At a meeting of community foundation representatives from across Europe, Jasna Jasarevic, from the Tuzla Community Foundation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, reminded us that although her country was not a transit area for refugees, Bosnians were experienced in responding to emergencies. “We can identify all available buildings for shelter”, she assured us. The needs of those forced from their home as a result of conflict is still a vibrant memory in many parts of Europe. Indeed, for those of a historical bent of mind, Europe is not all that far removed from generating refugee “crises” itself in decades past. All the more reason that it should adopt a “can do” approach in responding to current needs.
The more immediate question for the community philanthropy field is whether there is a specific contribution that community foundations can make. As place-based foundations they are on the ground in many parts of Europe – including those countries that are dubbed “entry” or “transit” regions for refugees, and other countries that are pivotal points of “destination.” It is true that the financial resources available to these foundations are often limited, yet notwithstanding this, the added value that they bring includes their experience as grantmakers; their transparent procedures and accountability to both their local communities and their donors; their accessible and visible organizational infrastructure; and their “ear to the ground”, picking up local sensitivities and opportunities. Community foundations are generalist facilitators in circumstances where existing civil society organizations may be over-stretched and where there is a need to communicate with a multiplicity of stakeholders.
A rabbit in the headlights?
There is, of course, always the danger that the scale and rapidity of the current movement of refugees into Europe can cause caring organizations to throw up their hands in despair of being able to make a difference. Yet the reality is that a number of community foundations in Germany, Croatia and Hungary speak of thousands of new volunteers emerging to ask what they can do to help. This is a real opportunity for civic activism but needs to be responded to in a timely manner. In response to a survey conducted by the GFCF over October 2015 one respondent made the point: “We are too small to make a real difference in financial support for refugee-related initiatives, but we play quite an important role in sensibilization and communication (and add some nuance to the debate) around the subject on a local level, as well as playing a facilitating and motivating role to support local volunteers and/or local support initiatives.” Similarly, a community foundation in Croatia is working closely with the volunteer centre in their community, who in turn organize local volunteers and arrange daily transport to distribute humanitarian aid to the refugees there. The foundation Director makes the plea for more resources to support this work: “Funds for transportation of volunteers is necessary as they can no longer organize transport by their own vehicles or for large groups of volunteers.” A German community foundation describes itself as one of the many players responding to the needs of the refugees that are arriving in the city at the rate of 4000 – 5000 each day.
Community foundation activists are clearly concerned about the very human needs of people who are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – and not just “refugees.” A number of the GFCF respondents expressed fears about the “lack of empathy” among their local population with regard to the images seen on television screens or the trudge of people through their fields and streets. Negative attitudes are ascribed to a lack of information about the crisis in Syria, but also to a fear of the unknown that can be politically exploited. Certainly there is a recognition of the need to respond to immediate refugee relief, but as organizations with an eye to the long-term it is not surprising that community foundations are thinking through the longer term implications of the current situation. There was equal agreement from GFCF survey responses that while community foundations need to be seen to be taking action through funding and support for refugees now, they also need to focus on the medium to longer term needs of building inclusive communities.
Taking the pulse of long-term implications
A community foundation representative in one of the main transit countries for refugees spoke of the “growing split of views, heightened emotions and polarization which prevents rational discussion” in her country. She called for a “strengthening of the quality of public discourse, argumentation and critical thinking at all levels.” This proposition is supported by comments received from Romania, Hungary and Serbia. There is also a recognition that the task of maintaining community cohesion, and a sense of solidarity, in the destination countries is of particular importance in the medium to longer term. This is an area in which community foundations are uniquely placed to work with local NGOs and community-based groups to make a real difference. There are at least two levels of intervention – on the one hand the macro level discussion of European values; on the other, the lived realities and relationships in those neighbourhoods that refugee families are likely to settle. A UK community foundation, that has previous experience of funding local NGOs working directly with refugees and asylum seekers, makes the point that there is a need for a shared narrative which would allow a much wider dialogue with donors and others who might be wondering what they can do to help.
In addressing these critical long term issues there is also a need for support for those community foundations that are working in particularly difficult political circumstances. One such foundation described itself as feeling “between a rock and a hard place: an openly hostile government that is ready to attack anyone who seems to ‘like’ refugees and our own conscience that says we have to speak up.” Consequently there was overwhelming support for the suggestion that community foundations that are interested/concerned with the refugee issue would benefit from being linked into other European philanthropy platforms and that community foundations would benefit from networking and sharing information on current challenges and opportunities. As such, the GFCF will be hosting a convening on the topic at Philanthropy House in Brussels from 26 – 27 January 2015.
Avila Kilmurray, GFCF Director – Policy & Strategy