Joining the global conversation towards the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit: Positioning community philanthropy and the resilience agenda

Volunteers from Tewa, in Kathmandu, respond to April 2015 earthquakeHow can different actors – governments, humanitarian organizations, people affected by humanitarian crises and new partners including the private sector – work together to address humanitarian effectiveness and serve the needs of people in conflict? These are some of the questions to be addressed at the first World Humanitarian Summit, an initiative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which will be held in Istanbul in May 2016.

As part of the learning and evidence building agenda of the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, the GFCF has been engaged in an ongoing research and consultation process on the potential and importance of local level foundations’ role in disaster response. In July 2015, Avila Kilmurray presented a paper on this theme at a Humanitarian Innovation Conference at Oxford University, one of a number of preparatory events to lay the basis for the World Humanitarian Summit.

Recent years have seen the emergence of community philanthropy organizations in Central and Eastern Europe and the Global South. Many of these new kinds of institutions find areas that have experienced natural disasters/emergencies, the impact of violent political conflict, or indeed, the complexities where both circumstances overlap. There is, however, a growing body of evidence to suggest that locally based community philanthropy organizations have considerable potential to complement humanitarian efforts and interests through:


  • Supporting the voice and participation of affected peoples and communities;
  • Promoting programmes of disaster/emergency preparedness;
  • Managing funding programmes that can contribute to long term community reconstruction and resilience;
  • Managing funding programmes that can underpin efforts for peacebuilding and conflict transformation; and,
  • Contributing towards the building of relations through networking and policy convening on issues of importance in fragmented communities.


Download the GFCF’s paper

Browse all submissions to the Summit

Swimming against the tide: Building local philanthropy in Northeast India

Drishana is celebrating; in fact she is ecstatic. As September draws to a close she has reached her fund development target: USD $5,000 from a range of individual donors by means of Global Giving.  The money will open the doors, and meet the running costs for a year, of a Safe House in Aizawl, to provide for women and children that are victims of domestic violence. The project is run by a woman who herself is a survivor. Working across the seven regions that comprise the Northeast of India (Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh) the Foundation for Social Transformation (FST) highlights essential community-based work and engages in an active programme of fund development. But more than this, they are planning for the long-term, recognizing that community philanthropy brings an important new dimension to social action – the ability to mobilize local resources for positive change. This has been the first time that Drishana has been involved directly in fund development. Judging from her smile and sense of achievement it won’t be the last.

Avila, Jenny and Rita meet with FST staff and board

As the crow flies, Guwahati, where FST has its office, is closer to Hanoi than to New Delhi. When we visited it in September 2014 the city was suffering from late monsoon flooding that closed local primary schools and ruffled the coconut trees up into a bad hair day. For areas across this far flung region the unremitting rain brought a number of deaths and considerable disruption through flooding and landslides. This didn’t prevent Gayatri Buragohain (CEO of FST) from bringing us out to meet social activists in Kokrajhar, an area under the control of the Bodoland Territorial Council. Gayatri used the lengthy travel time to explain the importance of the work of the foundation given the complexities of the Northeast region. The related aspects of grantmaking and fund development lie at the heart of her mission, but there is also a strong value base of social and gender justice alongside a society free from want, fear and discrimination.

Building Trust Through Solidarity

In the political and demographic complexity that is the Northeast, there is always a danger that donors fund where it is easy rather than where it is most needed, as Gayatri explains. Sporadic, and multiple, guerrilla movements have long been agitating around demands for autonomy and/or sovereignty based on sub-national identities, bringing them into violent conflict with the Indian state forces as well as other communities, such as migrants from Bangladesh. Some 90% of the border areas are both international and porous, edging up against Bhutan and Myanmar, as well as Bangladesh. Members of the Bodo community spoke angrily about how its language, script and culture were in danger of disappearing. One of their demands is for the building of universities and colleges in their area – this is now happening.

Monisha Behal, Chair of FST, and Avila Kilmurray

Not surprisingly the ongoing violence brings its own challenges. Relations have to be nuanced with a wide range of social organizations that may have very different ethnic and political aspirations. Resources allocated by FST are carefully judged and must be seen to be allocated in an inclusive and even handed manner. The next fund development target, entitled Northeast Rising, is to provide 14 Youth Fellowships on Peacebuilding (two for each of the seven regions) and seven organizational grants to women’s initiatives (one for each region). Inter-regional convenings can then draw out shared issues while leaving space for the examination of difference. The FST Chairperson, veteran women’s rights campaigner, Monisha Behal, recognizes how discussion can build an understanding of difference, if not necessarily achieving agreement. A previous FST partner, Nonibala Narengbam from Manipur, spoke about how “working with FST for one year gave me incredible experience of working with women who lost their loved ones (husbands) in the armed conflict. I also feel that the coming together of these women itself is a process of healing from their traumas. I witnessed women changing from the first time I met and saw them.” This is trust-building, in the most difficult circumstances, from the bottom-up. Sitting on plastic chairs in the mud of a camp for a Muslim community that had been displaced from their homes due to internal area violence the plea was the same: “Who will listen to us?”

Challenges amidst Beauty

From the stately Brahmaputra River to the vibrancy of sub-tropical forests this is a region of environmental beauty. On the basis of a recent bio-diversity mapping, FST Programme Officer, Rashmi, introduced us to the startling fact that the Northeast, which comprises almost 8% of the area of India, has 80,000 species of flowering plants; 836 bird types; multiple forest animals; and 51 forest species. Little wonder that it has been declared one of the 34 environmental “hot spots” in the world. She also charted the adverse impact of pollution, illegal mining and the depletion of both cultural resources and indigenous rights. A creative approach to women’s empowerment through the funding of traditional therapies and medicines is a current priority for FST. There is also an appreciation of the need to fund win-win solutions to the conflict between rural communities and elephants set on following traditional routes. Evidence is being gathered of those approaches that work. Rashmi shares her knowledge of locally based environmental partners that FST can support.

Kangkana, on the other hand, puts her energies into working with young people. Youth development is a key theme that FST has identified and Kangkana works to support a gathering of young men and women that are bubbling with ideas. Drawing from the Assam custom of Husori some of the young participants are already practicing Bihu folk songs and dances. During Bohag Bihu, one of the biggest festivals in Assam, the Husori teams visit homes to perform their dances and bring blessings. In return the household offers gifts and whatever they can afford. This is to be the new fundraising approach that will hopefully bring in resources for the establishment of a YouthBank within FST.

Rita and Gayatri in conversation with members of FST’s Youth Collective

The aspirations and rights of young people are also on the agenda of the activists that we met in Kokrajhar. Youth caught at the sharp edge of political conflict can be the first to suffer. There is talk about holding a conference on children’s rights. This could look at the recruitment of young people as informants by the security forces; it could also focus on the execution of a 16 year old local girl by guerrilla fighters due to accusations that she was an informer. This was all caught and circulated on social media as a stark message to others. Youth and peacebuilding remains an ongoing priority for FST – not just in fund development terms, but also in supporting community-based organizations to challenge and share new ideas locally. An impressive Meghalaya local partner, Prince Thangkhiew, is working to organize regular meetings of a Children’s Dorbar (traditional gathering) to encourage children, and especially girls, to become community leaders in identifying issues of importance.

There for the Long Haul

If navigating the virtual road from Kokrajhar to Guwahati was difficult given cows, goats, geese and the descending dark, equally Gayatri and her FST board members are under no illusion about the difficulties of putting FST on a secure long-term footing. The organization was initially incubated in 2005 and gained the support of the Ford Foundation. Since 2008 it has become registered as a community foundation and has struggled to put in place a fund development strategy. There is a clear recognition that its effectiveness is linked with the mobilization of funds that can support social change organisations and initiatives. Alongside the fundraising campaigns highlighted on its website ( there have been fundraising events and increasing contacts with potential donors, local, national and international. Anju, the Finance Administrator, takes a firm line on transparency and accountability to donors. Gayatri acknowledges that such accountability is particularly important in a situation where NGOs may be regarded with a degree of scepticism. She is determined that FST can model its principles of effective social change in such a way that it will make sense to local people. If we were looking for a metaphor we saw it within an hour of landing at the regional airport. A solitary elephant trundled its way down the white line at the centre of the nearby road as a departing jet airliner roared overhead – the traditional and the modern in one frame: FST as a model of community philanthropy in practice able to draw from both the local and the global.

Avila Kilmurray travelled to Guwahati to meet the Foundation for Social Transformation with Jenny Hodgson (GFCF) and Rita Thapa (Tewa, Nepal and GFCF board member) in September 2014.

Community-based philanthropy and peacebuilding

Members of the Foundations for Peace Network were clear about their message to the wider world of independent philanthropy and development aid when they met in Istanbul over the weekend of 10th – 13th October. Representing a range of locally-based funders from Serbia, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Indonesia and Northern Ireland, they agreed that grounded community reach, knowledge and connections were essential for building the relationships that are necessary for effective peacebuilding strategies. Experience shows that grantmaking is an essential calling card, but trust and relationship building is also essential. The importance of mobilizing a diverse, and extensive, range of partners that can share their views about the specific challenges and opportunities in a contested society was also highlighted as an important remit. Conflict transformation needs uncomfortable questions to be asked in order to create space for different views and experiences. Community-based foundations can offer the safe space for this to happen.

The crucial area of mobilizing resources was not ignored, although it was accepted that this can be difficult in the midst of violent conflict when many external funders, and potential internal donors, might prefer to play it safe. From its experience of working in Sri Lanka, Ambika Satkunanathan from the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT) argued that this was the very reason that external funders should utilise the insight and local knowledge of organisations such as NTT. Funding partnerships, that might include the potential for a locally-based re-granting facility, were felt to be important.  Shaheen Anams, representing the Manusher Jonno Foundation in Bangladesh, made the point that organizations such as hers had a track record in transparency and accountability which could alleviate some donor fears.

Another message that was agreed on was the importance of offering more than the financial grant.  The added value work provided by community philanthropy in times of conflict ranged from cross-community meetings in order to challenge divisive stereotypes, to introducing new ideas from other societies that have successfully negotiated settlements. The Foundations for Peace Network members have already engaged in peer exchange visits and information sharing around the re-integration of victims/survivors of violence, a topic that is central to many of the members.  Proactive work to ensure that minority ethnic, and other marginalised groups, are given a chance to have their voices heard in the midst of conflict is also important, with Slavica Stojanovic describing the work of the Reconstruction Women’s Fund in Serbia.

The long-term nature of addressing the complex, and often sensitive, issues of peacebuilding was reflected in the final message emerging from the network deliberations; that of the importance of sustainability, which entails local buy-in to philanthropy. Although it was accepted that this will inevitably take time, the fact that community philanthropy was placed on the agenda was itself a powerful message. If good politics is cited as “the art of the possible”, then effective community philanthropy in societies emerging from conflict might well be described as the creative art of the impossible, where vision and values combine to take local ownership of making society better. But then as the Foundations for Peace members know all too well, the concept of the impossible is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

For further information on Foundations for Peace Network (including publications) please visit

Latin America and the Caribbean: New report on philanthropy for social justice and peace

Read the report here

US peacebuilding theorist John Paul Lederach talks about achieving “critical yeast” in difficult circumstances, with this arguably being of greater importance than “critical mass.” If the recently circulated report on philanthropy for social justice and peace in Latin America and the Caribbean is to be believed that is exactly what exists: critical yeast. The 32 foundations located and working in the region that participated in this study are mainly public or community foundations. They display a depth of experience that ranges from a focus on women to an expertise in human rights and social activism. A shared concern is shown about the extent of inequalities, lamented by one participant as the “big gap between the haves and have nots”, across the continent. These are foundations that are themselves activist, participative and mission-driven in nature.

The Mobilization of Assets

The importance of mobilizing assets and resources for both grantmaking and organizational sustainability in order to achieve a critical mass of philanthropy is clearly recognized as essential. For most, however, talk of foundation endowments might be the ideal but is often seen as a utopian step too far. The pervasive influence of giving for charitable purposes through the Catholic Church continues to frame the general public understanding of philanthropy. The vogue for corporate social responsibility (CSR) has paralleled this more traditional giving through a proliferation of corporate foundations that promote “private social investment.” Neither of these philanthropic models are felt to address entrenched systemic and structural issues, although the work of community foundations in Mexico and Brazil to influence private sector and individual donors is noted. This work is described as being particularly important given the marked decline in both philanthropic and development aid resources from the Global North.

Efforts to design effective fund development strategies in order to mobilise resources that can support aspects of civil society that promote progressive social change in the region has resulted in some collaborative platforms and alliances. One such is Conmujeres, which involves the Women’s Funds working in Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia. However the challenge of fund development is still formidable.

“Part of a Process”

What is striking about many of the quotes from locally-based funders contained in the report is a certain sense of humility. There are no grandiose claims about being at the “cutting edge” of development (although many of the survey respondents are) or to assert strategic impact. Instead the emphasis is placed on collective impact between funders and their grantees, with the latter encouraged to be co-designers and protagonists of their own change. Working to ensure that individuals and groups have the power to have a say on issues that affect them is central to what funders for social justice are all about. This was explained by a women’s fund respondent: “We respect the decision of women and their organizations and empower them to define their priorities and use their resources accordingly.” This entails listening and responding to people rather than making them jump through hoops (however strategically crafted) by the foundations themselves.  Another foundation offered the view: “Our partners are a reflection of us: if there is a weakness in their political or external persona that affects us.” For this reason an emphasis is placed on building mutual trust and good communication between funders and their grantees, as well as encouraging peer learning amongst the grantees themselves.

Translating relationship building into effective organizational alliances is reported as being a harder ask. It often requires “paso a paso” (step by step), that can be particularly fraught when the local foundations themselves are struggling to achieve even medium-term sustainability.

“There is a Tremendous Need for Help”

The report, which was issued by the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, concludes with the warning that the relative scale of the community philanthropy institutions involved appears miniscule when measured against the issues that they are seeking to address.  There is the challenge of fund development but also the uneven spread of mission-driven funders across the region. Faced with the problem of diminishing external funding and a local philanthropic culture that tends to shy away from addressing social justice issues, foundations that are committed to social justice and peace have a major task in shifting the accustomed approaches. It is accepted by the study participants that there is an urgent need to hone their messages. As one foundation staff member argued: “Much of the time we are assessing what we do, but not necessarily communicating it, or creating narratives that would convey what we do.” This is an honest critique that may apply to other areas of the globe in addition to Latin American and the Caribbean. It is clear, however, that when the appropriate narrative is crafted – and work on this is ongoing – it will continue to assert the importance of activism and social participation. Community-based philanthropy for social justice and peace in Latin America and the Caribbean may well have its weaknesses, but equally it has the benefit of impressive programmatic experience and commitment that can usefully be shared with others.

For more information on the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, please visit their website at:

When the trouble came to our house: How one Ukrainian community philanthropy organization is responding

Inna Starchikova The last six months have shocked the Ukraine. Unexpectedly, the state met problems with its integrity under the influence of our neighbour, Russia; citizens sought to stop the creation of an authoritarian regime and are trying to restore democracy. And finally, as the world is aware, we have a war in our east territory, leaving the rest of the country to try to solve all of these problems that have accumulated. It sounds like a lot of challenges for the Ukrainian state and citizens because it is. But, interestingly enough, this period of time has also yielded quite a bit of new information about philanthropy – examples and useful models – that can perhaps be used to define the main trends and risks affecting the sector for the next three to five years. Qualitative analysis of all of this information is still waiting to be explored more deeply, but I can already share some early observations:

1. Most NGOs and foundations lost “urgent charity” to social media. During this crisis, the main flows of charitable help from citizens went into bank accounts of individuals (via online donations), largely outside of the foundation sphere and without official records (money-boxes). This was especially highlighted at the local level, where calls for help from within informal networks evoked the greatest trust, and therefore response. People didn’t care at all about the tax implications of such donations. This was the situation we experienced in our city (Odessa), though it was common across the Ukraine.

2. There have been attempted raids on charitable foundations located away from the military zone. Some years ago we tried to discuss this problem, as well as possible mechanisms to counter it, with our colleagues at a national conference, but without success. There have already been several attacks this year aimed at different foundations. One of these raids received wide publicity (not to mention millions of Hryvnia, our currency, for the families of those killed at Maidan) and became a scandal, with members of the Ukrainian Philanthropists Forum getting involved with a team of lawyers.

3. Odd crowdfunding companies for government institutions have emerged. For example, the Ukraine has been left with a very weakened army. Citizens continue to pay taxes to maintain it, despite the lack of investigation or punishment to identify who was responsible for its destruction in the first place. Furthermore, instead of reporting what is happening with the millions of public funds being devoted to the army’s budget, there has been an enormous campaign in the mass media for charity donations to the army using modern mobile channels. In the end, it is likely that the same army generals who were involved in the first plundering have raised millions from patriotic citizens. These kinds of donations carry huge commissions in the Ukraine (more than 30% to business providers), but authorities never seem to mention this in their reports. Such “transparency” raises further concerns regarding possible abuses. There are additional risks associated with charity in the Ukraine, which means there is a need to reconsider conventional ways of providing international assistance as well as domestic help. We have preferred to deal with existing regional partners during this period, who have already proved their competences and capabilities.

On 2nd May there was a tragedy in Odessa, where we live and work, which garnered the world’s attention. Numerous citizens were killed. It was impossible for us to believe that dozens of inhabitants could be killed in this European city; the city was blanketed with confusion and depression. Our foundation provided different support after that, but I think that the greatest help was our psychological support: we returned faith to the people and to the community of thousands of residents by delivering messages and support through social media during the first evening and all night after tragedy. More information on the events in Odessa can be found in the “Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine” published by Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  on 15th June 2014. It has a large section entitled “Investigations into Human Rights Violations Related to the Violence in Odesa on 2nd May.”

I’d like to offer a few words and some comments which you cannot find in this report. We were also interested in determining the causes of the tragedy with a view to preventing such incidences in the future. However, our goal was not to punish the perpetrators or official groups involved, but rather to check the “state of health” of the whole community. We asked members of the community two closed-ended questions, with the possibility to add comments, as well as their own answers. Below, the findings:

Causes of the tragedy: What did you personally do wrong, which allowed the tragedy to happen on 2nd May in Odessa?
I failed to stop a friend who went to earn money for their participation in the meeting 0
I was not on the front lines to prevent conflict 7.41
I previously did not take action around the accountability of authorities 18.52
I did not support the earlier actions that could have prevented the tragedy 22.22
My actions, as well as inaction, could not have led to the tragedy of 2nd May 51.85
Further prevention: What steps will you take to reduce the risk of recurrence of such tragedies in Odessa? 
I will avoid participating in paid rallies and will discourage my friends from doing the same 38.57
I will avoid any mass gatherings 12.86
I’ll be sure to respond to the unscrupulous actions of the authorities 37.14
I will maintain regular contact with authorities 2.86
I will participate in manifestations against the abuse of authority 8.57
I will support activities reputable for me, including financially 0
I do not plan to do anything to prevent the tragedy in the future 0


We often try to use such quick instruments in order to accelerate our own internal reflections (and sometimes for proactive engagement). Our foundation developed its own direct “digital channels” to the community with the help and support of the GFCF. This table contains important information for better understanding the current, complex situation, as well as specific roles for community philanthropy organizations (CPO) in the future.

In my opinion, the main role of CPOs is the same as anywhere: to support community development based on a community’s needs and resources. At the same time, situations such as the one unfolding in Ukraine, set specific (not to mention challenging) tasks for CPOs. It is very important for us to understand what can be implemented without our involvement, and what has a high demand but little chance to be realized without our participation. A time of turmoil and change requires crisis management, when we should be focusing our efforts on the changes that the community really needs. We’ve already started supporting the design of a more modern system to encourage better self-government based on IT, mobile technologies, and the concept of direct democracy. This can enforce people’s participation in decision-making at the local level and can also provide new opportunities for monitoring local authorities as well as preventing conflicts. We are going to implement it first with civil society organizations, with an eye to further developing this infrastructure by the time of the 2015 local elections in the Ukraine. At the same time, our region still is at risk of falling back into conflict. We as an organization will therefore be focusing on building our capacity to work with larger humanitarian aid bodies, as well as to deliver conflict resolution services.

We didn’t imagine that the trouble would come to our house. Sometimes it’s scary and sometimes it’s deeply frustrating. However, many people living in Odessa greatly appreciate the place, and with this great, common love we move forward together, inspired to look for solutions even in the most dire of situations.

Inna Starchikova is Executive Director of the Charity Fund “Moloda Gromada” (“Young Community’) in Odessa, Ukraine

New book on the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland: a valuable resource to the global community philanthropy field

All communities have their own dynamics and tensions but few come with quite the same level of complexity as can be found in Northern Ireland, a society fraught with divisions and, at various periods in time, violence. A new book, Then, Now, the Future 1979 – 2019: The Role of Community Philanthropy in Progressive Social Change, tells the story of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI), which was originally called the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust (NIVT). The context in which NIVT was established was highly complex and tense – according to official reports, in the seven years leading up to its creation there had been 25,127 shootings, 5,123 bomb explosions, 5,927 armed robberies and 1,683 deaths in Northern Ireland, all fallout from the political situation and sectarian divide. (This video clip shown at the opening plenary of the recent European Foundation Centre conference in Belfast gives a flavour of that complexity).

Written by Avila Kilmurray (Director of CFNI and a GFCF board member), the book offers a fascinating counter-narrative to the more familiar story of politics and violence in Northern Ireland. It focuses on the spaces and opportunities that arose among community and voluntary groups as a result both of the political instability and of economic deprivation, and on the role of the community foundation, working below the radar and with often modest resources, to support community-led initiatives across a divided society.

Avila Kilmurray with the new book on CFNI

For staff, trustees and grant partners alike, whether past, future or present, the book serves as an important historical record of the origins of CFNI and of the important role that it has played, in the words of CFNI’s current chair, Tony McCusker, in “the struggle for social justice, social inclusion and an end to violence.”

The book also has much to offer to the broader field of global community philanthropy both on “big” issues of social justice and peace-building, and also on some of the very practical nuts and bolts of community grantmaking and community development. Whether it was due to the need for complete transparency in terms of strategy and thinking from the start (essential in a society where levels of trust across community were so low), or whether it was CFNI’s overriding commitment to a community development ethos (a “nothing about me without me” type of approach), the organization has been consistently open, reflective, intellectually rigorous in articulating its strategies, assumptions, and theory of change in the context of the highly complex, sensitive and often fast-moving environment in which it has operated over the last 33 years. For those community philanthropy practitioners around the world – whether in Haiti, Tanzania or conflict-torn Southern Thailand – who are currently engaged in the processes of establishing the first community foundation, women’s fund or peace fund in their city or country and who are working against a backdrop of low public trust or community division, this book is rich in grounded wisdom and actual, practical experience, which makes it a wonderful resource to the broader field. For example:

–        On governance: When NIVT was first set up in 1979, there was a very clear understanding that if the organization were to take root, it would be essential to gain public trust from a broad cross-section of the community and that public perception would be everything. That meant selecting trustees who reflected the two main communal identities (Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist and Catholic / Nationalist / Republican) as well as a gender and geographic balance. It also meant choosing people who had the respect and confidence of community and voluntary sectors as well as of business and finance (as potential donors to the Trust). Obvious really but, sometimes in the rush to get programmes going,  spending time recruiting the right board can so easily be overlooked;

–        Leading with community development: the roots of CFNI lie strongly in a community development ethos articulated around a set of beliefs and assumptions which link to issues of social inclusion and reconciliation. These include the belief that community development “increases command of local communities over resources by bringing new resources into the community and by mobilizing existing resources / skills” and that “community development builds self-confidence and empowers individuals who become a key resource, and sometimes, leaders of the development process”.

CFNI’s Voices Programme initiative focuses on those on the margins of society

–        On the value of being a local funder, locally connected: complex political and security environments can make many funders nervous, particularly if they are not based locally. For CFNI, its proximity to the community (it has offices in Belfast and Derry), its network of grantees, its staff who are all grounded in community action have all been instrumental to its success, enabling the foundation to have an ear (or several ears) to the ground and to respond to – and sometimes pre-empt – sudden changes in political, social and economic landscape.

–        More than a grantmaker: CFNI has always been about more than money. Although grantmaking has been an important tool in building trust across the sectarian divide and building relationships with community groups who are empowered to determine and devise their own activities, grants have always been offered in the context of other forms of development support, including, training, facilitation, convening etc.

–        A risk-taker: the foundation has always been prepared to take risks “when no one else would” (a grantee). In the words of another grantee: “It did require some organization to stick its neck out and back an untested idea and, quite honestly, at that stage only someone with your local knowledge would have understood the need and been able to assess our capabilities”. The foundation’s work with marginalized groups such as the victims / survivors of the Troubles and political ex-prisoners are further examples of this.

–        Working alongside rather than “over” local people and local organizations: this is been at the heart of CFNI’s approach and it has been creative in using strategies such as consensual grantmaking (where decision-making over the allocation of grants is devolved to community grants committees) to reinforce the principles of participation and voice;

–        A clear commitment to the articulation of social justice: sometimes social justice can seem to be an elusive or woolly concept but CFNI has been particularly clear around its understanding of social justice (and what that looks like on the ground), particularly in the context of peace-building where a sense of injustice can seed further conflict.

–         A learning organization: not only has CNFI always been ready to reflect and apply learning from own programmes but it has also sought fresh and new inspiration from other parts of the world, particularly from places suffering from conflict and division. It has also (and this isn’t necessarily in the book) been extremely generous in terms of sharing its own experiences and welcoming visitors from overseas with open arms and quality conversation.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a thoughtful reflection on the role of community philanthropy in progressive social change, as well as some very concrete examples and guidelines. At the moment, it is only available in hard copy: I do hope that it becomes available in electronic form so that it can be more easily accessed by community philanthropy and social justice practitioners around the world.

Jenny Hodgson

“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.

“Nothing really made it easy except that things got complicated”: the story of the Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation

The GFCF interviewed Marwa El-Daly, founder of the Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation (WMCF), about the circumstances surrounding the Foundation’s establishment, and how these have been re-shaped by the events of the Arab Spring. (Note: this article will also soon be available as a PDF file for download in our resource centre).

Those of us outside the Middle East and North Africa have watched the Arab Spring unfurl with a mixture of awe and anxiety. Can change to such rigid structures come about without huge loss of life? What kind of societies will emerge from this political turmoil? And, if people can gather together to achieve this kind of result, is there anything they couldn’t do if they put their minds to it?

For those living through these events from inside the countries, the experience must be very different – all the more so if you are a fledgling community foundation, established with a precise mission to provide sustainable development for the communities you serve. What happens to your charitable objects when the country explodes into frenzied upheaval? What do you do when your community begins to lose its young people, shot dead by a police force under siege?

Waqf, a 1,400-year-old tradition of giving with roots in pharaonic Egypt

This has been the experience of the Maadi Community Foundation (Mu’assasat Waqfeyat al Maadi al Ahleya) in Cairo, Egypt, just four years old by the time the revolution erupted in that country earlier this year. The Foundation had been set up in May 2007 by Marwa al-Daly to provide sustainable funding and development for the communities of the al-Maadi and its adjacent suburbs. The Foundation was grounded in the communities it represented and firm in its belief that these would best be served by helping to fund income-generating and self-sustaining projects rather than the piecemeal acts of charity that had characterized philanthropy up to that point. Central to this idea was reviving and modernizing waqf, the donor-advised model of Egyptian endowment that dates back to ancient pharaonic Egypt (when monks endowed land to fund their temples) and is a 1,400-year-old practice of philanthropic giving in the Muslim world. Waqf had fallen into disuse, however, in part because control of all individual, historically autonomous waqfs had become the responsibility of a government ministry, the Ministry of Awaqaf:

I undertook a national study on philanthropy in Egypt in 2004–05, before the establishment of the WMCF, which showed that people like to give in their own community, probably because of the religious belief that ‘al aqrabun awla bel ma’rouf’ – those close to you by kin or geography are worthiest of your donation and help. So the religious legislation of zakat giving, for instance, says that you have to satisfy the area or your relatives and neighbours first before giving somewhere else. We also found that Egyptians are very philanthropic – they give, normal people, over US$1.5 billion yearly donations to social causes that appeal to them. So we found that there’s a lot of philanthropy, a lot of people giving money, but it was mostly going to charity, from one person to the other on an ad-hoc or occasional basis. And the main reason is that people, they prefer really to give to their communities, but they don’t know how to do so in a self-sustaining fashion. On top of this, almost all existing structures are local NGO models that work in charity and that do not necessarily have the local philanthropists’ trust or interest – because if the NGO can distribute money to poor people, and the giver can, he or she will do so without an intermediary. The donor-advised waqf – which allows people to engage in development and not charity – it just wasn’t there for individuals. So it was the perfect timing to propose something, a route, that is not new to them, that is really embedded in the culture, that allows you to focus on your own community – but which at the same time is sustainable because it’s a system that is following a philanthropic tradition that existed for thousands of years before.

Setting up the Foundation, the Waqfeya, was not without problems. The cultural and historical context in which it was set up was one of philanthropy tied either to occasions or times of year – Ramadan in particular – or to societies attached to mosques or churches. The result was a culture of dependence, in which beneficiaries came to the charities, community development organizations (CDOs) or mosques for a financial donation that was never enough to meet their needs and inevitably led to their coming back again or to seeking out another charity.

The “One Family” event where the American International School partnered with WMCF to host 200 children from disadvantaged areas and to fundraise for the Waqfeya.

And if the association was attached to a religious establishment, the beneficiary’s children would be tied into the obligatory attendance of religious classes, often neither of their choosing nor to their interest. Politically, too, philanthropy and charitable activity were firmly controlled by government and most organizations worked under the aegis of the government, as semi-government organizations.

I realized that most of the giving is charity, with only 0.6% of Egyptians interested in giving for social change or job creation, for instance. Most of the development work was done by big foreign-funded organizations that became experts in writing proposals and –primarily – meeting their funders’ demands. They have a huge staff of highly paid personnel who change jobs when the aid money for the project cycle terminates. None of these foundations is sustainable, although they all, mostly, know that they should be.

Overcoming the resistance of the status quo

There is an in-built resistance to change in any status quo, compounded in this respect by the fact that the situation involved less work for the charities, and for the beneficiaries, too. But Marwa felt sure that nobody could be happy with this arrangement, and she was equally convinced that the answers to a community’s issues must come from the community itself and must be delivered long-term and in a way that would lead to the empowerment of that community. Easy to see, in this respect, why there would be some resistance to this idea, not only from the government, but also from the financial institutions, from the community leaders, from religious bodies, from the influence of foreign ideas exported from other regions … from everyone, in fact, who had a vested interest in the continuation of the status quo, even if they were aware that the status quo wasn’t necessarily working and wasn’t making their life any easier either.

Marwa, though, had a sense that there was a real opportunity to develop something new, and that this would capture the imagination of a public keen to re-channel philanthropy into local communities and to do so in a way that was sustainable. ‘When we did the philanthropy study, the results indicated that people like to give in their own community … [they] would want to do something sustainable but they don’t find the “venue” [to do so].’ The community foundation was thus the perfect model for reviving and modernizing this long-standing philanthropic mechanism.

Marwa’s key advantages were the conviction that there was untapped potential for the form of philanthropy she was promoting, the fact that there was the sense of a cultural shift that would enable her to make her case more acceptable, her ability to put forward an idea that (though it felt new at the time) had its roots in an old form of Egyptian giving – and her considerable reservoirs of energy, persistence and persuasiveness. But the first hurdle was to register the organization without coming into conflict with the ministry, especially given that there had been no existing community foundations before, and no independent waqf structures to use as reference points:

Actually just to register it as a community foundation and call it waqf was not easy and actually, until this point, if you considered the existing legal structures, it was not legal. It paved the way for others to be legally registered by imposing itself on the NGO map structure. Community members and influential people bought into the idea, and promoted it, and together we did a lot of lobbying with the minister of social solidarity, Mr Ali Almoselhy at the time. And he also became a believer of the importance of this structure in spite of the legal and power-related boundaries. He was the one who gave like a ministerial approval for the name and structure. It was a very complex and engaging process and we used research, our field research, and many people we worked with, of very good standing academically in the development world, to be part of this lobbying until it worked. 

Building a local, independent profile

Once established with an official presence, the Foundation (Waqfeya) began to tap into the local community’s resources, persuading local philanthropists to contribute donations to set up a programme for income generation in the Waqfeya that would allow the Foundation to start small jobs for people while distributing their Ramadan bags – traditionally given to poor people in the fasting month of Ramadan. Volunteers were recruited primarily to engage in the food distribution in Ramadan but, more importantly, to be trained at the Waqfeya in how to assess the needs of a community and engage with people to discover their strengths and potentials. The volunteers and community members began to formulate plans for the community, identifying the opportunities created by local factories and industries (which would have leftovers that could be put to productive use by people in the neighbourhood), drawing up lists of people’s skills, and seeing where there were openings in the physical environment of the community for these skills to be put to productive use. By these means, the Waqfeya engaged small community-based organizations (CBOs) as potential grant receivers, in an attempt to shift their approach from charity to change-driven philanthropy.

The Foundation quickly became the hub for civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs in the area, a position helped in no small part by the establishment of an arts centre, Khan el Fenoun, that from day one taught art to community members, thereby generating income for the Foundation. The profit from the art classes and events supports classes and events that provide the same learning opportunities to those who cannot afford to pay and who live in shanty towns and other marginalized areas. The centre and its art appreciation workshops bridge the social and economic gap, bringing together all segments of the community, and providing a physical venue, in particular, for children and young people. Workshops and seminars are strategically used to explain the concept of the foundation and of waqf and to invite people to participate and to donate. The key issue was to move people from one-off, dependency-generating donations to larger but sustainable donations:

Instead of giving 20 pounds (approx. US$3) to this woman – because actually this creates dependency and takes their dignity away – you give them at least 2,000 or 3,500 pounds (US$350-550), for an income-generating project, nothing else, or to expand an existing project. And the gift is a rotating loan, but with zero interest. And even if they don’t cover all the women, at least they cover those women who want to do a business – and they get empowered. In one year you find the difference. And you know, what’s noticeable is that many of our young artists at Khan el Fenoun are our main fundraisers for the income-generation projects.

Marwa El Daly, Chairperson of Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation explaining drawings painted by the foundation’s Kahn el Fenoun Art Centre depicting political education messages to women from Ezbet el Safih, an economically deprived neighbourhood in Cairo.

The empowerment of the individual, of course, leads to the empowerment of the community, and the empowerment of the community leads to the community generating funds from its own resources to run the projects to develop its own community – one reason why Marwa has always had a wary eye on international donations: ‘For our community it would be a break [i.e. a breach in trust] because we started counting on local support and we would not get politicized money – that might break people’s opinion of our work. We will not go in this direction.’ So far the Foundation has received support only from the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), although it recognizes that, if it is to take on the staff to enable it to develop its work, or to undertake research and to produce booklets and literature about its activity (also, obviously, a fundraising tool), then the money to do so will have to come from an international source. But Marwa remains adamant that international donations will never account for more than 50% of the Foundation’s income stream; more than this would remove one of the core strengths of the Foundation, which is that ‘what makes us good or richer is that almost all our projects in the community are supported by local philanthropy’.

In the four years that it has been running, the Foundation has given several grants and training sessions to CBOs in surrounding shanty towns, created several donor-advised waqf funds (an average start-up individual donor-advised fund is around US$20,000) and supported more than 150 income-generating projects; it has worked with schools, youth centres, banks, civil society organizations and movements and has held seminars, art appreciation workshops, sports events and community lobbying activities that have resulted in the establishment of a huge school complex in a surrounding shanty town (Ezbet el Safih Girls School). The Foundation participates in all events in the community and supports young movements that seek to do good things in the community; it has clustered around it 2,000 friends and 1,000 volunteers, 300 of whom are active supporters and fundraisers. Many of these are young people and students, some of whom, for example, last year organized a fundraising event around a Christmas bazaar. Marwa made a presentation on waqf to the students, their parents and all the participants in the bazaar, which brought in more than 100,000 pounds (US$20,000) and dramatically raised the profile of the Waqfeya in the process. There is a relatively small but constant pool of individual donors to the Foundation (about 50 or 60), but considerable, and equally consistent, fundraising and donating activity, much of it co-ordinated by young people, students and schoolchildren (the Waqfeya has thousands of friends and fans on Facebook and Twitter).

Getting guarantees

The banks have proved more resistant to persuasion than the ministries. Even before the recent Western financial crises, the Foundation found it difficult to secure special rates with banks for projects that supported development work:

There is a government bank but [it’s] very complicated; we got a better rate, but still we didn’t have the bank’s guarantee … it’s very difficult to change the bank’s structure or the way they manage things, especially now. Now is no better. Everything is controlled by the Central Bank of Egypt, and many of the decisions are political.

The reluctance of the banks is in stark contrast to the trust shown by the Foundation to the individuals and the projects that it supports, a trust that is built on mutual respect with the community in which it operates. ‘People in and around the disadvantaged areas we work in recommend each other and give guarantees about each other,’ says Marwa. ‘There is a system of mutual guarantee, collateral. So, for example, a bunch of 3–5 women guarantee that each one will give the money back – it gives more assurance.’ There are conditions about the grants they give: they are given to support income-generating projects only, and on the condition that the money should grow, not diminish. These grants are given as zero-rated loans, but without any sense that the loan will be called back in if the recipient does not pay up:

We don’t use any threats – the money is theirs. The only thing is [if you default] you will have less money to work with. And the potential that we can give you more, or that we support you in other ways, or that we recommend people to work with you, is not there. And you know, since we started working like this about three years ago, nobody has not paid. From 150, none has not paid.

In a short period of time (just four years), the Foundation had established an official presence, rooted itself in its community and secured mutual trust and respect with the people and organizations it sought to support, and had developed an impressive body of volunteers and fundraisers.

And then, with the Arab Spring, came the revolution, and once again the Waqfeya found itself having to adapt its activities in a changing environment.

The revolution: and a revolution in the foundation’s role

Things have changed dramatically for the WMCF since the revolution, are changing still, and will no doubt change constantly over the next few years. But the immediate effect of the revolution was to change the role of the Foundation: although it continued to fund projects as before, it found itself compelled to play an active role in the revolution, initially by supporting the families of the ‘martyrs’ who were killed in the course of the revolution:

Maadi lost 27 or 28 martyrs going from Maadi to Tahrir Square … the policemen killed them – shoot to kill it was, mostly in the head, and with live bullets. And for us, as a community foundation, we were not a political organization, but you cannot help supporting your community members in a time like this. After all, we realized that our mission was to revolutionize and change the status quo, and the revolution was just what we needed to accelerate our work. Our community members had fallen dead in their quest for social justice but they were our own loss, and their families became our pride and responsibility. It became our responsibility also to engage in helping them – and helping here is not to help them materially or financially: it was also to support their cause. And we found ourselves engaged in supporting their cause, which means we found ourselves engaged in human rights and meeting with activists and gathering people to go to demonstrate and go to the general attorneys … That was our first test as a community foundation in a time of hardship, in an emergency.

The Foundation organized a funeral at the entrance to Maadi for the 27 martyrs (the number known at that time to have died), to honour them and mourn their death, but also to draw attention to their murder and their murderers: Mubarak, the Minister of Interior, and the Maadi and Dar AsSalam police station soldiers who shot them. The Waqfeya deliberately made this a large, public funeral: high officials and prominent people performed the funeral service, public figures and members of the martyrs’ families (in a breach of tradition) spoke at it, and Coptic Christians and Muslim were represented by key religious figures speaking in solidarity and unity. In a further flouting of conventions, women and men mingled in the same areas of the funeral.

Young friends of Maadi martyrs and WMCF board member (Dr. Fatma Abu Nawareg) at the foundation’s premises discussing artistic expression in post-revolutionary Egypt. Community members meet frequently at the WMCF.

The funeral generated a discussion that continued afterwards on the Foundation’s premises, and a pressure group was formed from the community members. With the martyrs’ families, the Waqfeya also formed the first Martyrs’ Families Association in Egypt for this neighbourhood of Maadi, Basateen, Dar AsSalam and Torah; the Association meets regularly on the Waqfeya’s premises, its official meeting place. Acting on behalf of the community, the Foundation enlisted the support of human rights activists and lawyers, and galvanized the community to act in unity and to confront the general attorney with the demand that the death of the martyrs be treated as a collective case against the murderers of the victims. The movement quickly attracted media attention and the support of prominent Egyptians (one of whom, a famous football goalkeeper, became their spokesperson) – and it became apparent that, very soon, people in high places were paying attention to what the movement was saying and doing, and treating it with respect. The Waqfeya organized several demonstrations, which attracted an increasing number of community members, until it became the reference point for the martyrs’ legal cases, and the source of information on the numbers of injured people, and on the movements of young people involved in the area. The Waqfeya brought the case of Maadi to the General Attorney, who heard them and then rejected their demands. The judiciary and the South of Cairo General Lawyer, however, listened and acceded to their demands, and in the wake of the revolution the Foundation was asked to help the authorities monitor elections. Again, a development that they hadn’t foreseen emerged from their primary involvement in the community they supported:

We were never an organization that was engaged in monitoring elections but we feel now that there is active civil society and they say ‘We need you to help us’. So now we are getting volunteers, we are trying to train volunteers to do political awareness to people and to monitor elections with other human rights activists, so that in the coming months we’ll be able to do a good job. I don’t think we will do a terrific job because we’ve all been living in an authoritative rule for 30 years – and that’s left its traces on all of us –but we are now beginning to enlarge our scale of partnerships and specialities and we’ve got a better understanding of what it takes to educate ourselves and our fellow member on the democracy we have never lived in before.

The Foundation’s profile can be said to have changed significantly since the revolution. As well as preparing to monitor the elections, it has become involved in the whole area of education in democratic rights and social justice, concepts that had been largely alien to Egypt before the revolution. Children learning art at the Khan el Fenoun art centre, for example, produced political awareness messages in the form of paintings for those who cannot read. This was the most effective tool to educate people on basic questions such as what is a constitution, why your voice counts, what is a parliament. Helped by children, the Waqfeya staff provided Training of Trainers (ToT) training for volunteers, to equip them with the tools to educate community members who were unable to read or write. This movement has led the Foundation to draw on links with the diaspora community in the United States and elsewhere, in order to help develop political information material about the parties and the process of voting. Meetings of young members of the diaspora and capacity-building workshops started to take place regularly at the Waqfeya, which many Arab Americans made their home in Egypt.

This link with the international community has not been without complications. Although the Waqfeya had in the past refused to accept money from bilateral donors such as USAID, foreign funding suddenly came into the spotlight again. Marwa has a suspicion that the huge influx of money into the country since the revolution is in large part panic money: ‘They’ve lost Mubarak, who was their ally, they need to create another ally in Egypt, and I think what they’ve figured out is that they should do it with money as they did with Mubarak as well.’ As a result, the money that used to go to big organizations working with USAID and the government, has started to go instead to smaller local NGOs, which again has distorted much NGO activity. The price of full-time staff has since soared, and their availability has diminished:

We as a community foundation decided not to take from USAID money because it’s very political and it doesn’t have a very good reputation. We are facing the challenge that many people are starting to get money, so again we are getting into the same dilemma: they are putting up the prices so that we cannot hire enough people if we want full-time staff. So we face many challenges; we would want to educate people that they have to be careful with foreign funding – they mustn’t fall into the dependency trap. And then you want to also influence the government that we want the legal status to change; and in the same time you have elections in one month and then you have also your work, the job creation, our own activities, you know.

Maximum impact, minimum exposure

The Foundation has played a careful game here. It has been at pains to distance itself from the media spotlight, making sure that, if there were to be filmed interviews at the public meetings in the wake of the 27 martyrs’ funerals, those interviews would be conducted with members of the martyrs’ families. Marwa recognized the possibilities for promotion that the Foundation’s new-found position presented but made a conscious decision to avoid that at all costs, knowing that the very thing that brought the Foundation to the wider attention of the broader Egyptian community might also lose it the respect and the confidence of the Maadi community it was established to serve. While it was important to highlight the illegality of the martyrs’ death and to campaign for greater social justice, it was equally important – perhaps more so – to provide for the families of the martyrs, many of whom had lost their prime breadwinner and needed immediate action:

So we fundraised very quickly and we started income-generating projects for these families. We gave them sustainable funding so that it was very clear that we were not giving them gifts – we were also investing in income-generating projects, so again it’s philanthropy for development, as we seek to promote. And it was a very dignified process: they came as partners, they signed contracts, we had a celebration – very close, not to show off, just to show that we were working with them; it was a very small gathering. So I think that was for us a test of whether we were really a community foundation which people can trust and work with.

Some examples. A family of four girls, one older brother, their mother and grandmother lost their sick father just one month before the revolution, after spending all they had on his treatment. During the revolution, the son of the family was shot dead. The family had had a supermarket in a shanty town in a popular area, but were completely bankrupt following the double loss of their father and their one remaining breadwinner. The Foundation equipped the shop anew, and the family started work a couple of days after the son’s death – activity that has proved their salvation. Many other cases are similar to this and, without the empowerment provided by the Waqfeya, the bigger case for the martyrs’ right would never have been made. The Foundation has also made an agreement with an eye hospital to give operations to 150 people in the area who lost sight in their eyes, many of them as a result of their involvement in the revolution. A man working as a guard in one of the tall buildings on the Nile started a project to sell ‘goodies’ like sugar rice for the people in his area – the Foundation provided a seed fund for him to do this. Another bought a motorcycle to transport people to work. And one story shows the Foundation’s two roles coming together:

One of our partners lost two brothers, both of whom died in Tahrir Square. He’s an activist, and together with other farmers he took over the land that had been stolen by big government officials who are in prison now. They cultivated this land with food supplies, and – because they didn’t pay anything for the land and really don’t want a lot of profit because they consider this a public profit – they produce very low-price products. So, because people buy food baskets, we decided to make a project for them so that –instead of selling food baskets to supermarkets and giving them more profits and augmenting the value of the thing – we encouraged this association by partnering with them, and we will be making an outlet for people who would want to buy the food baskets, so they buy them from us, from our outlets. We’re starting to accept orders now – we have a thousand now – we will call it the political social justice Ramadan food basket (it is poetic in Arabic, in Egyptian) but the idea is that we will put all the material that we gathered in creating awareness and we will put it in this Ramadan basket as well.

Looking to the future

The last year has dramatically increased the number of people contacting the Foundation. At a time of financial uncertainty – businesspeople the Foundation might have approached for funds have by and large disappeared and international grantmakers are either paranoically insecure about investing in the Arab region or are themselves cutting budgets as a result of the global economic downturn – this has put immense strains on the Foundation, which has been unable to expand its staff to accommodate its new role. The current instability of the government only makes things worse for the Foundation: in theory, there is much greater openness at government and ministry level to the kind of activity the Foundation and other NGOs engage in, and much more sympathy for the changes in law that they believe would make their lives easier. But the ministries are in a mess, and the paperwork required to organize the day-to-day activity of the Foundation is every bit as burdensome as it ever was. On top of that, of course, there is the very real possibility that a government will be elected that is hostile to everything the Foundation stands for.

But there are huge pluses, too. The revolution brought to the surface what Marwa had long believed to be actively present in Egypt before: a strong civil society, characterized by considerable creativity and a firm sense of civil engagement. It has also changed the way in which NGOs operate, with many of them now campaigning together to bring about an element of social or governmental change, rather than chasing after the same international dollar. And, although the effect of the revolution has been to broaden the role of the Foundation (giving it a national profile much earlier than had been planned) and to drastically increase its workload, it has also broadened its reach within the community, developing its philanthropic capacity and increasing the sense of social cohesion.

Training of trainers for volunteers on evaluating and supporting economic development projects in preparation for community visits.

More generally, there is a new spirit of hope and purpose, and a feeling of collective endeavour. Marwa has noticed the change most with the younger generation.

During the revolution a lot of children would go on the streets and clean. We are used to working with children and young people – but now we have more schoolchildren and very young volunteers – children aged between 5 and 15 – who are showing responsibility towards the country. This opens all sorts of doors for us to work with them more by building their capacity and by directing them to the right path. […] We have a special class now on the revolution: the children write, they design the flag, they produce handicrafts that are black, white and red like the flag. So it’s like creating this sense of belonging and interest to make your place a better, a more beautiful place.

The WMCF has already come a long way since its establishment four years ago, riding a wave of Marwa’s energy and enthusiasm, the devotion of the Waqfeya staff, community members, volunteers, interns and donors, the exhuberance and commitment of the young people and children, and a sea change in the social make-up of Egypt. Delegations of Egyptians in the diaspora, too, are becoming more and more active with the Foundation.

It will have to be left to future updates to show whether the fall-out from the revolution will have added to or detracted from the social capital in the country. But for now the last word should go to Marwa and a conversation she had with Omar, a young child who had recently provided regular help with the fieldwork for the Foundation:

This 10 year old was saying ‘Before, I thought that when I grew up I wanted to go to America’ – that was their goal: to be something important would mean they’d have to go and travel – ‘but now I don’t want to go anywhere, I want to stay in Egypt and work here to make it better’. When you hear that from a child, someone who helps out filling in questionnaires, transporting equipment for projects, who’s passionate about raising money for a family to start a bakery, you feel how amazing it is to have this chance, this time to provide them with ideals and outlets for what they want to do. And you see how they absorb … and how we really need to give them a chance to do this.

Website:  (under re-construction)
Facebook group: