“If you want to get far, travel together”: Community philanthropy tackles environmental issues in Mexico

How can philanthropic support for grassroots social and environmental action be intensified and improved across Mexico? This was the big question on the minds of the nearly forty participants, representing twenty-five different community and private foundations, who assembled in Mexico City in December 2014. The primary outcome of the two-day meeting was an agreement to work together on a common agenda moving forward, which will be coordinated by a committee of philanthropic organizations and which will welcome the participation of other interested organizations and networks. Specifically, looking ahead, those present agreed to cooperate around: exchanging information, developing the field, promoting grassroots philanthropy, and targeted research and action. The GFCF spoke with Artemisa Castro Félix of the Fondo Acción Solidaria, A. C. and Luis Ruíz of the Fundación Comunitaria Oaxaca to find out more.

GFCF: You have identified grassroots groups as being essential if real, sustainable development is to happen in Mexico, but one challenge identified is that there is a dearth of information on Mexican grassroots philanthropy. How do you therefore begin to make the case for this set of organizations as important social change agents, largely in the absence of quantitative proof of their effectiveness?

We need to understand what grassroots groups do and can do. Quantitative proof of their effectiveness is still so difficult to come by because this is unclear. While groups can do a lot, they also learn, grow, change, educate as they move along and this impact can get buried or may be impossible to see. The first thing we need to do is to carefully collect information about what they are doing and where the successes are, and then to use this information to begin to explore the quantitative aspects of the work.

For us, the key question is: “Do we know what we are measuring – what changes do communities need to experience, in order to be more sustainable?” Most of the information that we can collect is qualitative, but it doesn´t necessarily mean that is not useful. We have made an impact evaluation of our work with an external firm, and the results show that grassroots philanthropy does contribute to triggering social change, and that communities and grassroots are real social change agents within their communities and regions. Grassroots funding is a powerful force for change, especially when victories at the local level “trickle up” to join and to build larger movements. The positive effects of empowered communities cannot be understated. Communities with strong social fabric are resilient, creative, and equipped to help their neighbors make gains toward sustainability. Empowered communities also demand accountability and the better use of resources from their government.


GFCF: What do local philanthropic traditions or systems of self-help look like at the community level in Mexico? Do they provide a basis from which to build?

Our sense is that local philanthropic traditions are very informal, but that neighbours and family do certainly address issues collectively. We come together around crisis but, importantly, we also tend to be there for each other on a daily basis. This does not include much money – people tend to equate giving money with the Catholic Church – but, on the other hand, includes food, moral support, transportation, etc. Addressing problems as communities is very normal: we tend to eat and spend time together, and this is a strong foundation on which to strengthen our philanthropic traditions. On the other hand, economic turbulence, violence and insecurity have been very hard on communities.


GFCF: In general, is the environment a topic which is on the radar of average citizens, or are Mexican civil society organizations (including community foundations and grassroots groups) having to push this agenda?

“The environment” is generally seen as low on the list of priorities we are seeking to solve in Mexico as a society. Our sector has been very successful in raising awareness, however, because we see the environment as central to all issues. Civil society organizations have done a lot of work already related to natural resource conservation. Lately, the environment has become more integrated into the respective agendas of the government, schools, corporations, etc. This does not, however, mean that the intentions and priorities of all these different actors are clear.

After our meeting last December with a group of community and corporate foundations, we can see that a lot of them talk about the need for sustainability, but only a few of them really know how to approach the issue. We must recognize that this is a huge challenge. Our next step is to share among this group all of the information, tools, strategies, etc. that help us to promote environmental conservation among the communities we work with.

GFCF: Could you tell us a bit more about how Mexican community foundations plan to build philanthropy around social/environmental issues, rather than just channelling resources to social/environmental issues?

We emerged from the meeting with a common agenda that can strengthen our individual institutions to address these challenges. Developing such a concrete, shared agenda, was a new experience for us, and it was a wonderful discussion! We may not all think exactly the same but there are some strong agreements moving forward:  building a socio-environmental field that currently doesn’t exist; collecting data and information on current activities; improving the fiscal environment in which most of these organizations work; and, increasing the support available to grassroots organizations. We need to build that agenda together with communities as well as at the grassroots, in order to build long-term partnerships in which the main outcome would be the construction of a solid social capital – allowing for future action and for communities to take care of their own natural resources.



GFCF: The GFCF has often looked at the notion of building trust and of the role of community foundations in trying to build it within and across communities. Does this resonate, particularly in relation to your experience working with grassroots groups?

Yes, absolutely! It is the number one thing that we have to build from. Marginalized people and communities generally don’t receive or benefit from trust in their dealings with other actors – that’s what makes us different.

GFCF: Community foundations in Mexico have a strong tradition of working together, exchanging knowledge, etc. Why was this particular issue identified as one which would benefit from coordinated action?

As organized civil society, we have a history of working together but we are really just beginning to think through how to strengthen the community philanthropy field collectively. We believe that just as we promote our own work, cooperation brings with it a higher possibility of success for everyone. There is a saying: “If you want to get somewhere fast, travel alone, but if you want to get far, travel together.” Building confidence and trust among the sector is therefore very important; we have to learn to work together to achieve long-term success, for the good of everyone and for the conservation of our resources.


Nominate for the Global Prize for Transformative Social Justice Leadership

The Global Prize for Transformative Social Justice Leadership, coordinated by Kalamazoo College, awards $25,000 to an innovative and collaborative social justice leadership project. The competition seeks to honour and uplift grassroots work that challenges structural inequality and centres the voices of those most impacted by an injustice.

Up to ten finalists receive an all-expense paid trip to Kalamazoo College to present their projects on campus, and a panel of community-wide and national jurors determines the semi-finalists and winner, respectively. The Global Prize ceremony is a dynamic weekend where the finalists share best practices with each other and the entire College community, who learn about these cutting-edge projects, interact personally with the finalists, and ultimately find inspiration for their own social justice-related pursuits.

Entries must be in the form of eight to ten-minute videos which must describe the social injustice that will be addressed, show how the project will take a fresh approach in addressing it, and demonstrate transformational thinking and commitments in its leadership structure. For more information, FAQs, and how to submit videos to the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College, please click here.

International development: A view from (near) the frontline

Written by Ambika Satkunanathan, Chair of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Sri Lanka, this piece originally appeared on the European Foundation Centre website as part of its In Dialogue series. 

Reflecting on the role and impact of international development invariably requires grappling with a number of somewhat thorny questions; some old, some new. The question I consider here relates to equality and power disparity. In particular, whether power disparity exists between the funder and grantee, and if so how this inequality can be tackled. Power disparity between the funder and funded, and agency and community does exist, and perhaps may always exist. Is it possible to completely eradicate it, or can something be done to reduce it and build donor-grantee relationships that are partnerships in more than name only?

The intensity of the power disparity between funder and funded, and agency and community, does not necessarily depend on whether the party providing the financial resources is an international or local donor. Even Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT), an indigenous public foundation that supports community-based organisations (CBOs) and works towards furthering social justice, has experienced this power disparity, in relation to both our partners/grantees and our funders. At times, the disparity can be more intense if the party providing the resources is local rather than international. Local foundations are often viewed as part of the community and are hence expected to be more understanding and flexible. This requires them to be constantly conscious of not only the impact of their actions, but also how their actions are perceived. At the same time, local foundations’ abilities to build strong relationships of trust enables them to understand the context better and garner the support of local communities, particularly in restrictive and complex environments. In countries where local giving in general, and giving to social justice and peace-building initiatives in particular, is non-existent or is at a nascent stage, or where ‘giving’ consists mainly of charitable initiatives, such as distributing bicycles and water pumps, or rebuilding places of religious worship, it is international development that has been the main source of funding for work on human rights and social justice.

In the past few years, Sri Lanka, which was designated a middle-income country in 2010, has witnessed the withdrawal of many ‘traditional’ donors, i.e. official government donors such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). This has meant that organisations working on social justice and human rights in particular are facing immense challenges when it comes to continuing their work. Although corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a concept appears to be gaining ground, corporate foundations are reluctant to support initiatives that are viewed as controversial, which in many contexts includes human rights work or anything that is perceived as a challenge to the status quo. Furthermore, CSR initiatives sometimes compete with local organisations for limited resources. For instance, there was an occasion where we found we were competing with a corporate foundation for funding from an international private foundation.

As in other South Asian countries, we find in Sri Lanka that the diaspora is increasingly showing an interest in investing in civil society initiatives. However, they too err on the side of caution and show a reluctance to fund social justice and human rights work with a focus on long-term change.

While traditional state-funded donors have taken a step back, new international private foundations are stepping in and stepping up their involvement. Although this is still at a nascent stage, particularly since many foundations are yet to expand their remit to support organisations outside their geographical area of origin, the interest of these entities and their willingness to engage with organisations in the global South, is a positive development.

International development is being re-shaped by global economic changes, the shifting priorities of governments and new and emerging philanthropic foundations that show an interest in supporting CBOs and NGOs. However, funding for work on social justice, human rights and peace-building continues to be scarce. Although government donor agencies have been criticised for using foreign aid as a means of furthering their foreign policy agendas – that can potentially result in donor-driven programmes – their importance as a source of funding for many groups working on the aforementioned issues cannot be denied.

Amidst the widespread phasing out of traditional government donors, rising anti-west sentiments in the global South, and the imposition of increasingly restrictive policies by states, which curtail the activities of programmes challenging the status quo, we await the potential impact that new private foundations could have on international development with growing interest.

Community philanthropy during a “hybrid war”

Ukraine has been experiencing what has been dubbed by many commentators as a “hybrid war”, but it is no less real for those people that have been bereaved, injured or displaced as a result of the very real violence that has been taking place in its eastern regions. Alongside those who died, over 1.5 million people have fled their homes, and that is considered an under-estimation of the true numbers. Some 60% of registered IDPs (Internally Displaced People) are elderly and almost 13% are children. The pressures on the host communities are considerable, as reflected in the discussion during the seventh international conference of Ukrainian Philanthropists’ Forum, held in Kyiv in February.

Avila addressing the Ukrainian Philanthropists’ ForumRepresentatives of some 20 Ukrainian community foundations also spoke about the needs of IDPs, and how local communities are in danger of seeing the displaced people as a burden, when they met together the day after the conference. They were keen to exchange views about the possible role of community philanthropy in a society under pressure. Supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, ISAR Ednannia, has been working with community foundations from across Ukraine to support their growth and development. Oksana Ruda explained that there are now 23 members of the network that has been established, with a great variety of size and programme experience. Oksana accompanied representatives of the Irpin Community Foundation and the Community Fund of Dolyna on a learning visit to Slovakia last year.


Growing Community Foundations

The modern office block where we met with the community foundations was in downtown Kyiv and seemed far removed from the war. Not so, I was told, there was at least one participant that had himself been displaced from Donetsk, and many others that were working in communities affected by the consequences of the conflict. The community foundations echoed the view expressed by Anna Gulevska-Chernysh, CEO of the Ukrainian Philanthropists’ Forum, that the current crisis has unleashed a whole new level of volunteer activism. The challenge is to engage both organized and informal activism in longer-term productive and progressive strategic initiatives. Recent research shows that volunteer activism has grown from 9% to 23% of the population, particularly amongst the 16-35 year old age group.

The Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) agrees that Ukrainian civil society is alive and flourishing. Seeing this increased activism as “a clear opportunity”, it calls for enhanced capacity in community relations and conflict resolution skills. A new USAID programme on Conflict Mitigation and Reconciliation seems designed to respond to this need. Oksana pointed out that community philanthropy was increasingly been seen as a sensible sustainability strategy by NGOs and existing charitable foundations. When ISAR Ednannia put out its first call for organizations interested in community philanthropy, it received 87 applications and accepted 12. A second call resulted in 11 successful applicants out of a field of 80. Shifting thinking from single organizational fund raising to community based fund development around local priorities is always challenging, but a number of the community foundations are already experienced in grantmaking. The power of small grants to raise the confidence and service provision by community-based organisations was not only recognized, but experienced in practice.

Seven hours drive away in the Black Sea city of Odessa, the Moloda Gromada Charity Foundation, is operating from a basement premises that is decorated with children’s art work. It is a Saturday morning and a children’s karate class is in full swing in the adjacent hall. Two interns from the local college are getting to grips with the work of the foundation. Board members explain that the emphasis on the welfare and developmental potential of children and young people comes from many years of work in this area. Odessa has a very successful Youth Civic Council which is elected every two years to provide a youth perspective on council policies and programmes. Work is undertaken with children through local schools through the foundation, and plans are well advanced to develop YouthBank in the Odessa region. Although not directly on the front line, the political tension that wracks Ukraine is also apparent in Odessa, and yet life goes on in the bright, brittle sunshine of a late February morning.


“More careful than The Pope and Mother Teresa” combined…

This was the warning flagged up by a panel speaker during the concluding session of the Ukrainian Philanthropists’ Forum conference; he was addressing civil society activists and donors, calling on the latter to support those organizations that were best placed to help others. However, the choice of what issues to prioritize, and who to help, all carry political connotations in a society facing divisive violent conflict. Natalia Karbowska, Chairperson of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund spoke not only of the rapid response grants provided by the Fund, but also noted how issues such as HIV/AIDS, breast cancer screening and domestic violence against women are in danger of being starved of funds given the immediate pressure of conflict related needs. Natalia recognizes the importance of looking to the future in order to ensure that essential reforms are implemented and that women feature in decision-making. She would like to see the formation of a Think Tank to keep a focus on the nature of future society and to encourage broader discussion and awareness.

Equally, however, she is acutely conscious of the need for community philanthropy to make local links in order to ensure an inclusive conversation. As Vaclau Havel once said “Real democracy begins not with elections but with conversations”; these crucial conversations are clearly taking place within Ukrainian community philanthropy organisations. People may well be careful about what they say, but that is understandable, and even welcome, in a still fluid situation where it is more important to pose questions rather than jump in with too many ready-made answers.

Avila Kilmurray

GFCF Director, Policy & Strategy

Going swimmingly: Centennial year resources on community foundations

This article, written by Daria Teutonico of the Council on Foundations and the GFCF’s Wendy Richardson, originally appeared on the Alliance magazine website.

1914 was a big year for big ideas. In Australia, swimming enthusiasts developed a new kind of suit – the Speedo – and sold it on the market for the first time. In the US, Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother’s Day, designating the second Sunday in May as a national holiday. Further south, in August of that year, the Panama Canal was officially opened linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Meanwhile in Ohio there was another big idea brewing, and the world’s first community foundation was born.

Cleveland-based banker and lawyer Frederick Goff had an ambitious vision to create an outfit that would pool the charitable resources of Cleveland’s philanthropists, living and dead, into a single, permanent endowment for the betterment of the city: the result was the first community foundation. A model that would eventually become known for being supportive like a Speedo, touching like Mother’s Day, and a connector of people and things, just like the Panama Canal.

One century on, one can only guess as to how proud Goff would be, should he be able to realize how far and wide his simple idea has spread, evolved and flourished. Indeed, 2014 was a year dedicated to celebrating a century of community foundation accomplishments – not only of the first, the Cleveland Foundation, but of a diverse family of organizations from around the world. The centennial offered a unique opportunity to reflect on the proud history of the growing sector, broaden public understanding, and highlight the unique roles these organizations play in improving communities; it also offered time and space for practitioners from around the world to think about how best to prepare for the next century.

As a result, the centennial year produced a wealth of resources about community foundations. A few focus on the history of the field, but the vast majority contain information, data, tools, case studies and analysis that can assist community foundation professionals in their current work and in their planning. As there is no one repository for these resources, this article provides a brief overview of what is available, where they can be found, and what information they provide.


1914 to now: celebrating a century of accomplishments

Many of the resources produced over the past year look at what has been achieved, and the lessons that can be taken, from this century of dynamic activity. As part of the centennial, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation – one of the most stalwart and long-term supporters of the field globally, providing support for almost all the resources and events mentioned in this article – launched a new microsite, Community Foundations – The Mott Foundation Experience which shares what the foundation has learned in its more than 35 years of supporting community philanthropy organizations. The site also details the growth of the sector, provides case studies from around the world, and offers a section on key lessons for working in the field.

Also a dedicated supporter of the community foundation field, the Council on Foundations organized several special initiatives over 2014, in addition to hosting the centennial conference in Cleveland in October, in order to reflect and to celebrate the sector’s milestone. The #CF100 Storytelling Project collected stories from the field which demonstrate how individual organizations are addressing critical local and regional issues, providing examples of innovative programmes and projects that may shape communities for years to come. Also seeking out great stories, the #CF100 Video Contest was run in partnership with the Knight Foundation and the Poynter Institute. Individual organizations from around the world created and submitted 100-second videos highlighting their roles in shaping their communities, and finalists were celebrated at the centennial conference in Cleveland.

In line with its mission to equip the community foundation field with tools to help advance the practice of community leadership, CFLeads released a series of publications focusing on resident engagement and best practice in this area. These were largely based on lessons gathered from their network over many years, and included: Community Foundations and Resident Engagement: Stories from the Field, offering specific examples of resident engagement projects, including how community foundations have succeeded in building understanding and support among staff, board members and donors; Powerful Partners: Lessons from Community Foundations about Resident Engagement, featuring an analysis of ten broad lessons from the CFLeads network to help inform about best practices in resident engagement; and, produced in partnership with the Aspen Institute, Resident Engagement Guidebook: Exploring Readiness and Options, which is a new tool meant to assist community foundations in assessing their readiness to deepen their resident engagement practices.

Finally, in terms of looking back and situating the sector, with the support of the Lily Family School of Philanthropy, Eleanor Sacks published the essay The Growing Importance of Community Foundations, which provides a detailed history of the origins of community foundations in the US. The research for the essay will form the basis for a forthcoming book by Sacks entitled Community Foundations in the United States: Their Origins, Growth and Development from 1914 to the Present.


2014: one century on, where are we now?

Beyond celebrating past accomplishments, several resources were produced over 2014 which provide a useful state-of-play on the global sector. An exciting development was undoubtedly the launch of the new Community Foundation Atlas, which for the first time provides detailed information about the identities, locations, assets, roles and effectiveness of the more than 1,800 community philanthropy organizations working globally. The Atlas, which was delivered in the form of an interactive website rich with qualitative and quantitative information, is the result of a two-year research effort coordinated by the Cleveland Foundation, Foundation Center, Global Fund for Community Foundations and Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS). The Atlas was created with an eye to increasing the visibility of the sector, but also with the thinking that if the world’s place-based philanthropies were better informed about the existence of counterparts in other countries and made aware of the similarities of their concerns and the distinctiveness of their approaches to community service and improvement, they could more easily learn from and support one another.

To further contribute to the centennial, in 2014 WINGS released Infrastructure in Focus: A Special Look at Organizations Serving Community Philanthropy, which provides an overview of community philanthropy infrastructure organizations, including case studies of where community philanthropy support has made a significant difference to the field. The infrastructure organizations surveyed represent more than 1,000 community foundations worldwide, and the publication provides a useful snapshot of the current situation of support bodies internationally.


2114: onwards and upwards!

With an eye to making the next 100 years even more remarkable, a number of resources produced in the centennial year looked to the future, and focused on improving interventions, operations and strategic decision making. The Monitor Institute released its What’s Next for Community Philanthropy Toolkit, which aims to assist community philanthropy organizations to think creatively about their own business models, considering how they may need to change to remain relevant. The toolkit includes specific tools and guides to use with board and staff to find new and effective ways of working. Ten overarching roles that community foundations can play in their communities are also suggested as a starting point for discussions.

Editors Terry Mazany and David Perry published a new book, Here for Good: Community Foundations and the Challenges of the 21st Century, which is a compilation of essays by leaders in the community foundation field about insights and best practices. Chapters focus on a variety of issues, including: innovation, leadership, resident engagement, community development, and the community foundation business model, among others.

Interestingly, though not necessarily organized as part of the centennial celebrations, 2014 saw two different initiatives focused solely on youth community philanthropy – perhaps an indication that moving forward this will be a key characteristic of community foundation work? In June 2014, the Council on Foundations and the Council of Michigan Foundations organized a summit on youth community philanthropy, assembling practitioners from around the globe. A subsequent report documents major themes from the summit, including inspiring approaches, trending topics and the networks needed to amplify youth community philanthropy in the future.

Additionally, the Foundation Center, in partnership with Youth Philanthropy Connect, a programme of the Frieda C Fox Family Foundation, released a report along the same lines, Scanning the Landscape of Youth Philanthropy: Observations and Recommendations for Strengthening a Growing Field, which studies the scope of existing knowledge about youth grantmaking programmes and offers recommendations for community foundations wishing to expand their youth philanthropy work in future.


Just like a Speedo

While it’s not really expected that any one individual will delve into each and every one of these reports, websites and books in-depth (though it would certainly be commendable if they did!), it seemed important to put together this repository of tools as this is more than just a list of resources that may help to connect a field and improve future interventions. Rather, collectively, these resources signal a coming of age, illustrating that this is a maturing field looking to broaden its horizons. Individual organizations are moving beyond the confines of their own community and even country and are truly taking note of what colleagues around the world are doing. Others are taking note too: 2014 also saw work kicking off around the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, a multi-donor collaborative engaged in joint learning activities aimed at advancing the practice of community philanthropy and influencing international development actors to better understand, support and promote community philanthropy’s role in achieving more lasting development outcomes.

How will community foundations cope with the next 100 years? Perhaps, just like a Speedo, the key will be in staying flexible: adapting to rapidly changing conditions, being supportive but not suffocating, and covering as much ground as possible with what can often be meagre resources. With helpful tools abounding to aid in this work moving forward, one can only hope that it will all go swimmingly!

Upcoming webinar on diaspora philanthropy

Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmakers Support (WINGS) and Bolder Giving are pleased to announce this upcoming webinar exploring diaspora philanthropy. This has grown significantly, stemming from the global mobility of talent and increasing wealth within diaspora communities. At the same time, philanthropic groups in developing countries are also increasing their efforts to maintain ties with, and fundraise from, their diasporas.

Whether you are an individual donor who is thinking about how you can give to your home country, an NGO leader within a diaspora community, or are working to build a culture of giving within your country or diaspora, join this webinar to explore these issues in more depth.


Date and time:

Thursday 2nd April, 11am EST


Jenny Hodgson, GFCF

Burcu Mirza, Turkish Philanthropy Funds  

Exploring the value of community philanthropy to traditional development assistance

By: Maryanne Yerkes, Senior Civil Society and Youth Advisor

USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance

In January, USAID, the U.S. Government’s lead agency on foreign assistance, hosted the first of a series of roundtable discussions on community philanthropy (CP). This event highlighted the ways in which this approach to development, which focuses on the mobilization of local assets, can complement traditional development assistance. The roundtables are organized as part of a global development alliance (GDA) on community philanthropy that USAID and the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) launched in September.  This GDA contributes to the larger Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (GACP) which, in addition to USAID and AKF, includes four other private foundations and the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), which serves as the Alliance secretariat.

The session,  entitled “Linkages Between Community Philanthropy and Civil Society Sustainability,” featured opening remarks by Neil Levine, Director of  USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG Center); Mirza Jahani, the CEO of AKF USA; and Claire Ehmann, DRG Center Civil Society and Media Division Chief. The keynote presentation was given by Avila Kilmurray, the Director of Policy and Strategy at the GFCF.

Why is community philanthropy important to traditional development assistance?  Supporting citizens and local civil society organizations (CSOs) to mobilize their own assets for development — be they financial, human, or intellectual — can help strengthen the financial viability and legitimacy of CSOs as well as the sustainability of the civil society sector. CP approaches can also elicit new ideas for addressing complex development problems by tapping into local resources and solutions, and they can help address some of the power imbalances inherent in traditional aid by shifting resource decisions to local actors and encouraging downward accountability. CP approaches may also prove useful in countries where civil society actors are experiencing a closing of political space, and CSOs are increasingly restricted from receiving foreign funds. Being able to leverage local assets not only helps CSOs financially, but also provides them political cover as well as moral support from local communities in difficult times. Finally, alliances such as the GACP offer excellent learning opportunities given the range of partners involved and the ability to leverage global networks.

In her keynote presentation, Avila provided a comprehensive overview of CP and its history, weaving in findings from research conducted by the Alliance. Her insightful presentation and the rich discussion that followed evoked a myriad of themes and issues, including:

  • The CP field continues to evolve and is influenced and strengthened by regional variations,  including variations in the defining characteristics of CP emphasized by local actors (i.e., building community trust, creating endowments,  etc. ) and in the ways in which CP is initiated (i.e., through domestic philanthropic gifts, external funds, grassroots activism, etc.). The GACP provides an invaluable opportunity to deepen knowledge of the variations and similarities in CP approaches across countries and regions.
  • Given their connections with the private sector, CP actors have a unique role to play in facilitating linkages across sectors of society (i.e., bridging private sector and civil society actors), which can help strengthen the sustainability of the civil society sector.
  • CP actors frequently operate with small amounts of funding and have a deep reach within communities, making them well-suited for applied research and for quickly testing different development innovations, which can be useful for policy makers.  In this way, they can “afford to fail,” which is critical for learning.
  • In conflict-affected societies, CP actors can help mobilize local funds and assets to engage all parties in conflict to advance peacebuilding efforts. In many cases, bilateral donors are prohibited from working with certain actors. CP institutions can help bridge this gap while at the same time leveraging social capital built through years of grassroots-level work.
  • Challenges remain, however. The “Politics of Philanthropy” is still at play and local donors, similar to foreign donors, may exert excessive influence on funding decisions. Attention therefore must be given to ensuring processes are inclusive and marginalized populations are not excluded. CP approaches also can take a considerable amount of time and work as they rely on creating and strengthening trust among various stakeholders. The time required may be frustrating for donors and donor recipients working under shorter timeframes; however, the benefits will definitely make this initial challenge worthwhile.
  • It is important to use a systems approach to CP, which includes strengthening the legal and regulatory environment, providing support to CP institutions at multiple levels, developing relationships across sectors of society, as well as facilitating linkages between local and global actors. Initial GACP research in the Baltics indicates that efforts are more sustainable when local actors have opportunities to network with one another and with regional and global actors. When CP actors were isolated, their efforts were less sustainable. Understanding the delicate interplay between global and local actors, ensuring they can support one another without one side becoming too dominant, is essential. The GACP is positioned to explore such dynamics and cultivate and share learnings.
  • A key “growth area” for CP is exploring how Information Communications Technology (ICT) and other new media can be better leveraged to create new opportunities for raising funds and sustaining CP efforts. While some CP institutions have begun to explore innovative ICT approaches, such as crowd-funding, this continues to be new ground for most actors.

The above are mere highlights of an extremely rich discussion. Fortunately, as the GACP advances, there will be more opportunities to explore in more depth these and other issues. For information on the GACP, contact Wendy Richardson, GFCF Coordinator for Grants and Learning, wendy@globalfundcf.org. For information on USAID’s involvement in the Alliance, contact Maryanne Yerkes, Senior Civil Society and Youth Advisor with USAID’s DRG Center, myerkes@usaid.gov.

Community philanthropy and a new model of development

This article, written by Jenny Hodgson and Barry Knight, as well as the responses originally appeared in Alliance Magazine


As discussion hots up around the United Nations’ new set of Sustainable Development Goals, set to replace the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it is a good time to reflect on the architecture of the international development sector and the role community philanthropy might play in development.  The post-2015 goals will apply universally, not just to developing countries, so this discussion is relevant everywhere. On 4 December UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released his Synthesis Report for the post-2015 development agenda. This report will be the basis for discussion among governments and other actors in the run-up to the UN General Assembly in September 2015.


A global development industry

The good news is that the MDGs have reduced extreme poverty by half (though the benefits have not always been evenly spread geographically and there has been less success on key goals relating to women and children).

However, the global development ‘industry’ that the donor community has helped to create over the last few decades in the pursuit of poverty alleviation and other global development objectives may not be fit for purpose. Many NGOs have become highly skilled proposal writers, budget jugglers and masters of development jargon, who compete with each other to serve the needs of external funders.

The impact of international funding has also distorted our sense of time (a five-year development project can be considered long-term) and created lines of ‘accountability’ (a slippery, multi-directional word much bandied about in development discourse) which drive upwards and outwards. The result is hefty reports landing on desks in London or Washington, far from the people that development is meant to serve.


An alternative model of development

It was frustration with these features of the development industry that, 17 years ago, led to the creation of the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF). KCDF was established by local civil society leaders who were exasperated by what they saw as years of international development programmes in Kenya undermining rather than fostering local agency. They saw people being relegated to the role of ‘beneficiaries’ with ‘needs’ rather than citizens with assets who could play an active role in their own development. Kenya’s rich systems of mutual giving, and its growing middle and wealthy classes, were never part of the local development equation. They therefore wanted to create a local institution that could both build up the capacities of local organizations and harness local assets in new and strategic ways.

It is the same frustration that is today fuelling the creation of the Haiti Community Foundation, an initiative inspired by the perception that despite the millions of dollars in aid being channelled into the country (particularly following the January 2010 earthquake), most of it is going to international organizations, with little investment in building Haitian institutions that could serve people over the long term.

These are just two examples of a new breed of locally driven and locally shaped community philanthropies that are emerging around the world. Although these institutions may differ in context and origins, they are all seeking to model new types of philanthropic behaviour by harnessing local resources and local traditions of giving, and blending them with new institutional forms.


A new evidence base

Up to now, the value of community philanthropy has been largely anecdotal and based on a small number of case studies. However, with the recent publication of the Community Foundation Atlas – timed to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the first community foundation in Cleveland – this has changed.

The Atlas shows that the global community philanthropy field has come of age. Today, there are more than 1,800 community foundations around the world, almost three-quarters of them created in the last 25 years. With a large number of the younger community foundations based in the developing or emerging economies of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, this is a movement that has spread far beyond its original base in North America.

A recent report produced by the GFCF focuses specifically on what the Atlas tells us about the current state of play among community foundations within the GFCF’s own global grantmaking constituency and the extent to which community foundations are playing a unique role in driving people-led development. The report draws on a study of 478 community foundations that answered a detailed questionnaire, paying particular attention to the 110 community foundations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe. The report also draws on insights gathered through the GFCF’s grantmaking to 157 organizations in 52 countries.

The report focuses on three core characteristics that together form the backbone of strong, effective community philanthropy, and distinguish them from other parts of civil society. They are also what make community foundations fit to be effective local development agents. These are Assets, Capacities and Trust.



For community foundations, asset development is often associated with endowment funds (according to Atlas data, over 450 of the 1,800 community foundations have endowment funds over $10 million, 11 of these with endowments of over $1 billion). Within the global cohort of Atlas respondents, 83 of the 96 organizations that responded to the question either have or intend to build an endowment fund. Yet, most of the existing endowments are very small, with a median size of $69,700; the smallest is just $200. Clearly, these are too small to offer any long-term sustainability, so what do they tell us?

First, many of the non-US community foundations included in the Atlas survey operate in countries whose recent history includes major – and often turbulent – changes to the political and economic landscape. Some have experienced crisis, conflict or simply entrenched poverty; many have been on the receiving end of decades of international development aid, often with mixed results. In such complex, unpredictable environments, it can be hard to think long term, and the short-term, project-driven nature of international development aid can also constrain long-term thinking. So when a community foundation decides to establish an endowment fund, no matter how small it might be, it can serve as a powerful statement that it intends to be around for a long time and to stick with its community through thick and thin.

Second, despite the many difficulties associated with developing local philanthropy, community foundations are finding new and inventive ways of re-connecting communities with abandoned traditions or establishing new ones, and of valuing other kinds of assets beyond just money.

In Romania, for example, Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation is connecting local philanthropy development to active citizenship. Thirteen thousand individuals use the foundation’s ‘community card’ as a loyalty card with business partners, thereby allowing this small rural community to make small regular payments into a community fund. The income generated through the community card is currently $5,000 a month. This is local money.



By and large, community foundations in emerging markets and developing contexts tend to focus on strengthening small, off-the-map local groups that governments, philanthropy and development aid often overlook. In fact, a number of these community foundations emerged as the product of grassroots activism. Underlying many of these institutions is the belief that strong local organizations are an essential part of a healthy civil society; that people trust such organizations to represent them and speak on their behalf; and that these groups need to be well managed if local donors are to be convinced to support them.

So how do community foundations build the capacities of the communities that they serve? Grantmaking is one essential tool in the toolkit, an effective and transparent mechanism for devolving resources (and therefore power) to others so that they can organize themselves. However, grantmaking is not well established or understood in many parts of the world – such as China, Brazil or India – and often it is only community foundations that are doing it. So it is particularly noteworthy that 90 of 94 organizations that answered the question in the Atlas use grantmaking as part of their toolkit.

In addition to grantmaking, these organizations engage in activities such as training, mentoring and convening. In fact, what comes across strongly from the findings of theAtlas is that what really makes a difference to the effectiveness of a community foundation is not the amount of money that it has or gives out, but how it does so.

Guandong Harmony Foundation (est 2009) is one of the very few grantmaking foundations in China, making it a ‘precious’ resource, according to one of its board members. Operating in a highly complex and often sensitive environment, it provides grants, technical support and advice to local groups working on a number of issues, linking them with each other, as well as highlighting their work and amplifying their voices among government authorities and local Chinese donors



Because community foundations often occupy the middle ground – between those wishing to give and those looking for resources, between international donors and local NGOs, and even between different parts of the same community – much of what they do translates as building trust.

It is hard to place a value on local trust. At their best these foundations are trusted to reflect local needs and opportunities, and they see themselves as accountable to the people within their communities. Again, grantmaking offers an effective model of transparent management of a donor’s funds, with reporting back to both donor and community on each grant.

Building trust is the cornerstone of civil society, the framework for engineering people’s re-engagement in community activity. And the result of community foundation activity is a greater engagement of parts of the community that had previously been detached and disenfranchised.

The LIN Center for Community Development, for example, was established to help support the development of a strong, credible and professional non-profit sector in the urban setting of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. LIN sees the process of raising local Vietnamese contributions for local causes as extremely important in building stronger communities which are better informed and more connected – and, in the end, in improving the long-term sustainability of local efforts.


What role for donors?

Community foundations represent a different model of development, one that is based on the idea that development outcomes are more lasting when people invest their own resources to address their own issues. What is the role of external donors in building what is still a young movement?

Data from the Atlas suggests that this needs to be handled carefully. For around half (45 or 93 who answered the question) external aid is an ‘important’ or ‘centrally important’ part of their funding. Looking at those organizations that have been formed from the outside, of which local people may have limited ownership, the general level of their reported achievements appears to be much lower. The main drivers of success are community leadership and grassroots organizing. So the message seems to be that external support – which has proved crucial to many community foundations, particularly in the start-up and early development stages – needs to be delivered in a way that fosters rather than displaces local leadership and the harnessing of local assets.

This suggests that donors need to be nuanced in the ways that they behave. For traditional international donors, whose influence is already starting to diminish with the arrival of new forms of South-South cooperation (which often require much less in terms of compliance), it is time to do some real soul-searching about the kind of legacy that they want to leave behind in developing contexts where they have been active for decades.

Donors need to think long-term and think holistically. It is short-sighted to concentrate only on the tangible, the countable, the ‘bang for your buck’. How about investing in partner organizations so that they can plan for their future as a longer-term social good so that when you leave, you leave them in good shape? Local NGOs shaped too much by external funding might not be the kinds of NGOs that local people really want. Their ability to negotiate with other institutional players (state, corporate, etc.) depends on some degree of legitimacy and local buy-in.

Civicus recently convened a conversation of activists aimed at exploring the extent to which civil society is ‘fit for purpose’ in the context of current global challenges, and the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, which got going earlier this year, brings together a range of public and private donors interested in better understanding how more horizontal forms of asset development can foster more sustainable development and what role international donors can play. These kinds of conversations are essential if international development is going to engage constructively around real issues of power and ownership.


Alliance asked community foundation leaders in North America and Europe if they feel community foundations can play a role in development at a national level, helping their countries to meet the new post-2015 development targets, which will apply universally, not just to developing countries. This is what they said:


Ian Bird – Community Foundations of Canada

The proposed universality of the Sustainable Development Goals reminds us all that many of the world’s persistent challenges are present in all corners of the globe, distributed unevenly to be sure, but in all cases requiring appropriate doses of locally directed assets, trust and capacity (as per Hodgson and Knight.) In Canada, for example, we are in the midst of a Truth and Reconciliation process between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, which has exposed our own domestic ‘development industry’. Inner-city inequality, multi-generational poverty and persistent patterns of environmental degradation are similarly constructed by external forces that create internal consequences. A new model of development abroad would be a welcome addition here in the North too, where Canada’s 191 community foundations are emerging to play a role in putting the community at the centre of its own development.


Cathy Elliott – Community Foundations for Lancashire & Merseyside, UK

A community foundation’s role is simple in terms of philanthropy facilitation, grantmaking and community leadership, yet complex due to the many stakeholders involved in order to enable communities to be thriving. Each community foundation and each country’s network appears to major in one of these three elements, though the challenge is to establish all three to satisfy all stakeholders.

In the UK we have decades of experience of grantmaking, at least ten years’ experience of philanthropy facilitation, and our community leadership role is now fully emerging, such as via Vital Signs, launched in 2013. Vital Signs are reports that are produced annually in various regions of the UK to act as guides to local charitable giving by measuring social trends and issues. They serve all aspects of our work to effectively guide community philanthropy for thriving communities as well as to give communities a voice.

Supporting this, our endowment building in the UK is our clear statement of our intent to support communities for the long term. We now hold £450 million in endowment across 48 community foundations. We aim to be a permanent fixture for years to come.


Alina Porumb – Association for Community Relations, Romania

Romanian community foundations emerged in a context in which most NGOs, local citizens and sometimes local/regional governments were looking outside their own communities to resource their agenda for development. They offered a changed paradigm, helping local citizens and businesses identify their own resources and use them to support initiatives to improve their quality of life.

Romanian community foundations have invested a lot of energy in supporting young people to engage with local realities, raise resources, make grants and take initiative. They have built fundraising platforms to provide space for communities to raise resources to support the inclusion of more vulnerable groups. They help local citizens organize themselves to build a sense of belonging in their neighbourhoods. In economically underdeveloped areas, they support local producers of food and crafts to promote their work in the community and outside. The locally led and owned projects that community foundations support are mobilizing high levels of in-kind and volunteer resources, with community foundations’ financial investment being matched by the project leaders and their networks.

There are currently 12 community foundations in Romania, aged between two and seven years, covering 35 per cent of the population, while four more are currently being built. All this experience has been brought together through a strong national network that shares a vision for conscious, generous, inclusive and sustainable local communities. As such, this network can be an important asset at the national level to support Romanian progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.


Ulrike Reichart – Association of German Foundations 

Since 1996, more than 350 community foundations have emerged in Germany, with a growing potential for influence. But what role do they actually play in promoting community involvement at local and national level?

Sustainable capacity building is one important means by which community foundations claim to contribute to the long-term well-being of the community. However, in many parts of Germany their assets, and therefore the funding opportunities, are still very small. But no less important is the human capital: 93 per cent of the work of German community foundations is done by volunteers!

Community foundations in Germany more and more accept the role of a ‘platform for civic engagement’, acting as mediators and facilitators in their communities, inviting all members of the community to contribute time, money or ideas. Their purpose is to bring people and organizations together to talk about important social and political issues and to promote joint action.

German community foundations, with more than 25,000 benefactors and donors and many more contributing time and ideas, have become a strong civic force. But awareness of them is not very great. Their potential for making a significant impact on the achievement of sustainable development goals at national level is therefore not much exploited.


Albert Ruesga – Greater New Orleans Foundation, USA

I’m an ‘interested party’ in discussions of community philanthropy, running a fairly large community foundation in the American South. In spite of the rich tradition of community philanthropy in the US, I take much of my inspiration from community funds that operate overseas. Here I find examples of organizations built from the ground up, addressing needs framed by local residents, using methods animated by local values. My impression is that the directors of these community funds take chances that few directors of US-based community foundations would take for fear of alienating wealthy donors.

I also tend to find abroad a much greater regard for civil society and its many civilizing roles. Civil society organizations in the US are part of the so-called ‘third sector’. Despite their relative independence from government and business, they seldom help citizens question the frames they’ve internalized from birth, thus helping to ensure that wealth and other privileges remain concentrated in few hands.

I would caution against reading Hodgson and Knight’s article too narrowly. It might give the impression that community funds are exclusively concerned with grassroots or hyper-local matters. Community foundations in the US, and their counterparts in other parts of the world, can be, and often are, a locus of power, bringing together diverse stakeholders to address a community’s most substantive needs.


Sonal Shah – London Community Foundation, UK

Talking to community foundations across the globe, I am struck time and again by how similar our stories are, how common the challenges we face. Yes, there are huge differences in our political and cultural contexts, our histories, evolution and finances, but shared themes routinely emerge. For me the most important is this: how do we work in a way that ‘fosters rather than displaces local leadership’ in order for development initiatives around the world to be appropriate and sustainable?

This question is as relevant in London and the UK as it seems to be elsewhere. Mission drift to meet the needs of funders, local NGOs shaped largely by external agency, and an imbalance of power and ownership feature at local, national and international level.

In the UK, donors typically use community foundations to give to smaller charities and grassroots community organizations – local agency and leadership are thereby built into our model. However, it can go further. In London, some of our funds have panels made up of donors and other stakeholders – a place-based fund, for example, may have local residents as well as community activists helping to make decisions.

Or even further, as with our flagship initiative ‘Building Communities in Coldharbour’, which supports individual residents (not groups) to take their own ideas forward. In the words of one of our grantees: ‘It is life-changing for local people to be supported to do the things they want rather than something that is considered necessary from an “expert” person or organization that has no experience of living and working within the ward.’


Boris Strečanský – Centre for Philanthropy, Slovakia

The six elements of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as defined in the Synthesis Report of the Secretary General, are relevant to the current situation of Slovakia. However, I am not sure how much Slovakia as a country perceives these goals as goals for itself or how such perception translates into public awareness, actions by local development actors or government policies.

This applies also to community foundations, which operate in different conceptual frameworks, each adapted to their particular situation, and to their reading of the local context and of their particular role in it.

But the point I want to make is that the narratives that inform the actions of (Slovak) community foundations are different from the SDGs, but they are compatible. That says something about the need to recognize the diversity of languages that are used locally to communicate similar content rather than adhering to the somewhat empty development-speak.


Jeff Yost – Nebraska Community Foundation, US

Community foundations are potentially extraordinary organizations that should be, first and foremost, agents of development. Hodgson and Knight are spot on. At the Nebraska Community Foundation, we have built a decentralized system vesting much of the decision making power in the wisdom of 1,800 community volunteers in over 250 Nebraska hometowns. One of our core beliefs is that the only people who can build and sustain a strong and progressive community are those that live and work there. Anyone else coming to town to help should do exactly that and only that. Help. The Nebraska Community Foundation partners with these volunteer leaders on this journey.

To be effective agents of development, our frame must be one of abundance. How do we first maximize the indigenous assets of the people and the place, inclusive of time, talent and treasure? Then what external resources might help to further catalyze community building and positive feelings? It is important to frame money as a tool for development; not an outcome in and of itself. The money is important, but it is only one of many tools required for sustainable community development.

More important than the money is vision, leadership and trust. Our system is grounded in reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships. Good ideas are really important, but ultimately change that sticks happens along the lines of relationship. A friend reaching out to another friend to say ‘please join me and my family in building the hometown we all dream of’. Thanks to Hodgson and Knight for recommending that an asset-based community development approach be used in every setting.

Catching the drift: Snowballing ideas around community philanthropy and the environment in Russia


Community foundations that have an established track record in their community, with strong networks of partners and allies, are well-positioned to initiate community-level discussion and to support local engagement. But when dealing with such enormous, even daunting, issues such as environmental degradation and climate change, is there a role for local community philanthropy actors to bridge global concerns and local action? How can community philanthropy organizations encourage ordinary citizens to see themselves as having a stake in (traditionally specialist) issues like the environment?

These were just a few questions raised at a two-day meeting of GFCF partners, held at the Tewa Centre in Nepal in November 2014, which set out to explore the intersections between community philanthropy and the environment. Participants included organizations from 11 countries that had received GFCF environment grants in 2014, as well as additional community philanthropy practitioners from Bangladesh, China and Kenya; all keen to hear from colleagues grappling with similar issues in their respective corners of the globe. 

The GFCF spoke with Daria Samarina, of the Social Initiatives Support Fund Sodeistvie, about her takeaways from the Nepal convening, and about how their organization is bringing issues around the environment to life in Perm, Russia.


GFCF: Could you tell us about your environment work?

Daria Samarina: The Social Initiatives Support Fund Sodeistvie has been working on a project called “Rural Ecological Inspectors”, which aims to strengthen the capacity of rural populations in the Perm region, enabling these communities to better address environmental security issues. In 2014, the project was supported by the GFCF and it is now being realized in the Chastinskiy District of the Perm region.

The project brought together citizens of all ages, and various ecological-themed events were organized: mass volunteer clean-ups of the Kama river coastline, development of new waste collection and separation systems, and revitalizing one of the Perm region’s oldest springs, among others. Additionally, the project has introduced the technology of public environmental control to rural areas. These efforts have been used by Sodeistvie as opportunities for developing ecological consciousness among the general public, and to encourage this a colourful brochure, leaflets and banners were created which deliver the simple message: there is nothing difficult about saving natural resources!

Some of the main results of the project have included: direct interaction with local authorities around environmental concerns; building assets from the local population; and, self-organized mass ecological actions including the continuation of environmental control raids at the residents’ will. Many citizens are now also putting a focus on raising environmental awareness among their neighbors.


GFCF: Was the environment an issue that was already on the radar of citizens in your community? If not, how has your organization overcome this?

DS: When we first arrived in the Chastinsky District with the presentation of this project, we were faced with a general lack of understanding from the population: what was this environmental programme and what would the results be? In order to address their concerns, we ran a series of information and training seminars. We made this as lively and interactive as possible so as not to bore the residents, and to capture their attention. Through these seminars we built up a strong circle of residents interested in raising environmental awareness – they turned out to be a great asset and assisted in expanding participants to the project by carrying out massive environmental actions.

Snow and tell: Results of Snegomania 2015For example, assisting in cleaning the coastal area of the Kama River received the greatest response from the population, as well as participating in the fun New Year’s “Snegomania” campaign. During Snegomania residents were encouraged, using only natural ingredients (no plastic!), to create and model their own snowmen. These creatures then decorated villages throughout the region on New Year’s Eve. What we have learned is that to increase the public’s interest in such serious issues as the environment you have to grab their attention, make the issue seem accessible, and be creative in your interventions!



GFCF: In Nepal what did you learn from the other participants – in terms of differences and similarities?

DS: Taking part in such an international event was an important step for our organizational development. The meeting in Nepal was about much more than ecological issues but about the global community philanthropy sector more widely, and it gave me the chance to meet new people; new friends from faraway parts of the world with diverse, enormously catchy ideas. The participants were all eager and willing to share, proof that our sector is always open to change and growth.

If I answer the question from the perspective of similarities and differences, it is worth mentioning that, in spite of the country of origin or issues covered, it seemed all of the organizations in the room faced similar problems. Challenges such as securing sustainable financing, building dialogues with the relevant authorities, and so on. With such a complex issue as the environment, it is somewhat more difficult to identify similar practice, as in every country there are very specific local conditions. That’s why each and every participant in Nepal brought with them something special and unique, and I think everyone took home a suitcase full of new practices and interesting contacts.

Daria (L) & Sevda Kilicalp, Bolu Community Foundation (Turkey) in Nepal


GFCF: What is it like for community foundations in Russia right now to try and build philanthropy?

DS: As a result of the current political situation in Russia, economic sanctions have been introduced. Such sanctions, of course, have negatively affected Russian businesses and the corporate sector is certainly facing some difficulties. Therefore philanthropy in Russia is a difficult topic at the moment, since corporations and companies are allocating almost no money to social programmes. But there is potential for philanthropy, particularly around working with individual donors who may be willing to contribute funding as well as other types of in-kind resources.

It seems to be easier for larger federal funds, often targeting specific population groups and working in urban centres, to expand their outreach and ultimately to find additional resources for their activities. They do this by using the media and by utilizing different forms of giving, like SMS donations. Whereas in the more rural regions, without access to major media sources for greater coverage, organizations are experiencing many difficulties in attracting funds. This is why we don’t put all the emphasis on money, but rather consider the word “resources” in a different way, thinking about the involvement of volunteers, the consulting advice we can provide, etc. As for Sodeistvie, we work a long way from the federal centre, and during this difficult period we have focused on collections in the form of humanitarian assistance: funds, books, toys, warm clothes, etc. – what people in remote rural areas are in need of.


GFCF: Have you read “The Case for Community Philanthropy” which identifies assets, capacities and trust to be the building blocks of community philanthropy? How does this framework resonate with your experience in the Perm region?

DS: Yes, I have read “The Case for Community Philanthropy” and I think that this concept directly resonates with our experience. The so-called “building blocks” for our organization are, first of all, trust and respect. The activities of the foundation are known throughout the areas in which we operate, and Sodeistvie holds quite a high reputation, our Director in particular. For many years, we have been providing free advice to non-profit organizations and initiative groups, helping to foster dialogue between “power, business, and non-profits” and to stimulate more work with regional authorities. This process has especially allowed for two-way trust and respect building and, without having done this, we would not have been able to introduce and implement such successful initiatives.

A life lived on the edge: An account of the first ten years of the Foundation for Social Transformation


A region on the fringes of the nation’s consciousness

On a map of India, the north-east territories look like an afterthought – precariously attached by a narrow strip of land, no wider than two kilometres in parts, called the ‘chicken neck’. This geographical side-lining is a feature of the region’s history and politics, too. Central government has never really known what to do with north-east India: the British colonialists classified this cluster of states as either ‘excluded’ or ‘partially excluded’ areas, thereby making it possible for officials and tribal leaders to rule as virtual dictators; and ever since the Independence of India (a particularly painful experience for the region), the north-east has been considered problematic.



Successive legislative initiatives have been introduced in an attempt to respect the distinguishing characteristics of the region and to maintain north-east India within the republic. In recognition of the diversity of the region, and of the number of tribal communities living alongside each other, the Sixth Schedule was introduced in the aftermath of Independence as a means of ceding a certain amount of administrative autonomy to the region and of promoting economic development. Economic development failed to follow, however, and the administrative autonomy was only partially successful, in some instances leading to individuals using district or regional councils to promote the narrower interests of families, friends or themselves, rather than acting on behalf of the whole community.

Separately, in a bid to stem the violence in the region, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was introduced, giving the armed forces a range of powers (which many human rights groups have challenged), among them the right to shoot a person on the suspicion that they might pose a threat or be a militant intent on an act of violence or sedition. Again, the introduction of the Act has had as many negative as positive effects – the armed forces, for example, have been held responsible for mass rapes of women, and for a number of acts of violence against citizens (among them, the Manipur massacre).

The region has constantly faced conflict, it’s always struggling for basic needs, security of life, basic human rights. Security has always been a priority.
Gayatri Buragohain, Executive Director, Foundation for Social Transformation

This is a politically volatile and fragile region, bordered on all sides by other countries (Bhutan, Tibet, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh). These borders are notoriously porous, and there is considerable migration to and from adjoining countries as well as between states. There has also been constant conflict since Independence, involving struggles between different ethnic groups, between militant groups and the state, between different militant groups, and between communities.


Rich in resources – poor in the management of resources

The sense of being at the far end of central government’s concerns extends to the manner in which the region’s rich flora and fauna are being exploited. The rich resources of this part of India – coal, petroleum, bamboo and timber – are of real interest to big business and national government, more so, it seems at times, than the people who live there. But the move to exploit these resources has led to massive degradation to the environment and caused problems for its people. There is a proposal currently, for example, to harness water and provide power by building a huge network of 168 dams across Arunachal Pradesh, one of the world’s six most seismically active regions. This project, thought to be India’s largest ever hydro-power initiative, is in complete defiance of the best advice of experts and others, who have said that such a programme would be unstable.[1]

All such developments have been of benefit to only a small minority of people; these privileged few have contrived to gain from these developments financially, while for almost everyone else living in the area the effect has been almost entirely negative. In Meghalaya, for example, a state rich in rivers and seasonal rivers, many of the rivers have become polluted through the waste from mining and from contaminants leaching into the water – as a result, the fish stocks have declined drastically, the fishermen who depended on fish for a living have been deprived of their livelihood, there is no fresh drinking water, and the locals have to walk long distances to get to a secure water source.


Coyness of external funders, and a changing community base

North-east India is a particularly extreme example of a region on the fringes of a nation’s consciousness, considered something of an irritant, were it not for the financial advantages to be made from its natural resources and for the danger that its political instability might spill over into the rest of the country. Regions of this kind rarely benefit from central government funding, and their instability and potential for conflict frequently scare off external funders and developers, too. In the case of the north-east, the volatility and insecurity of the region were factors making it a region that funders approached with the greatest of reluctance. Other issues had also, however, contributed to this reaction over the years. As Gayatri Buragohain, the current executive director of the Foundation for Social Transformation (FST), says, there were some NGOs that had effectively been blacklisted by funders because of their inability to maintain the appropriate channels of communication with their funders:

Something we know in the world of non-profit work is that it is important that you manage your account properly, you follow the rules and regulations, you maintain each and every receipt, you have every detail of your programme organized – when, why, how many people, all of that. This was not happening. So the basic assumption grantmakers had was that they would get a report in this particular format … which most of the NGOs, the people receiving the grant, didn’t know how to do and didn’t understand the importance of, either. Because of this a lot of questions have been raised about the credibility of non-profit organizations in the region.

One significant challenge in the early stages of the FST was to overturn this perception of NGOs as essentially corrupt. A surprisingly large number of NGOs operate in the region (disproportionately more than in most other states) but many of them are no longer active – there have been too many stories of money being distributed to NGOs only for them to hold on to the money themselves or to waste it in ill-conceived programmes with no likelihood of success. As a result, a considerable number of organizations are effectively no longer likely to be considered by donors.

A final, significant deficit for the north-east region is the lack of attention it receives in the media. The long-term nature of its issues, perhaps, or its geographical remoteness, means that it features rarely in the press and other media – worse still, when it does, it is not the region’s challenges and its attempts to deal with these challenges that are the story but the activity, planned or actual, of big business in the area. Among the residents of north-east India, certainly, the national media is perceived as being corporate-friendly and disinclined to focus on the real issues that confront the region.

Faced with this triple whammy – lack of interest from central government, a reluctance to intervene from funders and an apparent inability from the media to paint an accurate picture of the region – one might expect the north-east communities to mobilize themselves, as communities of regions affected in a similar way often do, and become a powerful campaigning force, securing for itself the recognition and funds that are unavailable through conventional routes. The fact that this has not happened in north-east India is partly to do with the region’s inter-community tension and conflict and partly to do with a change in culture that has diluted the communitarian spirit of the region: there is a sense nowadays that those who can turn things to their personal advantage, do, and without concern for the wider impact of such behaviour. The traditional pattern of communitarian self-help, too, has been eroded by a new focus on the importance of acquiring money. A similar development has affected indigenous life: the working lives of people living from the land, or from hunting, have been affected by the changes to the environment – hunters, for example, are now hunting to meet the needs of people who live outside the region whereas previously their activity would have been guided by issues of local sustainability and environmental husbandry.


The origins of the Foundation for Social Transformation

This is the region in which a group of visionary citizens established the FST – or the North-East Network, as it was first known – ten years ago. Sharing a common ambition, this group of academics, economists, activists and people working in civil society decided to set up a grantmaking foundation that would help to develop civil society in the region. To an external eye, this coming together of 12 founding members in a region so geographically dispersed and with so many competing agendas is in itself a sort of triumph, but for Gayatri it is these very factors that made it so easy:

These were people who constantly meet together in different forums all the time and have been working on different things together for some time. The community is small, and the community of people who are working in the social sector is so small that we all know each other. I started working in this region only last year. Last February I moved here from Delhi but within just one year I know almost everyone who’s working in the sector; it’s a small network. We meet in the same meetings, we run campaigns together, we do policy work together – whenever there’s a crisis situation, we get together.

FST is the only indigenous grantmaking organization in the north-east, unique in that it was started by, and is now run by, people of the north-east. Its founding members were clear that it should operate in contradistinction to an international donor agency or grantmaking body, either of which might attempt to graft on to the region an approach or a project that was not the region’s own. Rather than accept someone else’s agenda, the FST set out to fashion an agenda that would emerge from the region itself in response to its own particular issues and challenges. And what became quickly clear – in the course of what turned out to be an extensive consultation process, involving everyone engaged in civil society in the seven states – was that most of the issues of the region flowed back to the years of conflict and to the continued political instability. The years of conflict had given rise to other changes, however, that were not immediately obvious: for example, many of the tribal societies in the region had prided themselves previously on the fact that there was more gender equality in north-east India than elsewhere in the republic, but that was no longer the position – indeed, violence against women is currently a highly significant issue throughout the region. A similar transformation has changed a community that used to look out for others, ensuring things were shared out equitably, into one in which people and communities have unequal access to resources, which are in any case managed inefficiently. The cultural context in which the emerging FST was to operate, therefore, was more challenging even than had at first been imagined.

This consultation process helped to identify not just the main thematic areas in which the FST would work but also its organising objects. It is a testament to the thoroughness of the process that, more than ten years later, both of these are unchanged, as are the main operating principles of the organization.

The four main thematic areas in which it was agreed that the FST would work are:

  • Ensuring gender and social justice
  • Fostering youth development and action
  • Enhancing natural resources and linked livelihoods
  • Promoting regional arts and culture

And the core organizational priorities of the FST were identified as the need to:

  • Develop the capacity of the organization, so that it can both provide services and fundraise successfully
  • Build a communitarian spirit at the local level, to re-instil a tradition of philanthropy and volunteering
  • Change the perception of civil society in the region, and further afield, while also correcting public impressions of the corruption of the NGO sector
  • Interest regional and national government in the area, if only as a means of achieving results that are likely to be beyond government’s capacity to deliver from its remote sphere of influence
  • Bring the opportunities, the potential and the challenges of the region to the wider attention of international grantmakers and the global community foundation movement
  • Secure all this while still running projects and programmes that meet genuine local needs identified by the people on whose behalf the FST came into being in the first place
  • Attain sustainability

Certain other decisions were taken early on that are common to many other community foundations, the most obvious being that, for long-term, sustainable change, programmes and projects must be organized and led by people within the community, in response to needs expressed by members of that community; relying on external NGOs and development agencies would not affect the change in culture that was needed to deliver genuine social transformation. These decisions, sound though they were, would lead to internal weaknesses in the organization’s structure from which it would take some time to recover.


A strong start, and immediate setbacks

These core priorities and thematic areas continue to define the FST’s activity, but its progress over the last ten years has been anything but smooth. The early stages of its development were bright with promise: a significant grant came early on, in the form of a three-year seed-funding grant from the Ford Foundation. This was used to draw up a manifesto for the FST (shared with all stakeholders, and with everyone who had contributed to the earlier discussion and consultation process) and to begin the grantmaking activity.

As with everything it has done, this grantmaking activity has been an educative process for the FST. It has established that, in the north-east, the most effective grant recipients tend to be small organizations or in the form of individual fellowships. Capacity building is a significant factor in the successful administration of grants, and one which is easier to supervise when the same person turns up for successive sessions of a training programme, for example, or from one meeting to another; with larger organizations, different people attend different meetings and sessions, and there is a loss in continuity and coherence. This issue, though it directly affected the first round of grantmaking for the FST, is of broader significance for the whole region:

We realized that, when the operation of the grantee is accepting the capacity building and allowing us to hand-hold, the projects are very, very successful. We are doing a philanthropic study right now in FST and what we have noticed is that there are just a couple of organizations receiving funding who have the processes in place. But that number is small. The civil society of the NE needs to be strengthened to be able to see substantial work, substantial change. The smaller organizations need to be strengthened and, to strengthen the smaller organizations, the organizations that are otherwise not receiving funds from any source, you have to invest in capacity building of the organization.

FST has delivered just two rounds of grantmaking so far: the first grants, given out to a number of organizations and individuals whose projects matched the FST’s thematic areas of interest, were followed by a second round of grants that were in essence repeat grants given to a reduced number of the organizations and individuals who received grants in the first round. Thereafter, however, there have been no further grants, and the combination of factors that has led to this state of affairs – most of them beyond the control of the FST– and the adjustments the FST has had to make to accommodate itself to them, represents an important aspect of its growth as an organization.Grantees learning about mushroom cultivation

Most fundamentally, the Ford Foundation, which gave the FST its first grant, moved to a position where philanthropy development was no longer a priority area.[2] Although this was part of a global reorganization of programmes and priorities, additional bureaucratic complications in India may also have played a contributing role. In India, before you can receive a grant from a foreign donor, you have to receive the authorization of the Department of Economic Affairs (the DEA) – for reasons mentioned earlier, this authorization is almost impossible to get for an agency operating in the north-east. There is a similar requirement, as the result of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, to register any funding from a foreign source with the Ministry of Home Affairs – and, again, this is well-nigh impossible in the north-east, where the volatility of the region, together with the poor compliance record of some NGOs, has contributed to a suspicion that all such externally sourced funding is primarily intended to support militancy and sedition.

As Gayatri herself admits, this loss of the organization’s main source of funding was particularly difficult because it found the FST unprepared:

The biggest challenge for FST has been that it was seed-funded by the Ford Foundation. This had perhaps created a false sense of security and downplayed the need for the organization to think about a long-term funding strategy from diverse sources.

This common omission (essentially, the difficulty of balancing the need to do something now with the need to secure funds to be able to do other things in the future) was compounded by certain other decisions, taken early on, that are also common to many other community foundations – most significantly, the failure to impress on everyone working in the organization the central importance of fundraising to its operation.

The loss of funding very nearly sounded the death knell for the FST. All other avenues for funding turned out to be dead ends and, when the then executive director had (for family reasons) to relocate, it looked as if the FST might follow the pyrotechnic trajectory of so many other fledgling organizations: an initial burst of bright enthusiastic activity, followed by a sudden, terminal decline. That this turned out not to be the case is partly down to an extension to the grant from the Ford Foundation (although of a reduced amount and for a new purpose), partly to the activity of the FST’s founding members, and partly to the organization’s ability to refashion itself to changing circumstances.


A forced change of direction

The Ford Foundation’s final grant, which was given in 2011, was a reduced grant to enable the FST to build its own capacity: basically, a time-buying support that would allow the organization to secure funds from other sources and achieve a degree of financial sustainability. Bureaucratic hurdles and administrative difficulties, however, many already referred to, meant that this grant came through only in 2013.

The FST was able to survive the intervening years largely as the result of the intervention of the founding members of the organization and its board members, who were able to secure a couple of grants for project implementation. Inevitably, however, these grants changed the way in which the organization operated, moving it from what had initially been a grantmaking organization to one that was effectively a service organization. Two years ago, in 2013, when these implementation grants were finally assigned, Gayatri (who had previously been involved with the organization in a voluntary capacity) joined the FST as Executive Director and, with an entirely new team, began to try to restore its previous grantmaking capacity and to secure its longer-term sustainability.


New lessons to learn

One effect of the decision to ground the FST in its community, and to ensure it responded to needs expressed by members of that community, was that there was no guarantee that the organization would boast all the skills required for it to survive – most conspicuously, the skill to generate funds to enable it to carry on its activity. Establishing the case for fundraising and clarifying the need for everyone to become involved in the process itself required a shift in the understanding of those working for the FST about what a philanthropy organization is and the part that fundraising plays in it. The new team had to accept a change in its understanding of organizational culture, the most significant element of which was this need for everyone to consider themselves, at least in part, as fundraisers. The team was not unusual among non-profit workers in resisting this idea:

I think that a big scare that we have as non-profit workers is that we don’t want to raise funds, we don’t think of ourselves as people who can raise funds or who can be marketing and sales people. Fundraising seems to be for marketing and sales people; we are people who work at the grassroots and who deliver, who make projects happen.

Little by little, this has begun to change, as members of the team have absorbed the importance of fundraising to their core activities. This recognition has been partly driven by necessity: a fundraiser drafted in to take sole responsibility of the fundraising function left the organization within a year of her appointment. Even this setback has turned out to be educative, however. The fundraiser had initially had considerable success, raising USD 6,000 very quickly indeed, as part of an individual donation programme. But this success was the result of the contacts she had brought with her; what she had been unable to do was to tap into any previously unexploited local philanthropic sources. The lesson was clear: for the FST to succeed as a local philanthropic organization, it had to operate locally, using local people, with their local contacts and their awareness of local needs, challenges and resources.

FST Staff participate in in-house trainingThe rest of the team still had to buy into the idea, however, and this did not happen immediately. It was only when two members attended a meeting in Shillong in September 2013, which the FST hosted at the recommendation and with the support of the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) and Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP),that they fully understood how integral fundraising was to the other aspects of philanthropic activity:

For the first time they realized ‘OK, this is what we are talking about. This is something totally different from what we’d thought. So this is a big struggle that we are going through right now and now we know what we have to do and that, OK, let’s get started, let’s try whatever ways we can to expand and fundraise and raise more money for grantees.’

The Shillong event transformed the way in which the FST’s new team perceived the organization, moving it out of its earlier insularity – and the feeling that its issues and its activities were unique – to a realization that it was part of a larger group of organizations dedicated to building community philanthropy, whose work, challenges and experiences mirrored those of the FST.

For Gayatri, too, the event was the start of a significant liberation from the sapping sense of isolation she had all too often previously experienced. Following Shillong, she actively cultivated contact with her new peers, curious to know more about how they had handled the challenges they had faced, and how she and the FST could learn from these experiences. It was also to be the start of a personal journey of professional development that would introduce her to community foundations beyond south Asia and show her how foundations could contribute to local governance and peace building.

The process is not complete. The transformation has had to be endorsed by the members of the board, not all of whom might have been expected to support this shift from the organization’s founding principles – fortunately, however, there is considerable support at board level for Gayatri’s vision and recognition of her energy and achievements. And if it is only within the last year that individual team members have begun to write proposals themselves, rather than rely on Gayatri (or another designated fundraiser) to do so, the process has marked a signal change in the way in which the team members define their role within the organization – and this internal reorientation marks the obvious beginning of an external reorientation, too.


A changed cultural landscape

One of the factors that had contributed to the perilous start of the FST continued to be an issue even at this later stage, though. The culture of the region had changed and the cultivation of a new spirit of local philanthropy had become a more demanding task as a result:

There has been a rich tradition of community giving here in the north-east. It is still visible in some of the remoter areas. However, because of the years of conflict that people have struggled, money has become something very dear to people; people don’t want to let it go, because people have struggled so much for basic needs. At what point we started to value money more than human relationships and community it’s difficult to say, but there has been that change. Money has become so much more important; you can very clearly see that in the way in which people are accumulating money. And the common aim of many youngsters seems to be to earn money. So there has been a paradigm shift in the way people have looked at life, valued life, seen what it means to be a good life, because people have gone through the struggles of living hand to mouth, and basically struggling for their daily needs, so there’s been a huge shift in the way that money is valued over recent decades.

How do you set about restoring a sense of supporting each other, giving back to the culture, when circumstances and the media conspire against you? One way is to vary the ways in which you try to get communities to give; another is to use the media itself to promote the cause of local philanthropy. Applying the first principle, the FST has attempted a number of approaches to increase the extent of local giving. None of these has been unarguably successful, although all of them have provided useful lessons.

The first approach was to use social media to increase local giving: an online programme, called North-East Rising, sought to use community members to persuade local people to give back to the community. This should have played to the organization’s strengths. After all, Gayatri had experience of raising money online, and the idea seemed a compelling one: money was to be raised to enable the FST to give seven grants to each of the seven states. But the campaign proved to be less successful than expected, and for instructive reasons. The issue of trust (already, as has been seen, an endemic concern in the region) became more significant still when fundraising on the Internet. But the premise of the campaign also turned out to be ill-conceived: before people were prepared to contemplate giving, they wanted to know who the recipients of the seven grants were, whereas the FST had assumed that it would identify these at the conclusion of the campaign and on calculation of the funds. The campaign turned out to be a useful lesson in the importance of working out the correct order in which to do things – since this activity, recipients have been pre-selected, and the FST has started to crowd-fund on the basis of already identified projects. This approach is already proving to be more successful.

Another approach was to put on events to attract a more diverse audience and to broaden the organization’s fundraising appeal. One such – a musical night at which an activist sang songs of peace – generated hardly enough revenue to recoup the cost of putting it on. The lesson learnt here was a lesson of scale: the event was too small to attract the attention of significant sponsorship and, whatever its success, it was never going to create enough money to show an important return on the investment of time and energy. For the next event, the FST plans to organize something much larger and much more likely to secure the interest of a major sponsor.

An example of a third activity was an attempt to raise funds through a garage sale. But the reaction of people to this event was indicative of the broader cultural change to which Gayatri has already alluded:

They said ‘So what is this, a second-hand clothes?’ and we said ‘Yes’ and they just put it back because they don’t want to wear something that someone else has worn. So, it’s difficult: the concept of giving back to your society is no longer an aspect of towns and cities. In many rural areas the community gives to support community members: if there is a natural calamity or a wedding, if there is a death, it’s the community members who feed everyone, who take care, who build a house, everything. But with this drastic change in society there’s been a drastic cultural change also. It’s not just drastic organizational and economic developments and reductions in natural resources. It’s also drastic changes in the culture and the way in which people feel and build relationships, the way they communicate. And the whole idea of community, helping each other, taking care of each other is also dying along with it. And it’s not happening, you know?


Using media to change the perception of philanthropy

One of the causes of this change in culture is the media, and the FST has seized on any opportunity to counter this by using the media to promote a broader understanding of philanthropy, and local philanthropy – appearing ‘in local media, newspapers and media houses, writing and talking in different forums, producing videos, using social media’. Crucially, it is attempting to engage young people as philanthropists, using them as a means of promoting philanthropy within the community.

The process is a long and arduous one, though, and the FST is constantly coming up against the distrust (‘disgust even’) of people whose previous exposure to non-profit organizations has led them to assume that all such organizations are in it for their own ends, as a means of lining their pockets:

This is a huge challenge, the result of a huge distrust of civil society in India, not just within our community but also within India. We are making a serious attempt at this but we are facing tremendous challenges. We are persisting because we think that what we are doing is very important as we cannot constantly be dependent on outside donations to bring change inside; change inside is not just about bringing money inside to do some projects but also about changing the way people think about how they want to change their community and how they can contribute to this. This is a current major focus.

The first stage of effective fundraising – changing perceptions

There remains the issue of where to raise funds from in a depressed economic climate and in a country where the region for which you are campaigning has long been viewed with suspicion. The irony is that the north-east is recognized as a priority region by the government, and there are considerable funds dedicated to its development – but the history of the region and the track record of some NGOs working in the area both militate against the disbursing of these funds. For this money to reach the communities for which it is intended, perceptions of the region and the non-profit sector working there also need to be changed.

This suspicion works both ways, of course. In a region that has so long been neglected by central government, the idea of working with government is unlikely to win much support, particularly when there is a feeling that what organizations such as the FST are setting out to do is essentially the government’s public duty:

We think it’s the responsibility of the government and the state to provide for its citizens. Our role as civil society should be more one of strengthening initiatives the government has set in train. We shouldn’t have to depend on foreign agencies to deliver projects ourselves. But how much our state will allow us to participate in this is something that is constantly changing and is uncertain.

Needs must, however, and when an organization is as financially precarious as the FST is, it would be a mistake to close down any fundraising options. Much of Gayatri and her colleagues’ time is therefore currently taken up trying to forge connections with government officials, hoping to come across the master key that will unlock the door to investment in the region. So much of this seems to be down to luck: it is not a case of gaining access to a particular role or department; it is much more haphazard than that – a case of ending up in the right place at the right time, in the company of the right person to advance your cause. The process is time consuming and beset with bureaucratic hassles, but essential nonetheless – and not just for the FST. Changing perceptions works in both directions as much as suspicion does and, if the government officials need to be reassured that the north-east is ready to be invested in and that the FST is the right organization to act as the bridge between central administration and the region, they need also to recognize the benefits that will flow to them when the FST succeeds in gaining the trust of people, and reaching parts of the community, with whom the government on its own would stand no chance of engaging.

This is, however, very much a work in progress, a long-term enterprise that runs the risk of foundering on short-term financial sustainability. Relationship building and networking are crucial to the changing of perceptions and the longer-term viability of an organization, but that organization needs to have sufficient funds to be able to sustain itself in the intervening period and to provide the services it was set up to deliver in the first place.


Seeking support further afield

Outside government – and leaving to one side the issue of individual and local philanthropy (another work in progress) – the two remaining fundraising options available to the FST are regional/national foundations and international organizations. With the first of these, there are similar challenges to working with government, although there is considerably less bureaucratic complication. The greatest challenge continues to be the perceived difficulty of the north-east as a region to work within, and a consequent reluctance on the part of donors to provide grants for work in this area. Once again, the only ways round this are to challenge and then to change this perception by forming relationships with the donors and educating them:

[We have] to visit them, meet them, explain to them what’s happening on the ground in the region, bring them to the confidence that we are the right organization to invest in because we are capable of sorting out issues, whether these are to do with the bureaucracy or the terrain of the region or ethnographic differences. We are building our network by meeting, attending different conferences, meeting people, networking with donors who attend these conferences and then taking it forward on a one-to-one level. It’s a slow process.

It is a process, however, that has seen some signs of success. A number of organizations have begun to express interest in working with the FST, and the hope is that the more such organizations hear about it and recognize its standing in the region, the more likely they will be to work with them in the future.

In some ways, the FST’s involvement on the international stage has been one of its more conspicuous successes. Thanks in large measure to the support of the GFCF, it has secured a presence for itself that would have been hard to imagine ten years ago. The start of this process was the GFCF field-group meeting that the FST hosted in the north-east, in Shillong.[3] This convention brought the FST together with a number of other community organizations in India, with which the FST continues to communicate and exchange ideas (the event also, as has already been seen, helped to effect a change in perception among two members of the FST team). The GFCF also enabled Gayatri to attend a European Foundation Centre conference in Sarajevo – introducing her to a broad range of international foundations – and, later, to go to the Youth Philanthropy Summit in Chicago:

These two events gave me an introduction to the whole world of philanthropy at the international level and how those people look at the role of community foundations, and also the opportunity to meet the leaders and the representatives of foundations and to be able to network. I also gained the confidence to seek a scholarship and attend the annual meeting of International Human Rights Funders Group. By attending these kinds of conference we get to speak to people who we would otherwise have no access to meet face to face … it becomes so much easier to then continue the conversation by e-mail later on … so those are important introductions that the GFCF has made possible for the FST …

This kind of activity has had a dramatic effect both on the internal organization and ethos of the FST and on its profile for potential funders. A clarifying realization that Gayatri took away from these international philanthropy meetings – and especially from sharing experiences with long-established foundations that have managed to find more or less stable ground to build on – was that community foundations, run in small communities and with the full engagement of those communities, can have a significant impact on community members’ involvement in local governance and peace building. In this respect, though, the FST faces a major challenge in that its work is spread across seven states with a combined population of more than 35 million: the sheer size of the constituency makes it difficult for the FST to really function as a community foundation. Inspired by her encounters with international colleagues, however, Gayatri recognized that the way forward was to create alliances at local level with grassroot philanthropists and activists who would form smaller community foundations under the umbrella of FST’s network of community foundations. Such an arrangement works, of course, only if the FST itself is stable and strong and if there is a revival of formalized community philanthropy that allows such structures for organized philanthropy to be created and sustained.

Time consuming though these activities are, they are also immensely significant in raising the profile of organizations and establishing their credentials in the eyes of future funders. Without them an organization such as the FST would have neither the visibility nor the impression of reliability that would draw it to the attention of funders, and the importance of this international presence when fighting for a region as neglected as the north-east of India cannot be overstated.


A series of balancing acts

All that said, of course, this activity represents just one element of the difficult balancing tricks that the FST, and organizations like it, have to perform: balancing international presence against local accountability, long-term sustainability against short-term effectiveness, the need to fundraise against the call to deliver, maintaining independence while collaborating with others. The FST has so far managed to walk these tightropes with a fair degree of precarious poise, maintaining faith with its founding principles and never losing sight of its core objects, nor of the original reasons that brought it into existence in the first place. That it has managed to do so is down to the tenacity of those who work in and with it, and to their ability to adapt and evolve in a changing funding environment and a social and political context that is unpredictable and hedged around with bureaucratic obstacles. To have survived ten years in these circumstances is impressive enough; with such resilience, who is to say where the FST may be in a further ten?


Read this report in PDF format.

For more information, visit the FST website.


[1] Not surprisingly, there is stiff opposition to this proposal, and many people in the state are coming together to fight it.

[2] This change of priorities itself appears to be changing under new leadership.

[3] This was the Asia Community Philanthropy Peer Learning and Exchange Peace Network, which the GFCF and the PSJP sponsored.