 in Nairobi. At the time I was struck by how the conference was something of a mixed bag of different, often un-connected, pieces, the product of an emerging philanthropic sector which was still finding its voice, identity – probably even its constituents. So there was a fundraising master class probably more suited to NGOs than grantmakers or foundations, for example. And most of the examples of African philanthropy that were highlighted were individual, community-level, acts of giving and kindness: all very heart-warming and a good reminder of Africa’s strong traditions of social solidarity, but hard to locate in the framework of a regional network of institutional grantmakers. Overall, with the exception of the inspiring story of the Kenyan Red Cross, which had come through a particularly dark chapter in its existence, marked by scandal and financial woes and had forged a new path to financial sustainability, there was very little discussion of the “big” strategic issues for African philanthropy and its potential to develop a collective voice, harness and deploy resources and exercise influence in the social and economic development spheres.

Fast forward three years and this year’s EAAG conference was back Kenya, this time Mombasa. The theme of the conference was “Philanthropy and Business: is it business unusual?” This time, the tenor of the conversation felt very different, with the emphasis firmly on business models and approaches – impact investing, venture philanthropy, corporate social investment etc. Certainly, there were some interesting questions raised about the need for new ways of thinking that marked a departure from the project-funding paradigm that has characterized the delivery of so much external development aid and which has forced Africa’s civil society to exist on a hand to mouth existence, constantly having to respond to the changing interests of external donors. The case of the Kagiso Trust (South Africa), for example, offered a powerful example of the bold and strategic reinvention of itself that it embarked on 15 years ago when it transformed from being a re-granting intermediary for international donors during the apartheid years to organization which funds its own programmes with dividends generated by its own investment company.

And yet, while I fully accept that there is always room for greater efficient, transparency in the philanthropic sector, I did begin to wonder whether, by focusing entirely on the business side of things, we were missing out on some big and important questions about the role and responsibilities of the African philanthropic sector in grappling with big issues around poverty, equity and rights and in empowering communities to act in in the face of conflicting government or corporate interests.

Philanthropy, or the use of private resources for public good, has and will always been fraught with tensions and contradictions. Can resources earned in regressive ways (low wages or even exploitation of its workers, deals cut in corrupt ways that bypass regulation or legislation etc.) ever really achieve progressive social change? Can corporate philanthropy ever really be more than an arm of a company’s marketing and public relations departments? Concerns about philanthropy as a strategy for corporate “greenwashing”, for example, are particularly pertinent in Africa right now because so much of its economic growth is commodity driven which means minerals extracted from ground under which people live, communities displaced and environmental impacts.

At an excellent panel on social justice philanthropy which was, alas, relegated to a break-out session, Kaari Murungi (co-founder of the Urgent Action Fund for Women – Africa) raised important questions that offered rather a stark counter-narrative to tone of the larger plenary discussions around the need for grantmakers to “step up” to the standards of business in their work. “What shapes in justice and what perpetuates it?” she asked. “In order to understand social injustice, we need to understand power, how it is acquired, how it is used and who stands to benefit.” She lamented the lack of resources and research to enable social justice activists to engage corporates, particularly extractive industries, around issues such as land ownership (and by implication urged an essential role for philanthropy in supporting such efforts). And she highlighted the worrying “democratic deficit” across much of Africa, which created a culture of impunity and allowed those with resources to do anything and get away with it. This was particularly true in the corporate sector, where levels of accountability and good governance were often very low. And yet, in the context of the overall conference, this “side-conversation” (of, it has to be said, the already converted) seemed both extremely important and yet out of kilter with the overall narrative of the conference.

As the African philanthropy sector enters a period of rapid growth, with new players and new resources emerging, some level of tension and contradiction is inevitable – and healthy – not least because different kinds of philanthropic money come shaped by different visions and theories of change.

Kingsley Mucheke, Jane Weru The Akiba Mashinani Trust, Kenya

I very much believe in the power of networks, associations and philanthropy support organizations in helping to advance and shape both the philanthropic discourse and strengthen the capacities of constituents. This is a collective task for all of us who are engaged in the philanthropy field wherever we are. Some closing thoughts on how we do this.

Take a stand: While we wait for the benefits of Africa’s economic growth to trickle down beyond a handful of elites and a growing middle class, issues of poverty and inequity are ever-present. Philanthropy offers a unique position from which to take risks, seed innovation and ensure the voice of a vibrant civil society to hold governments and big corporates to account. Yes, there are new opportunities for African foundations and NGOs to rethink their business model and models like the Kagiso Trust offer great learning, but business solutions in terms of how development is actually done may not always be the most effective. While civil society may want to look for lessons from the business sector, new business-oriented foundations can also look to the work of the African Women’s Development Fund or the Kenya Community Development Foundation for examples of years of good and effective community and economic development work.

Engage in and encourage debates around language so that it helps to connect dots, denote concrete meaning and move us beyond the abstract or the vague: Over the last couple of years, a group of donor organizations have been engaged in a consultation and reflection process aimed at building up a case for community philanthropy as a practice that could enhance development outcomes. The definition of community philanthropy that has emerged out of this process rests on three cornerstones: assets, capacities and trust. In July, two Kenyans became the first winners of the Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize: in awarding the prize, the judges were all impressed by the explicit focus of Jane (Weru) and Kingsley (Mucheke) of the Akiba Mashinani Trust on the most marginalized community in Kenya – landless slum dwellers – and “by the way they have developed a philanthropic mechanism to support transformational efforts by that community”. Jane and Kingsley (who, by the way, wrote the most wonderful blog about his experience) did not nominate themselves: in fact, before they travelled to St Petersburg, Russia, to collect their prize at the Emerging Societies, Emerging Philanthropies Forum, it did not seem that they had ever seen their own work in the context of “doing philanthropy”, so much as “receiving philanthropy” (from foundations that had invested in their work). And yet it so clearly conforms to a form of community philanthropy that is all about building up local assets, capacities and trust. (I’d also be interested to know more about the definition of “community philanthropy” that was used in the EAAG Philanthropy Prize process).

Jenny Hodgson

Support organizations offer great roadmap for community foundation field

This is the latest in an occasional series by the Mott Foundation about the community foundation field and the Mott Foundation’s role in supporting and strengthening it. The series reports on what is occurring in Mott’s major geographic focus areas — Central/Eastern Europe and Russia, South Africa, and the U.S. — as well as providing information about how the field is expanding globally. Mott’s goal is to inform the public about the latest trends in the community foundation field in advance of its 100th anniversary year in 2014.

Felecia Jones is quick to express appreciation for the support organizations in her professional field. Without them, she says, it would be difficult for staff at the Black Belt Community Foundation to tap the expertise and experiences of a variety of grantmakers around the country — and even the world.

“Our work would only mirror that of the other foundations located near us; those we had direct access to,” said Jones, executive director of the Selma, Alabama-based community foundation named for the region’s rich, black topsoil.

Fortunately — through interactions with the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), the Community Foundation Leadership Team of the Council on Foundation (COF), and the Southeastern Council of Foundations (SECF) — she has met other leaders in the field, shared ideas, and learned from them, Jones says.

Felecia Jones, BBCF, with Hafiz Jamu from Mozambique, Nairobi


Today, there are community foundation support organizations on six continents. While support organizations use a variety of names — associations, councils, federations, forums, networks, partnerships, etc. — they share similar characteristics.
Community foundation support organizations:

  • promote and professionalize the field locally, nationally and globally;
  • develop, collect and distribute resource materials for the field;
  • provide peer-to-peer networking and learning opportunities through conferences, workshops, study visits, electronic and social media channels; and
  • advocate for an environment that is fiscally and legally supportive for the field.

Many of these organizations receive support through the Mott Foundation’s Civil Society program, which has as its mission to: “strengthen philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as vital vehicles for increasing civic engagement and improving communities and societies.”

By providing services for community foundations as a field, support organizations — whether statewide, regional, national or global — offer opportunities that likely wouldn’t be available or affordable for individual institutions, Jones says.

Had it not been for serving on a panel together at a workshop planned by a support organization, Jones says, she never would have met Janet Naumi Mawiyoo. She is chief executive officer of the Kenya Community Development Foundation, which receives Mott support for its continentwide Africa Grantmakers Network.


The Grand Rapids Community Foundation commissioned Ed Wong-Ligda to create this mural called “Community Garden.”

“Even though Janet is in Nairobi and I am in Selma, my grantmaking story is more similar to hers than that of some other community foundations in the U.S. because of the types of poor and rural communities in which we work,” Jones said. “We have a whole lot in common and can share with each other what works and what doesn’t. I cherish our relationship.”

The three community foundation support organizations that Jones is affiliated with are but a few of the dozens that exist. Individually and collectively, these organizations — such as SECF, which serves 11 states — strengthen and unify the community foundation field at home and around the world. These organizations also make it possible for small-staffed community foundations to share professional services and reduce their operating costs.

The Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) was created in 1972 and serves more than 350 foundations in Michigan today, including community foundations. It has received $8.4 million in Mott support since 1976. CMF is praised for helping cut expenses almost 50 percent collectively for many smaller community foundations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by combining back-end office duties such as accounting, data processing, etc.

Spending less on overhead makes more money available to meet community needs, says Diana R. Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GFCF).

Established in 1922 as the first community foundation in the state, GRCF has assets of $250 million and a 2012 grantmaking budget of $11 million. Sieger, who also is a member of COF’s board of directors and a past chairperson of CMF, says she has experienced the value of support organizations firsthand. She cited CMF’s statewide branding initiative in the late 1990s and early 2000 as an example.

After community foundations throughout Michigan started using the same tagline: “For good. For ever.,” the field gained a unified identity, she says, and individual institutions noticed a substantial increase in the way residents took ownership for “their” local foundation. The campaign was so effective, Sieger says, it went national and had similar success because residents in other states started identifying and connecting with their local community foundation in ways they hadn’t before.

The first formal community foundation support organization in the U.S. was created in 1949 and evolved into COF. Today, it serves as a membership association for a variety of foundation types — community, corporate, family, private and independent. COF, based in Arlington, Va., provides targeted services for the nation’s approximate 740 community foundations through its Community Foundation Services program. COF is a longtime Mott grantee and has received $11.7 million in Mott support since 1967.

Support organizations working outside the U.S., including those in post-Soviet countries in Central/Eastern Europe, are also Mott grantees. Many specifically serve community foundations; others serve several types of foundations.

Such organizations have advocated effectively for national tax law changes. For example, in addition to securing tax incentives for citizens who donate to nonprofit groups, support organizations in Bulgaria, and elsewhere, were successful in their efforts to eliminate taxes on contributions made by cell phone text messages. This is a popular way to donate throughout the region, especially following natural disasters. The end result is more money going straight to the causes, leaders say.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the London-based Community Foundation Network (CFN) also seeks ways to increase the amount of funds directed to local grantmakers from individuals, corporations and government. The national membership association serves 55 community foundations that cover all of Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. The network’s partnership with the United Kingdom’s Office for Civil Society is both practical and strategic, says Stephen Hammersley, CFN’s chief executive.

Stephen Hammersly, Community Foundation Network, UKThe network, which works to highlight and expand giving initiatives United Kingdom-wide, recently helped community foundations collectively secure more than $200 million (£130 million) in government funds through a $75-million endowment challenge that matched money raised from private sources and a $125-million government-funded grassroots grants program. The result was pots of money for many communities so they can address today’s needs and also those in the future, Hammersley says.

Globally, where there are community foundation support organizations — Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, the U.S. and elsewhere — there is growth in the field. In fact, having support organizations present is “the best predictor of new growth” in the community foundation field, according to research collected for the WINGS 2010 Global Status Report on Community Foundations, says Barry Knight, executive director of CENTRIS (The Centre for Research and Innovation in Social Policy Ltd) in the United Kingdom. He is an adviser for the South Africa-based GFCF, which is an international support organization, grassroots grantmaker and Mott grantee. Knight also has authored and collaborated on many reports, including the 2012 publication, The Value of Community Philanthropy, which was funded primarily by Mott and the Aga Khan Foundation USA.

With the growth of community foundations worldwide, he says, there has come a drive for standardization, which is often undertaken or overseen by support organizations. For example, in Germany, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and elsewhere, the community foundation field has created certifications akin to seals of approval. This recognition is earned after organizations meet standards in specific areas, such as governance structure, resource development, stewardship and accountability, grantmaking, community leadership, donor relations, and communications.

Having national standards is necessary and often a point of pride for individual community foundations and their donors, says Sieger of Grand Rapids.

“Standards give assurances that funds are not being distributed by someone sitting in a room saying, ‘I like this organization, but I don’t like that one. This one gets money, but that one doesn’t,’” Sieger said. “Standards show citizens that community foundations are addressing key community needs, which were identified in an unbiased way.”

The availability of national standards also has meant newer community foundations did not need to reinvent the wheel, says Jones of Alabama.

“Support organizations gave us a great roadmap for how to create a community foundation the right way from the very start,” she said. “If they hadn’t worked with the field to develop national standards for us to follow, the staff here at the Black Belt Community Foundation would have been getting a lot of things wrong these past eight years.”

For more information on the Mott Foundation visit their website at

Foundations Partner to Promote Report on Community Philanthropy in Washington DC

On March 1st 2012, the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (AKF USA) and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (Mott Foundation) hosted an event with 45 philanthropy experts and global civil society representatives at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC to officially release a new report, entitled The Value of Community Philanthropy: Results of a Consultation. Participants engaged in a lively discussion at the Aspen Institute about how community philanthropy can be a powerful vehicle for strengthening civil society and enhancing aid effectiveness.

The jointly released report makes the case that increasing local ownership and accountability leads to stronger communities and should be a main focus of development aid practitioners. Barry Knight, CENTRIS Consultant and Facilitator and the report’s author, noted that it is very timely as civil society groups awaken around the world. “I think we are now in the midst of a philanthropic revolution. People on modest incomes, and in fact, typically classified as poor, are stepping forward because they want to take a stake in their societies. The report is an opportunity for development practitioners to focus on strengthening civil society to improve development aid.”

“I think this is an excellent report. They made a wise choice in taking their time and spending a year talking to different communities. And I think Barry Knight’s summation of their findings and discussions is right on. I hope going forward these dialogues will continue” stated Eleanor Fink, Senior Philanthropy Advisor at the World Bank and one of the event’s panelists.

AKF USA and the Mott Foundation used the event to bring together diverse views, giving voice to people from community foundations, multilateral development agencies, and field researchers and practitioners, all in support of this promising field.  Panelists included:

  • Eleanor Fink, Senior Philanthropy Advisor, World Bank Group
  • Joyce Malombe, Program Officer, Wellspring Advisors LLC
  • Apoorva Oza, CEO, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, India
  • Barry Knight, author of “The Value of Community Philanthropy”
  • Jane Wales, Vice President of Philanthropy & Society, Aspen Institute, moderator

Discussions centered on building a set of metrics that includes both quantitative and qualitative data, showing the success of the field in terms donors and foundations can understand, and supporting institutions that help local assets grow.

As Jane Wales, Vice President of Philanthropy & Society at the Aspen Institute and discussion moderator noted, “This is a marvelous opportunity to draw together strategic philanthropy and community giving. Among the most important things has been the consultative process that has brought together community voices, the ideas and insights of scholars, the views of practitioners and of intergovernmental and donor agencies. It’s about capturing lessons learned in an on-going basis and sharing that knowledge, and that will make all of us more effective.”

See the full press release here. (AKF USA: Partnerships in Action)

“Rooted in the country, rooted in the community”: The Story of the Balkan Community Initiatives Fund

The GFCF asked Tanja Bjelanovic, Programme Director at the Balkan Community Initiatives Fund, about the establishment of the organization in 1999 and some of the challenges that Serbia’s largest grassroots grantmaking fund has encountered along the way.

The Balkans have a chequered record in European history. Still identified as the trigger point for the First World War, they were also, at the end of the last century, the source of the unpleasant reminder that Europe had not outgrown war. The Balkan conflict was bloody, protracted and the source of much international hand-wringing. The European and world community watched in horror as events spiralled out of control in the 1990s, and then intervened with belated heavy-handedness, and in an arguably partisan manner, with a bombing campaign against the perceived primary aggressor, Serbia.

Political conflicts have the effect of simplifying issues, and what is easily overlooked is that the people of Serbia were by no means universally supportive of the Belgrade administration run by Slobodan Milosevic. However popular he might have been with part of the Serbian population, Milosevic was a controversial figure, and there were a large number of Serbs who felt that he had usurped power and that he did not represent them.

The international origins of BCIF

Belgrade dominates Serbia: almost one-third of the country’s population lives in the city, and almost all its administration and industry. In the 1990s, a whole country was being held responsible for the actions of a political minority, or so it seemed to British development practitioner, Jenny Hyatt, who gave a speech in 1999 on behalf of the ‘ordinary’ citizens of Serbia – particularly those in small, remote communities – whose suffering from the conflicts caused by Milosevic was being overlooked in the blanket condemnation of the aggression of Serbia.

Jenny’s speech attracted support and funds: a small amount – £2,000 – but enough to establish a foundation to begin working in Serbia, designing programmes of support for Serbian communities and working with local people at a grassroots level. For five years, the newly formed Balkan Community Initiatives Fund (BCIF) provided small grants for people throughout Serbia, building capacity and local activity. Then, in 2004, the Fund was established as a local indigenous foundation and two years later, in 2006, the international wing of BCIF was disbanded, having, in Jenny Hyatt’s words, ‘ensured that local people had a lot of power from the beginning [and that there had] been a process of building people’s confidence and capacities to use that power well in relation to their own communities and external supporters’.

Aspects of the background to BCIF, together with the general status of civil society, did not necessarily endear it to sectors of the Serbian population, however. For one thing, it was established with international money and run, in its infancy, mainly by people from outside Serbia. For another, its primary purpose was to support communities far from the country’s capital, Belgrade, which was (and is) where most of the money and power were still to be found. As Tanja Bjelanovic, the current programme director at BCIF, explains:

At the time we began to work in Serbia, not many people actually knew about us. We were invisible except for some small communities and some most prominent NGO activists. The main problem for us at the time was outreach – how to reach communities, how to motivate people to take the initiative, how to build trust among other stakeholders and gain a good reputation. Trying to activate people in small communities and direct them to their own resources in their communities – that was the real challenge.

Tanja Bjelanovic, BCIF’s Programme Director

At the same time, civil society faced considerable mistrust from some sections of the Serbian population. Tanja describes the atmosphere of the time, and the specific issues facing the Fund, in this way:

[Civil society] used to have this image among certain groups of people or citizens that it was working against national interests, that it was working for those from abroad – for international donors from the European Union, from the US. [Milosevic’s government] perceived it as receiving money from international sources and doing what they are asked to do. And they do not trust it; because civil society in terms of human rights and this new movement of fighting for political freedom and democracy in Serbia – that was mostly developed in the 1990s, during the crisis, and it was directed against the authoritarian regime. So still some people have this picture of NGOs as working for somebody else who are traitors to the Serbian cause or using funds for their own interests but not for public good.

For us, as donors, the problem was more that there was little in terms of grassroots/bottom-up/community activism in Serbia. During the 1990s, donors used to invest large funds in human rights, in the economy, elections, democracy building on a policy and institutional level, etc. Support to small grassroots initiatives was rare and neither citizens nor stakeholders were used to it.

Another challenge for BCIF was the decline in an established tradition of philanthropy in Serbia and the absence of a model precisely matching its own chosen focus of work. At every level of society – governmental, commercial, regional, individual – voluntary activity and philanthropy were practised little and only partially understood.

These challenges persist: more recently, the campaign to re-establish trust has not been helped by the perception that a number of voluntary sector organizations had behaved inappropriately:

There were a few bad examples and affairs that happened with a few foundations that spent the money in an inappropriate way; and, of course, the media have this approach to present scandals rather than something less simple, less attractive, so people heard about these bad examples and it affected their trust generally in the work of civil society and in the work of foundations. For example, speaking about our foundation, fundraising from individuals is the biggest challenge: how to rebuild the trust, how to make them aware that we are somebody who will use their money in an appropriate way and invest it in the good parts.

In the early years of BCIF’s activity, however, it was clear that changing perceptions and patterns of behaviour would be central to any possible success the Fund might have. But here again it was not helped by one particular fall-out from the conflict that had led to its establishment. The suspicion and mistrust of people who were proud Serb nationals is possibly understandable. What is less understandable – at least, at first – is the difficulty in mobilizing support from those people who actively campaigned for change, who fought to introduce democracy into Serbia and to cleanse the country of the authoritarian stain of the Milosevic era. These, surely, would be the people to participate in civil society vigorously and enthusiastically? The reality is slightly different:

People expected that another day there will be a heaven; but, of course, it didn’t happen, and they lost their strength, they lost their energy, they lost their enthusiasm because they had been fighting and investing efforts but they didn’t see any significant improvements. So, in terms of community work, the challenge is how to mobilize communities, how to attract people and how to recover and rebuild this enthusiasm.

Reinvigorating local communities

This was the background against which BCIF launched itself as a community organization in 2004, one of a very small number of organizations of that kind, orientated towards small local communities, supporting grassroots initiatives across Serbia. And it is this background that also explains why the Fund is currently based in Belgrade (despite its focus on local initiatives) and why its funding is still predominantly drawn from international sources, despite its commitment to developing national and local philanthropy.

If this might give the impression of a centralized, internationally funded organization, the activity of the fund is as far away as can be imagined from such a description. It has been an early axiom of the fund that it would not impose programmes on local communities but elicit from them their concerns and their preoccupations. If a community is particularly concerned about an environmental issue, for example, then the Fund’s support would be to help them develop a programme to focus on that; if it’s cultural, it would work with the community to provide the venue, or the outlet, or the facilities that the community was seeking. There was no attempt to impose a prescribed menu of topics and issues:

At the time we had only one grant programme – Active Communities – supporting people for any issue they find relevant, they find important in their community. And we’ve been running that programme now for 12 years. We let them choose their priorities. I think that’s something that is really unique here and it’s really flexible in terms of support: it helps the development of civil society but this civil society is rooted in communities and supported by citizens.

The strategy was clear. In order to build civil society, to increase its scope and to develop the habit of philanthropy, the important thing was first to give communities back their voice, to empower them and to allow them to see the consequences of the action that they were able to embark on with the help of the small grants BCIF provided.[1] This in turn would lead to eventual financial sustainability, with the majority of the funding for programmes supported by the Fund coming from local sources. Seismic changes of this kind take time, however, and this strategy – reinvigorating local communities in order to build civil society and develop individual and local philanthropy in a way that allows these community initiatives to be self-sustaining – was never going to be achieved overnight. Today, even 12 years after the Fund was established and 7 since its registration as a Serbian organization, the vast majority of its funding continues to come from international donors. As Tanja puts it:

We do have programmes that promote local fundraising; we also have capacity-building programmes for civil society organizations, trying to make them aware of local potential, local resources and local fundraising sources, teaching them to fundraise from small and medium enterprises, from citizens, from government, from local sources – and we are doing this ourselves. It is still pioneering work in Serbia, and there is still a lot to do in the future to reach significant results.

Successes against the grain

The development of philanthropy is just one element of BCIF’s work. The major part of the Fund’s activity is still grants programmes, but it is also involved in development programmes (including capacity building, education, networking, the opening of dialogue between civil society and government). Increasingly, of course, there are areas where the three strands overlap.

Here are some examples of programmes that have proven successful, some of which already show this kind of overlap:

  • Two organizations – the Blue Bird association working with people with mental disabilities in Kula, and a similar association working with mentally disabled people in Trstenik – raised more than €50,000 on a local level, allowing them to build houses in their community as daycare centres for disabled people, and to become service providers within their communities as NGOs. This was largely the result of a programme BCIF had with the Cooperating Netherlands Foundations, which helped the Fund deliver grants up to €15,000 for local organizations engaged in the development of social services.
    These two organizations were given guidance in fundraising and were then given matching grants – allowing them to secure the sum given above. Both started in similar ways, supported by BCIF with small grants, providing daycare centres for people with learning difficulties and organizing different activities. The programmes slowly became more developed and advanced, involving fundraising from individuals, businesses and the community – emerging, amazingly, with more than €50,000 in receipts. Funded like this, they have now become sustainable and – in the case of Trstenik –  are able to operate out of a new building which is itself environmentally sustainable, powered by renewable energy and solar heating. On top of this, Blue Bird has won a tender to become the service provider for people with learning difficulties in their community, so has itself also become organizationally sustainable.

  • Another example specifically related to community foundations is Moonlight (in Subotica, northern Serbia). Starting out as a civil society organization, Moonlight started by organizing clubs for children from dysfunctional families and then rolled out this model, setting up many more similar clubs and establishing a community foundation to fundraise for future clubs.

  • A third example is an informal group of young people in southern Serbia, which came into being through BCIF’s Active Communities programme. Young people from two small villages – young people who willingly choose to live in their community, rather than join the exodus to Belgrade – came together to repair an old building and make it a community centre. In the process, they succeeded in gathering all the community around them, connecting young people and elderly people, introducing cultural activities so that the elderly people could dance again. As Tanja put it, ‘Somehow they revived the whole community. And that’s impressive because it was young people who did it, who were there, working with enthusiasm on something for their community, not escaping from their lives and their communities.’ The young people’s programme, Cobra, is now being funded by the Ministry of Youth and Sports (see below), and has won awards from the Ministry for specific projects. BCIF continues to support them, encouraging them to develop local philanthropy, but the young people are already well on the way to sustainability.

A changing backdrop

These impressive success stories[2] represent a considerable success for BCIF, especially when the circumstances of its establishment are taken into consideration: the demoralization of the country, the devastated national economy, a decline in the tradition of philanthropy and volunteering. Clearly, the Fund could not have achieved these successes single-handedly, so what are the additional factors that have lent it support?

One significant change is in evidence at a national level. Tanja has noticed that ‘the government and the state and local authorities are now more open to co-operation with civil society’. This development is still in its infancy: the Ministry of Youth and Sports (mentioned above in relation to the programme Cobra) provides a small grant for distribution to youth groups aiming to raise the voice of youth in the community; but it is a small grant and rare in that it is distributed transparently and in a structured fashion.[3] There is, however, a new government office for co-operation with civil society – recently established by government – and the Fund has co-operated positively with this new office.

Another change is in the willingness of companies and corporate organizations to engage in dialogue with civil society. Again, things are moving slowly here – unsurprisingly, given the economic position at the turn of the century and the current financial crisis – but there is clear evidence of a new openness, and some actual projects that have resulted from this new relationship:

Companies in Serbia see us as some kind of resource centre for civil society for projects that they would want to fund but which they have a lack of expertise for, because after the crash of the 90s the economy is now redeveloping in Serbia. Also companies are talking about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate philanthropy, but they are still in the development phase of this activity. So we serve as a resource centre: we help them to organize their giving, to create a strategy of giving or a bridge between themselves and civil society. And we are open in our approach to companies. If there is a programme that we want to create or that we already have but which would benefit from being funded by companies, we offer the programme to companies as something they could support. But on the other hand, sometimes, maybe more often, companies approach us asking our help in advising or consulting about their giving.

This approach has led to a number of successful partnerships with companies: the Fund received a grant from the Erste Bank, for example, for a five-year project focused on youth and culture; and the Fund has also worked with the Serbian state lottery, helping them to fulfil their legal obligation to give funds to the community – another clear instance where the Fund was recognized as having the connections, links and expertise (in terms of its relationship to civil society) that the corporate organization lacked.

There is still work to be done at this level, and much of that work involves changing perceptions. One way the Fund is doing this is to run competitions for companies in Serbia in corporate philanthropy, with VIRTUS awards being presented to the best company in the previous year in the field of corporate philanthropy, building civil society, or community support. These awards are both national and local, and the Fund sees them as a way of encouraging all stakeholders to look at potential local resources and promoting philanthropy at the same time.

The final piece in this changing picture is at the local or individual level. The Fund’s major activity here is three-fold: it works with other community organizations, training them in local fundraising, equipping them with the skills to do this on their own. It also has a grant-matching policy (‘We like to challenge them: if they collect a certain amount of money, we match the funds,’ says Tanja), which a number of the projects mentioned above have already benefited from. And the Fund itself has organized campaigns to promote individual philanthropy, one of the most successful of which, in terms of raising the profile of the activity, was an eight-month campaign called ‘Penny is not petty’ – a project designed to show how giving even small amounts of money can have a very real use, and which succeeded in heightening awareness of the issue while also raising significant funds.


Here, too, things are changing – for example, what was essentially an awareness-raising campaign for the Moonlight programme (mentioned above) ended up raising more than €3,000, almost all from individuals – and the landscape is shifting, if slowly. Community organizations have no difficulty, for example, in mobilizing support for programmes in the form of volunteering or in-kind support. But there remains considerable scepticism about the whole field of civil society, a scepticism that extends to the media:

Our challenge is the lack of trust on the part of the people. They still don’t see the usefulness and the good things that are practically done for ordinary people for everyday life by civil society. [Apart from] the major visibility of so-called human rights organizations, the rest of civil society is still quite invisible. So we are trying to promote civil society as something that works for the interests of citizens and that is dealing with ordinary issues, like the environment, like social issues, like children, like women – something that is doing simple, useful things for the population, for the citizens. And the media are becoming more and more open to this idea but they are not sensitized enough – and they are now also too dependent on marketing and, in the current crisis, on money, so there is not a lot of space for media for this kind of promotion. So that is also something that is a challenge in Serbia – how to build up support for civil society, how to present all these good examples and success stories which people and civil society produce to the public, how to build citizens’ trust in civil society, especially in foundations: they do not have an idea of what it is, what we do, how we raise money, what we support, how all that functions in terms of finances.

Moonlight Foundation, Subotica, one of BICF’s partners

This change of perception is vital if BCIF  is going to achieve one of its main ambitions, which is to encourage its partners to find other sources of funding, not to be dependent on the Fund but to achieve financial sustainability by raising funds from other sources. And this sustainability is becoming more and more important with the accelerating withdrawal of aid from foreign donors.

Enlisting the support of others

Tanja would not go so far as to claim BCIF’s successes entirely for themselves. In two important areas, the Fund has been able to draw on the support and experience of other organizations. The first involved learning from the experience of an organization in a different country:

Serbia is in the transition stage as far as its moves towards EU integration are concerned – something which many countries in the region have already passed through. And just as being among the last few countries to fight for EU accession can bring some advantages (learning from others’ experiences and, hopefully, avoiding some mistakes), the same goes for donors’ practice in times of transition. We’ve been lucky to have a great partner from the Czech Republic – the VIA Foundation – which operates in a similar way to BCIF and has nearly the same mission. Peer learning from the VIA Foundation has helped us develop faster and less stressfully, primarily in terms of fundraising strategy and development of local philanthropy.

From the VIA Foundation, BCIF learned how important it is to focus on local resources from the word go but also to have plans for switching to different funding models, should the need arise in the future. The VIA Foundation also gave BCIF useful advice when the Fund was approaching companies and setting up the VIRTUS award for corporate philanthropy. And it is now five years since, with the help of the VIA Foundation, BCIF set up the first grant-matching programmes in Serbia, to build the capacity of local CSOs to fundraise from local sources.

The second source of support has come from the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), which has provided peer exchange with other community foundations across the world. The BCIF has found this of huge value, especially in clarifying its role in Serbia: ‘Our bottom-up, community approach places us somewhere between foundations operating on a national level and community foundations,’ says Tanja. ‘And, since the few community foundations that there are in Serbia are at the very beginning of their development, BCIF is often seen as the one that should fill this gap.’ As a result, the Fund performs a double function, providing funds and supporting community initiatives through CSOs, but also serving as a resource centre for information, capacity building and consultation for the few community foundations in Serbia.

For example, the Moonlight community foundation in Subotica was established following years of BCIF support, and it’s been in partnership with them that we’ve raised awareness of individual philanthropy – and it’s through the campaign ‘Penny is not Petty’ that we have been raising funds for Moonlight activities. It’s also thanks to financial support from the GFCF that we have been able to support seven CSOs and community foundations in their capacity building for fundraising from individuals. It’s through this programme that Moonlight received donations from individuals in their community and therefore had the funding to open more clubs for children and youth from dysfunctional families.

GFCF support has also given BCIF the chance to explore individual philanthropy practice internationally, and to pilot a campaign for raising funds from individuals for its own work (for general purposes). The support has thus allowed it to test a new model for its future funding – an important development in the context of the current lack of popular trust in civil society in Serbia and, especially, the lack of understanding of the work that foundations perform.

Long-term viability in the absence of international support

Even seven years after its establishment as a national organization (and some 12 years after it was first set up), BCIF still receives over 90% of its funds from international sources.[4] It is a proportion that has shown no significant change over the years despite the changes at national, commercial and individual level, and despite the Fund’s increasing success in raising the profile of civil society generally, and of community organizations and initiatives in particular. And it is a proportion that is becoming a growing concern for the Fund as a growing number of international donors withdraw from Serbia.

Tanja recognizes that ‘this is one of the main challenges, not just for us as an organization, but for civil society in general in Serbia’ and dates her first awareness of the issue (some eight years ago) as the moment that the Fund began to promote local philanthropy and to develop other programmes. It is a challenge that the recent economic turmoil in the international markets has served only to exacerbate.

Association working with the mentally disable inTrstenik, BCIF partner

In the short term there has been a change in focus. Where previous funders had been international donors  such as the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, USAID and others, the European Union (EU) is now emerging as the biggest donor to Serbian civil society. The structure of the EU’s administration and bureaucracy, however, makes it difficult for small civil society organizations to reach; for this reason, BCIF would like to see itself operating as a conduit between the EU and the smaller organizations it represents in Serbia, although such a role of advocacy would always be secondary to its primary role of grantmaker.

Until recently the signs were that things were moving inexorably in the direction of change, even if at a slower pace than many might have hoped. But the winds of economic change are blowing particularly strong and cold at the moment, and it is difficult to see how the Fund will entirely escape the storm. Tanja Bjelanovic is quietly confident, even if she does not underestimate the scale of the challenges that still face her organization.

That’s why we’re keeping this form of work and these structures, rooted in the country, in the community, and knowing the situation and knowing the context. There are other challenges, too: how to stay independent from the state, how to help civil society to be independent and how to continue to be the watchdog of government while still receiving funds from them.

To an outsider, these seem daunting challenges, particularly in view of the continuing suspicion with which civil society and philanthropy are viewed in her country. But where others might see grounds for pessimism, Tanja sees grounds for hope, noting how far the Fund and the programmes it has supported have come, and against odds that at one stage looked even worse than they are now. Looking to the future, she sees the Fund’s role as essentially undiminished:

We want to keep these programmes independent and support the kind of initiative that cannot find other support from elsewhere, from the state or the EU. We want to continue to be a grantmaker, definitely, so that we can provide space for an independent and dynamic civil society.

Interview by Andrew Steeds


[1] Nowadays the Fund has a budget of €1.3 million. It gives approximately 60% of its annual budget in grants, most in the form of small grassroots grants of €3,500 or less – these days it also gives out larger grants, up to €15,000 in value, for social services projects.

[2] And there are many more. Visit

[3] The Ministry is not the only state institution distributing money to civil society, but it is currently unusual in the open and organized way in which it is doing so.

[4] Two donors in particular – the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund – have provided regular and flexible support for the Fund, which has been crucial for the success of its operation.

Statement from GFCF grantee, Dalia Association, initiating a campaign to reform international aid to Palestine in run up to Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness

Ramallah, PalestineDalia Association joins the global movement for aid reform by launching a campaign to enable Palestinians to claim their rights to self-determination in development. Palestinians’ rights to self-determination are already denied by occupation, colonization and dispossession. Dalia Association, a long-time GFCF grantee, argues that international aid, which is supposed to help, should not be delivered in ways that further undermine local priorities, capacities and ownership.

Dalia Association considers advocacy to reform the international aid system among its core objectives because aid-dependence undermines self-reliance, philanthropy and local decision-making, which are core objectives of community foundations. However, this campaign is Dalia Association’s first effort to seek support around the world.

Palestinians discuss their experiences with international aid and mechanisms to reduce dependence on aid

“The campaign aims to raise awareness among Palestinians and internationals that we do have rights in the aid process and that respect for these rights is tied to development effectiveness,” says Saeeda Mousa, Dalia Association’s acting executive director. “We also want to cultivate tangible support for aid reform among southern civil society organizations and northern allies. This is the first step in a longer process of engaging constructively with donors and international NGOs to change the policies and practices that perpetuate aid dependence and disempower local civil society.”

The advocacy campaign began with the launch of Dalia Association’s research with community-based organizations entitled, Appeal by Palestinian Civil Society to the International Community to Respect Our Right to Self-Determination in the Aid System. The report expresses the complaints and recommendations of grassroots civil society in Palestine and gives rare and valuable insight into how recipients experience the aid system.

Specifically, participants in Dalia Association’s research objected that:

1.   Most donors fund relief, not development;

2.   Use of intermediaries can harm local civil society’s effectiveness and sustainability;

3.   International aid organizations often impose unrealistic and unfair procedures;

4.   Many international aid organizations impose agendas rather than respond to local ones;

5.   Applying for funds takes too much time and effort;

6.   Proposals and reports usually cannot be in Arabic, which is the local language;

7.   Most donors fund using political criteria;

8.   Many funding schemes are designed not to cover all costs;

9.   There is insufficient local leadership in agenda-setting and decision-making;

10. Anti-terrorism clause is unacceptable; and

11. Aid actors do not always fulfill their contractual obligations.


Workshop participants also made recommendations about how to improve the international aid system. These included:

1.   Select and evaluate civil society grantees fairly and transparently;

2.   Fulfill commitments;

3.   Respect local priorities and capacities;

4.   Follow up…genuinely;

5.   Don’t fund through unprofessional intermediaries;

6.   Give aid on professional, not political, criteria;

7.   Make the aid process more accessible and less burdensome;

8.   Enable sustainability through longer and more flexible funding; and

9.   Invest in local capacity, not in INGOs at Palestinians’ expense.


Changes like these will not only directly improve aid programs, but leverage local insight and capacity, thus providing donors with greater value for their contributions.

The campaign also includes circulation of a petition to Palestinians and allies all over the world, release of two forthcoming short films highlighting grassroots voices, and cooperation with other NGOs, donors and international NGOs to innovate solutions to the problems identified.

The campaign is timed to correspond with the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, Korea at the end of November. The High Level Forum is the most influential venue for global discussions about aid policy; the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action being the outcomes of the last two Forums.

“Representing Dalia Association at the High Level Forum is a huge honor and responsibility,” says Nora Lester Murad, a volunteer. Dalia Association is the only Palestinian NGO participating and only one of eight civil society representatives from the Arab world. Dalia Association will be exhibiting its innovations in local-international cooperation to the 2500 global aid policymakers, speaking on a panel on aid to conflict areas in the civil society forum, and facilitating a cross-sectoral workshop about reforming aid on the main agenda of the global meeting. Dalia Association previously signed on to Better Aid’s “CSO Key Asks” and the Make Aid Transparent Campaign.

Although Palestine’s political context is unique, the challenges it faces as a result of aid dependence are similar to the challenges faced in other aid-dependent regions. For this reason, both the problems – and the solutions – uncovered by the campaign in Palestine should be of interest across the globe. “We encourage our international allies to read and disseminate the report and sign the petition. We also invite civil societies in other aid-dependent regions to contact us with ideas about how we can cooperate in this effort,” says Saeeda Mousa. Interested parties can subscribe to eNews from Dalia Association.

(An e-poster produced by the Dalia Association, which presents the community foundation as a mechanism for international support of locally accountable development, was among those selected to be played at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, Korea at the end of November 2011. To see the e-poster click here).