What’s next for community philanthropy?

It is appropriate (and no doubt deliberate) that launch of the “What’s Next for Community Philanthropy?” toolkit has come half-way through 2014, a year that sees the Cleveland Foundation – America’s first community foundation  – mark its centenary. Now I should probably say that the extensive toolkit, which has been produced by Gabriel Kasper and his colleagues, Justin Marcoux and Jess Ausinheiler at Monitor Institute, has not really be designed for someone like me. I do not work for a community foundation in the United States, and U.S. (and Canadian) community foundations are really the main target audience for this suite of tools and essays. So my comments and observations on the toolkit are framed by my vantage point at the Global Fund for Community Foundations, a global grassroots grantmaking organization, working to support the development of community philanthropy worldwide.

Evolving concepts, changing terminology: Let’s start with “community philanthropy”.  In my everyday work, I find myself constantly juggling language and terminology, driven by a desire to be inclusive and yet specific, to use the right kind of language that will resonate in particular contexts, that captures the essence of what happens when the magic ingredients of local asset mobilization, grantmaking for community development and multi-stakeholder governance combine together under one institutional roof. Unlike in the U.S. and Canada (where community foundations alone can be counted in their hundreds), there are far fewer of these types of organizations (whatever they are called) in most of the rest of the world, and so by focusing on one particular institutional form, you end up with very small numbers. So although community foundations form a large part of our constituency (and we even prioritise them in the name of our own organization – a fact that is not lost on me), we have always embraced other forms of “community philanthropy institutions”, including women’s funds, local grantmakers, environmental funds etc. So I was pleasantly surprised (and also curious) to see that the more inclusive “community philanthropy” is used throughout the toolkit (defined as “community foundations and other community philanthropy organizations”).

A global world – fact not choice: One of the perils of working locally (and most community philanthropy organizations tend to be place-based) is that it is easy to become inward-looking and insular. The excellent essay, “Shift Happens: Understanding how the world is changing” does a great job in providing a succinct overview of six different types of global trends that are having a profound effect on the nature of communities. If you are a community foundation leader or board member in need of evidence to convince your colleagues that the community that your foundation was set up to serve is no longer the same, and to find examples of how other community foundations are responding, then this document, which provides excellent sources as well as cogent examples, will save you many hours of Internet searches. Although much of the specific data is geared towards a U.S. audience the essay demonstrates to any reader how global trends (both good and bad) are driving huge changes in our communities the world over.

Community foundations as specialist generalists:  Community foundations tend to make grants across a range of different portfolios. This is well understood within the community foundation field, but it can sometimes like to outsiders like a lack of focus or being overstretched in terms of technical expertise. (In fact, I once got involved in a very long rather heated conversation with a U.S. immigration official in New York, who doubted my professional credentials because he was very sceptical about the community foundation idea, insisting that all philanthropic organizations and NGOs should have a focus – he suggested water, healthcare or education – and that it was poor form to try to do everything in a community). What the toolkit also highlights in its examples is quite how specialised and sophisticated specific programmes clusters and approaches have become within the community foundation field. In our grantmaking at the GFCF, we have also been looking at how to deepen community philanthropy practice around particular issues (such as youth engagement or the environment) so that community philanthropy organizations can deliver excellent programmes but within the context of a broader, holistic and networked approach.

A launching point for a more linked-up global field? Certainly, there are some valuable tools in the kit that a community foundation or community philanthropy organization anywhere in the world could use to test assumptions, stimulate reflection and inspire creative thinking (although for those community foundations operating in contexts where local giving is still very nascent, the level of sophistication around different kinds of donor services might still seem like wishful thinking). It is also good to see strategies that have been adopted by many of our community foundation partners, often driven more by innovation and instinct than blue-print, are listed and named in the tool kit.  So when in the “Bright Spots” tool, which looks at “Promising approaches in community philanthropy”, there is a question, “What if you solicited small gifts from less affluent individuals?”, I think immediately of Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation in Romania which created a “Community Card” programme through which over 13,000 donors give small amounts each month. And another “bright spot” on “Sharing Community Information”, asks “What if you conducted routine check-ups of your community?” which takes me to a recent blog by one of our partners in Ukraine. Moloda Gromada (“Young Community”) is based in Odessa, which has seen its own fair share of violence which resulted in the deaths of 42 people on May 2nd 2014. The foundation’s director Inna Starchikova describes how, following the violence, the foundation conducted a survey to “check the state of health” (her words) of the community by asking people about how they saw their own personal role in allowing the violence to happen and their thoughts on how future violence might be prevented.

What’s next for “What’s next”? A separate essay, which focuses specifically on examples of community philanthropy innovation from the global field, is in the pipeline and I look forward to that. And finally, I wonder whether this kind of reflective, big picture exercise might provide new opportunities for those community foundations, wherever they are in the world and which are interested, to create spaces for engagement, solidarity and collaboration. Although there may be huge differences in the financial asset bases of community foundations in different parts of the world, it seems to me that energy, innovation and commitment to community-driven development are plentiful the world over.

Jenny Hodgson

Executive Director, GFCF

Guest blog: Converging concepts for more effective philanthropy in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Read the blog in Spanish

What do tourism, sustainable development and community philanthropy have in common? In Monteverde, Costa Rica, a secluded region with the largest complex of private reserves in Central America and host to over one-hundred thousand visitors annually, they all form an integral part of our past and our future. In the following blog, I share some personal experiences with the changing face of philanthropy in my adoptive mountain home.

Where conservation and community coexist. Since the late 1960s, local residents and organizations here have successfully harnessed the capacity of international philanthropy and eco-tourism to purchase and protect more than 25,000 hectares of unique tropical forests. Small-scale dairy and coffee production, mixed with agro- and adventure-tourism, have also helped preserve a predominately rural landscape in most areas adjacent to the protected forests.

Thanks to many of these development trends, residents enjoy a number of employment opportunities and public services, as well as benefit from infrastructure typically unseen in such remote locales. A historically pioneering spirit and sense of community collaboration have also led to the opening of over forty grassroots organizations, educational institutions, cooperatives and public offices. Of course, many of these entities have been beneficiaries of direct business donations and other generous forms of local philanthropy over the past decades.

Testing community resilience. Despite numerous benefits, the progressing drift toward tourism in recent years has continued to produce complex environmental, social and economic challenges that still go unmet. Examples include unplanned urbanization around the town center, increased pollution and stresses on natural resources, the globalization of cultural norms, the homogenization of economic activity, as well as decreased food security, just to mention a few. In order to confront these issues, local organizations, leaders and residents have facilitated participatory planning processes in order to clearly define common goals and strategies between the public, private and non-profit sectors. Often, the central question is “how can we more effectively engage the influential tourism industry to promote desired change?”, whether that be through better growth planning, a more equitable distribution of resources or the implementation of best practices at the individual business and destination level. This question becomes increasingly difficult over time as needs within the community evolve and new solutions are required.

Travelers’ Philanthropy, a potentially key ingredient. In response to this central question, a group of local residents and I have established the Monteverde Community Fund. We specialize in grant making, technical assistance, training and network development in order to support the innovative efforts of existing community organizations and work groups to meet emerging challenges. Our aim is to be inclusive, creative, flexible and supportive, and at the heart of our work are three core beliefs:  


  1. The local community is able to create the change it needs
  2. The absence of organized resource mobilization can inhibit good ideas from becoming tangible realities
  3. The lack of long-term thinking and short-term capacity-building can turn good projects into quick memories



Our principal focus at the moment is strengthening a fundraising platform at the destination level, known as the Monteverde Travelers’ Philanthropy Program, supporting the development of larger proposals with partners such as the local Municipality and Biological Corridor Council, and promoting a culture of grant making.

Photo: Selena Avendaño Leadem

“Travelers’ Philanthropy”, specifically, is a term coined by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) that simply refers to the tangible contribution of ‘time, talent and treasure’ by tourism companies and visitors to local projects beyond what is generated through normal business transactions. CREST co-founder and co-director, Dr. Martha Honey, notes that a well-organized program can generate significant resources for a host community to promote social empowerment, sustainable long-term development and environmental conservation.[1] This program grew out of a pilot project originally led by the Monteverde Institute and supported by the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) and CREST. Its main objective is to mobilize resources from a broad network of tourism businesses and equitably channel them to local initiatives by means of a Small Grants Program, with an eye toward community-identified priorities, generating tangible impacts and building capacity for grantees.

Growth of Travelers’ Philanthropy and Community Funds in Costa Rica. Travelers’ philanthropy is not a new practice in Monteverde or in Costa Rica. For years, programs across the country have captured tourism donations for community projects (e.g., sea turtle conservation in Tortuguero, environmental education in the Osa Peninsula, reforestation in Monteverde, etc.). Thus, the innovations of our program are: 1) we are seeking to involve a diversity of local and national businesses as strategic partners in the fundraising process, not just see them as ‘one-off’ donors; 2) we are implementing commercial products such as a “city tour” to create greater financial sustainability; and, 3) we are seeking to equitably support a variety of thematic areas important to the community, not just one single initiative.

Photo: Justin Welch

One of the more interesting trends observed over the past year is the coupling of resource mobilization strategies of travelers’ philanthropy with the concept of a community, or common, fund.  For example, one of the leading national organizations for promoting rural tourism, ACTUAR, is exploring ways in which it can effectively utilize travelers’ philanthropy to further benefit its network of rural tourism associations across the country. Also, the CRUSA Foundation recently announced its new Guanacaste Community Fund in an effort to address some of the environmental and social disparities of this region so heavily impacted by international tourism development. One of their foreseen strategies is using endowed funds to leverage additional private donations from tourism companies and international visitors.

Building a case for the Monteverde Community Fund. As complimentary concepts like sustainable tourism, social corporate responsibility and ecological economics continue to gain traction in Costa Rica, our hope is that potential business partners will see the comparative advantage of a collaborative travelers’ philanthropy program (i.e., one where their contributions can be multiplied by others) combined with a community fund structure (i.e., a model that facilitates participatory decision-making and supports a diversity of projects). Not only does this make sense from a strategic collaboration standpoint, but the act of reinvesting in the destination where they send customers also makes long-term economic sense.

Nevertheless, I can attest that it has been no easy task to develop the idea of Travelers’ Philanthropy and the model of a community fund simultaneously. Not only is raising new funds a challenging endeavor, but so too is the more protracted process of soliciting proposals, selecting projects and providing follow-up. Based on our experiences to date, I am consistently reminded of the concerns shared by other community foundation practitioners in the 2012 meeting of GFCF partners in Dinokeng, South Africa who spoke of the challenges in articulating the case for community foundations and demonstrating their added-value. I often reflect on the ideas and insights shared by these veteran peers and have more than once referenced the indicators of intangible impacts compiled in the report “A New Generation of Community Philanthropy.”[2] Both resources have been essential to staying motivated and focused in our worthy endeavor.

As I look forward to the future of the Monteverde Community Fund, I am encouraged by the small but steady successes and am heartened by the fact that we are following a similar path of many well established foundations. Thanks to additional support from the Inter-American Foundation and local donors we were able to fund four environmental and social projects in the first year alone. Projects ranged from water resource protection and alternative energy to a community radio station led by youth and a campaign to control the stray animal population. And, our network of business supporters seems to grow almost by the day. Certainly, we too will leave a lasting footprint on the history of this place we call home.

Justin Welch is Executive Director of the Monteverde Community Fund. He has had extensive experience with multi-stakeholder processes and resource mobilization strategies since his arrival to Monteverde in 2006. Welch is an environmental science and policy specialist by training, and has worked for the University of Georgia, the local Biological Corridor Council and the University of Costa Rica on various consulting projects regarding water resource management and land conservation. Between 2008 and 2013 he led the Water Resources Program, and later the Community Programs Department, at local non-profit, the Monteverde Institute. Contact: admin@monteverdefund.org; 506-8313-0799.


[1] Welch, J. and R. Bailes [2013]. The Quick Guide for Establishing a Destination-wide Travelers’ Philanthropy Program: A Synthesis of Best Practices from Around the World & Experiences from Monteverde, Costa Rica. Monteverde Institute.

[2] Hodgson, J., B. Knight and A. Mathie (March, 2012). A New Generation of Community Philanthropy. Global Fund for Community Foundations and Coady International Institute.

Community philanthropy celebrates 10 years in Latvia

Ansis Bērziņš, Community Foundation Movement in Latvia and Valmiera Community Foundation, describes a recent celebration of community philanthropy in Valmiera.

“Community Foundation Movement in Baltics – 10 years”. This was the title of international conference that brought 120 people from Latvia and ten different countries to Valmiera on 10th October, 2013, to celebrate the anniversary of community philanthropy in Latvia and the Baltic States. It was a moment to evaluate achievements, to discuss future challenges and to enjoy doing good for our local communities.

During the conference social researcher Linda Zīverte presented her case study from Talsi Region Community Foundation. She pointed that higher level of trust and collaboration in the community also brings faster economy growth, which is good evaluation for what community foundations have mostly done in Latvia. Jenny Hodgson, director of Global Fund for Community Foundations, gave insight on global trends in the field and emphasized that philanthropy becomes more and more local because donors want to give within their communities. Other speakers from Latvia, Romania and Belgium shared their experiences and challenges in local giving, fundraising and grant-making.

Rūta Dimanta, Ziedot Foundation

Ten years ago, in February and December of 2003, the first community foundations were established in Talsi and Lielvārde. Thanks to support of Baltic – American Partnership Fund, set up by Open Society Institute and the US Government, concept of locally rooted giving was strongly promoted in the Baltic States, including Latvia. A lot was invested for learning and institutional development as well as for sharing among ourselves. The Association, called the Community Foundation Movement, with 4 members was set up early on, in 2006. Now the Movement has grown to four active community foundations, two associate members and two emerging organizations willing to join the club. So far, 12% of Latvian population has access to community foundations.

Since February 2012, the Movement has acquired a new strategic partner to support its growth. The Boris and Ināra Teterev Foundation, private organization, has given a 5‑year collaboration contract with financial support for operations and capacity building of existing and potential community foundations. Three foundations have attracted additional funding from Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein via EEA Financial Mechanism. This support is fundamental for professional operations and development of community foundations in Latvia.

Despite the fact that philanthropy and giving culture is still only developing, the work of Latvian community foundations has been appreciated by local communities, governments and donors. Foundations are still struggling for survival; sustainability is an issue for all non-profit organizations in Latvia. But having everybody still in the field is success in itself. Here are just some numbers to describe community foundations’ work in Latvia: 2 million dollars raised, 676 grants given to local people, 100’000 and 80’000 dollars endowments reached for two largest foundations each, and countless amount of dollars and hours spent on promoting local giving and meaningful philanthropy.

Additional information: Ansis Bērziņš, Community Foundation Movement in Latvia
E-mail: kopienufondi@teterevufonds.lv

News from the field: Growing social justice philanthropy, weaving strong communities in the Arab Region and a new blog on community driven development from Amazon Partnerships

“How can we grow the practice of philanthropy for social justice and peace?” asks a new report from the Philanthropy for Social Justice for Peace Network. The report draws on interviews with a 24 philanthropy practitioners from different parts of the world and data collected from a survey of many more. “You’ll hear a fascinating and at times provocative array of answers, reflections and further questions. Some talk about the relationship between social justice and economic development. Others call for a greater emphasis on indigenous philanthropy. Some speak to what is common among practitioners of social justice philanthropy, while others discuss geographic differences. Risk emerges as a key obstacle, networking as a key opportunity”.

Read the report  How Can we Grow the Work?


A new report from Naseej Foundation (a GFCF grantee in 2012) tells the story of the organization’s 8-year journey to establish itself as a catalyst for and promoter of youth civic engagement in communities across the Arab region. Naseej (its name translates as “the act of weaving”) was established in 2005 as the joint initiative of the Ford Foundation and Save the Children, with the objective of making grants to respond to the growing needs of youth and communities in the region. Over the years, it has used grantmaking, as well as other asset-based tools to “weave” an integrated approach to community youth development. At the heart of its work lies Naseej’s believe that the young people and communities all have capacities, strengths and rights that external agencies must acknowledge and build upon if their interventions are to be sustainable in the long term. According to one of its supporters, “Most of the time, when NGOs plan and run programmes, they work in one area: something that is very artificial and one-dimensional. In fact, it is the very opposite of how life works with everything connected to, touching and reacting to everything else… Naseej, the act of weaving, is a human ecosystem, connecting all parts, working song, art, drama, economic and social development, giving young people tools and confidence to imagine, plan and create their futures.”

Read the report, Weaving our Fabric in the Arab World


Another GFCF partner, Amazon Partnerships Foundation, has launched a new blog on community-driven development. From 2008 to 2012, the Amazon Partnerships Foundation collaborated with indigenous Kichwa communities in Napo Province, Ecuador on a local grant-making model aimed at supporting local initiative and local leadership. Using its Community Self-Development Methodology, APF provided small grants for projects designed and implemented by communities, as well as grassroots training to help them develop project management skills and define and advocate for their vision of sustainable development.

In 2013, APF is redirecting their efforts from on-the-ground community work to knowledge sharing. “Eager to join the growing global conversation about the need for community-driven development as a more successful alternative to conventional top-down approaches, we launched Amazon Partnerships Online, which offers stories, data, resources, and fresh perspectives to support communities’ power to define their future…This exciting new phase for Amazon Partnerships arises out of our core belief, which has developed through several years of on-the-ground collaboration: communities, not funders or other outsiders, must be the drivers of their own development and offer the greatest hope for a vibrant, healthy future for people and our planet. Through our blog of international contributors, our materials, and links to other outstanding organizations and thought leaders, we aim to help connect grassroots leaders, funders, volunteers, aid workers, and others to good ideas and inspiring strategies from around the world.”

Visit the Amazon Partnerships blog and find out how to join the conversation.


Grantmaking by and for young people has gone global: from the Mott Foundation

By Maggie Jaruzel Potter, Communications Officer, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

  • YouthBank is by young people and for young people
  • Grantmaking programme challenges and teaches
  • Participants can come from different races, religious backgrounds, and social classes

Universally, youth leadership programmes typically seek to develop a set of skills — self-confidence, problem-solving, team-building, goal-setting, project-planning and decision-making and the like.

YouthBank, however, goes beyond that. It aims to equip young people with these same skills, plus the additional training and resources needed to be good grantmakers, says Vernon Ringland, YouthBank Coordinator at the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI).

Vernon Ringland, YouthBank Coordinator, CFNIFor nearly two decades he’s been working with young people in many countries. In the past 10 years, Ringland has focused his time and energy on establishing YouthBank programmes worldwide.

He says many student leadership organizations emphasize discussions on important topics but YouthBank is different in one key way.

“Who actually puts money into young people’s hands and trusts them to do something good with it?” Ringland asked.

Worldwide, approximately 200 YouthBanks do. In the U.S., dozens of Youth Advisory Committees (YACs) do the same. These two young grantmakers programmes started in the early 1990s — first in the U.S., then in Europe a decade later after Ringland visited the Council of Michigan Foundations to learn more about YACs.

Today, YouthBank’s popularity is growing around the globe while improving the way people view teenagers and young adults, all of which is keeping Ringland busy responding to requests for consultations, training and materials from places as diverse as Mozambique in Africa, Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, Egypt in the Middle East and Brazil in South America.

His expansion work is partially funded with a two-year, $200,000 C.S. Mott Foundation grant to CFNI, and it is done in partnership with many current and former Mott grantees. Among others, the organizations that fund YouthBanks are:

Additionally, the Global Fund for Community Foundations has funded YouthBank initiatives at small community foundations internationally to determine its effectiveness as a tool for civic participation.

With grantmaking at the core of YouthBank programmes, participants are taught both how to identify the needs of local young people and how to address them. Additionally, YouthBank participants actively fundraise to meet the financial matches if required by partner groups supporting the programme; partners often are other youth organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community foundations, and public, private or corporate funders.

“YouthBank provides a pathway for young people to learn an enormous amount of practical skills,” Ringland said. “YouthBank helps young people speak out on issues that are important to them, so they are influencing local funders and decisionmakers, and also having an impact on the practices of local organizations.”

One such group, the Association for Community Relations (ARC), based in Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second most populous city behind Bucharest. After learning how YouthBanks were changing lives and communities in Northern Ireland, ARC staff committed to developing the programme throughout Romania. The first was created in ARC’s hometown of Cluj in 2006; ARC now oversees YouthBanks in 11 cities, which are scattered throughout 10 of the country’s 41 counties, says Adina Ana Cristea, ARC’s YouthBank coordinator.

YouthBank Cluj, RomaniaCommunity foundations in Romania often host YouthBanks, but not always, she says, with youth associations sometimes playing that role. Regardless of the hosting group, they all seek participants who are diverse in age, location, and national background, such as Hungarians, Romas and Romanians. The intentional diversity provides opportunities for young people from different backgrounds to interact, including those from groups that have had longstanding prejudices and conflicts, says Cristea, adding “we have seen many breakthroughs.”

For her, working with YouthBank students is invigorating.

“These are high-calibre, beautiful young people with a unique DNA,” she said. “All young people have potential, but those in YouthBank allow it to be shaped, and sometimes under pressure, especially when a project doesn’t turn out the way they had planned.”

Ioana Stupariu, a founding member of the Cluj YouthBank, attends law school full time but gladly volunteers her free time to train YouthBank advisers and participants.

It’s her “moral responsibility” to give back, she says. Stupariu says joining the YouthBank committee in ninth grade was one of the most important decisions she ever made. She stayed in the programme until her high school graduation, and during that time she learned how to be responsible and respectful of others’ opinions.

She remembers surveying the community to determine what the needs of young people were — and then holding fundraisers to meet those needs by awarding grants ranging in size from $300 to $1,000, she says. Among the projects for which Stupariu’s YouthBank committee awarded grants were concerts that pulled the community together, services for young people with disabilities and shows for young artists to display their work.

“YouthBank is a part of who I am,” Stupariu said. “It taught me how to be flexible; how to adapt to different kinds of situations and different kinds of people. I totally believe in the programme.”

Read more about Mott-funded programmes that are helping to develop the next generation of leaders in the U.S. and around the world.

Latest grants in South Asia and new grantee profiles now available on our website!

We’re pleased to announce two new grants to current partners in South Asia. The first is a grant for $11,000 and is a continuation of the GFCF’s support for institutional development of Tewa, the Nepal Women’s Fund.  Tewa was established in 1996 as an alternative development model aimed at overcoming aid dependency in Nepal and the distortions that international aid also brought about in shaping local civic society and its institutions. Tewa is a unique example of community philanthropy Nepal. Over the last 15 years, it has mobilized contributions from 3,000 Nepali donors and until today it has adhered to a principle that only local money be used for grantmaking.

The second grant is also an extension of GFCF support to iPartner. and Indian and UK-based organization which seeks to increase the flow of phianthropic resources to grassroots issues in India. This $20,000 grant will increase the impact of iPartner’s work at a local level in India, attracting a range of local donor investments to support the sustainable development of small, grass roots organisations, while developing iPartner’s understanding of local donor motivations and overall fundraising.

Take a look at the five new grantee profiles on our website which include partners from Vietnam, Costa Rica, India and Zimbabwe




The Power of Sharing: Guest blog from Mary Fifield

It was Thanksgiving Day and I was flying to South Africa for an international gathering organized by the Global Fund for Community Foundations. It was my first trip to Africa and my first chance to meet some of the esteemed colleagues that make up the cohort of determined, dedicated, highly experienced, and creative people who lead community foundations and support community-driven development around the world.

Mary Fifield

Some of the participants are directors of large, well-known community foundations. Others run small organizations with one or two staff members. Hailing from various countries in the Middle East, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, the participants represented an incredible diversity of grassroots organizations from a wide swath of the globe, all of whom have different models but all of whom share some core beliefs.

All believe in the power of small grants and building equal partnerships with communities, and all believe that communities should drive their own development.

Working at the grassroots with a grassroots organization, especially in the Global South, can conjure the “every man (woman) is an island” feeling. Yet when we start exchanging stories, we rediscover our common experiences. With the support of the Community Foundation for South Sinai (mo’assessa) Bedouin women and young people found the courage to challenge cultural norms during the Egyptian revolution and organize community meetings to educate each other about democratic participation. In Vietnam, the LIN Center for Community Development provided funding for women with hearing impairments to protect themselves against domestic violence and for local groups to organize a soccer tournament for low-income children.

The stories remind us why we’ve chosen to work on the small scale, at the personal level, in the time frame that works for communities, not the global economy or the international funding machine. We’ve made this choice because we see that getting to know community partners and allowing them to know us teaches us how to make our support as effective as possible. It also enriches us because maintaining a relationship with the people we work with keeps us in the human sphere, not the systemic, bureaucratic sphere where it’s so much easier to lose sight of what change means in people’s lives.

Yet, for as rewarding and effective as the work is, we all know the pitfalls and dangers: too little visibility among large development players who impose an agenda that often works against communities; too much work for too few people with too small budgets; lack of tools that can help us communicate with those outside the field about what’s working and why.

In our work with communities in Ecuador, Amazon Partnerships Foundation experienced both the rewards and the pitfalls. The long plane ride from South Africa to the U.S. gave me the chance to reflect on how grateful I am that we are a part of this outstanding cohort. I thought about how many thousands of other APF’s there are out there, scrappy but dedicated, succeeding and failing but making a difference.

They want to connect to others, partly to break out of the myopia that inevitably occurs when you have too many fires to fight, and partly to raise the collective voice so that “development work” is not relegated to a wonky corner of public conversation but becomes an exploration of the human experience, regardless of who you are or where you live.

The gathering with our colleagues was a fitting transition into Amazon Partnerships’ next phase: the launch of our new blog and online resources for people to share and contribute to globally. We know first hand how important it is to support small community-based organizations and community foundations–those groups that truly represent the communities in which they work and who are challenging the dominant paradigm of top-down development.

The GFCF’s meeting in South Africa, November 2012

And that brings me back to gratitude. As I witnessed in South Africa, sharing information and stories with the goal of continuing to understand what does and doesn’t work is powerful. We’ve benefitted enormously from these kinds of exchanges and now we want to help pay it forward.

The more we share and explore, the more we can help build a sense of unity and common purpose among people who care not just about what is being done to improve the well-being of people and the planet, but how.

Mary Fifield


Changing personal narratives as an outcome: guest blog from Janis Foster Richardson

What is more important?  Process or products and outcomes.  This is a question I’m frequently asked by people who are curious about citizen sector investing, with the expectation that I’m going to say process – and the assumption that in the small grants world, there can’t be much “there there” when it comes to tangible products or outcomes.

Janis Foster Richards, Grassroots Grantmakers Here’s how I think about this question:

Ultimately, the product or ultimate outcome that we are looking for in the big thinking on small grants world of citizen sector investing is vibrant, resilient and just communities.  But on the way to that destination – because of the process part of the equation – there’s another outcome.  It’s people who see themselves and their neighbors through different eyes – as powerful, resourceful, and joyful.  And people who know how to get things done, have experience initiating and acting, and are confident that most if not all of what they need is already right in the room – especially when the room is full of people just like them.  It’s a stronger citizen sector with people who see themselves as powerful – not because they are told that they are powerful, but because they have experienced themselves as powerful.

And here’s what comes to mind when I think about the change in how people see themselves – changing their personal narratives – as an outcome:

I remember feeling initially horrified when a young woman from a community I was visiting stood up and said to the group of funders in the room, “I am an outcome”.  She was standing with a nonprofit staff member who was beaming with pride – pride that I interpreted as pride in her agency’s ability to successfully fix this young woman.  I couldn’t imagine embracing the idea that I am an outcome – that I went into an agency’s door broken and came out fixed because of the skilled mechanics inside, like a bum car that went into the shop and came out working.

But as I thought about this more, I realized that I – yes me, personally – am an outcome – the type of outcome that is sometimes invisible in the funding world but is absolutely essential to the community outcome that we’re really after.  How I think of myself has been profoundly changed by the experiences that I have had others in my community through the years.  I have discovered personal gifts that I never suspected were there and were only revealed when I was in relationship with other people who valued what I had to offer and was in a situation that required me to give and grow that gift.  Yes, required.  Possibly because I was the one in the room with a missing piece of a bigger puzzle, and that doing something I cared about meant that I needed to move to the edge of my comfort zone and do something that I didn’t think I could do.  The imagining, planning, organizing and leading up to the product part – what some would describe as the process part – was where a lot of the growth happened for me, with the importance of the product – the cleaned up park, the community event, the neighborhood newspaper, the success at the City Council meeting – as fuel the reward at the end.

I have also been changed because I have seen people reveal amazing gifts that I never suspected were there because I was not aware of the judgements about who they were or what they could do that were clouding my vision. Again, more learning about myself as I was learning more about others.

And, I have been changed by the joy that has helped manage the growing pains of becoming who I am supposed to be – joy that was only there because I was in relationship with others.

I don’t think of myself as a confident person, perhaps because confident, to me, comes close to cocky.  But I know – only because of my experiences with my neighbors – that I have something to offer in spite of my flaws, that I don’t have to have all of the answers, and that any moment might be the moment when I will discover something thrilling about the people around me.  I know how to get something going and how to join in when something is already going – and, using my grassroots grantmaking jargon, see myself as an active citizen and someone who has power that is magnified when I connect with others who share the space that I call community.

As I think more about the young woman who announced herself as an outcome, I can say “yes – you go girl!” instead of “oh no”.  Even though she might have gone in one door to have something fixed, she came out with something else – a fire inside that ignited her courage to be in that room with us and stand up to proclaim that she is powerful in words that she thought we would appreciate and understand – “I am an outcome”.  She was on another path but we ended in at a similar destination.

So when you ask me about product or process, let me ask you:

  • Are we starting from the same place, with the shared belief that the ultimate product that we are after is community vibrancy, resiliency and justice?
  • How do you think about yourself as an outcome?  And what experiences (or processes) along the way have been really important for shaping how you think about yourself?
  • If you’re a funder, are you thinking about the learning by doing part of what you are funding as product-generating, or looking for what you consider to be shorter routes to your desired end?
  • If you are investing in fixing people doors, how are you also looking out for changing people’s narrative opportunities that may also be inside those doors but are hidden away – just because people think that you’re not interested in that type of product?

And, as always, I welcome your comments both on and offline.  Weigh in here or connect with me directly via email.

This blog was first published on Janis’ blog, Big Thinking on Small Grants

Russia’s rural philanthropy: reporting from a community foundation conference in Perm

 This article has been translated and adapted from an original piece by Matvei Masaltsev which appeared on the Philanthropy.ru portal. Matvei is Chief Editor of Philanthropy.ru and “Money and Charity”, both projects of CAF Russia.

How can local problems be solved with local resources? This was the question up for discussion at a recent conference of community foundations in Perm, Russia. The answer, it seems, lies with smart local giving – and not just money.

And that is exactly what community foundations across Russia are trying to do, working in their communities to mobilize people and resources.  When times are tough it can be difficult to think about helping one’s community, particularly in those rural communities across Russia which are in decline, wracked by high levels of alcoholism, poverty and often a general sense of despair.

On November 22nd and 23rd 2012, community foundation representatives gathered from all over Russia in Perm for a national conference of community foundations. They had come from all over from big cities, small towns and even small villages, and from the richest and poorest parts of Russia. No matter where one is, one can always change things for the better. It doesn’t take much money and in some cases, it takes no money at all.

Start with people!

Russian Community Foundations are less about charity and more about developing their communities. They do this by mobilizing resources from across the community – from business, government and NGOs – and by making small grants to support local citizen-led initiatives in the communities that they serve as a way of getting people more involved in addressing local problems and issues.

In Russia there are now over 40 community foundations. Over in the United States, there are several hundred which are also engaging local communities in both urban and rural areas. Nancy Straw, who also participated in the conference, is with the West Central Initiative – a hybrid community foundation serving nine counties in west-central Minnesota. Nancy summarized her organization’s work and its philosophy:

“We believe that it is the local people who are invariably best placed to both to identify local problems – and to devise solutions to these problems. They have a much greater and more long-term interest than outside agencies and institutions because they are the ones that live there. It’s our job at the West Central Initiative to support these local initiatives and ideas.”

Nancy Straw, West Central Initiative (left)The same is true among Russian community foundations. However, here it is not enough just to provide support for local ideas: community foundations really have to work to encourage people to come up with those ideas and get involved. In Russia, there is a strong culture of passivity and disengagement, and it can be a real challenge to overcome that. But sometimes the most effective methods are the simplest – like, for example, asking local people how they see their community and if they are willing to step forward and get involved.

That was what the Perm Social Initiatives Support Fund, “Assistance” did. They conducted a mapping exercise in three different districts which was aimed at identifying both key community needs (as defined by local people rather than bureaucrats) and existing local civic initiatives which could serve as entry points for action. The main conclusion of the research was that most people were indeed ready to get involved. In one village in particular, 100% of those surveyed said that they would be ready to provide some kind of assistance (material and non-material) in solving local problems. And across all seven areas surveyed, only 12% refused to do anything: the remaining 88% expressed a willingness to engage if there was a mechanism through which they could do so.

The mechanisms are there

All over Russia, there are many good examples of the different ways in which community foundations are providing different kinds of mechanisms for civic participation.

In Rubtsovsk, for example, the community foundation has established a reputation for itself as a pioneer in the art of local fundraising with its annual charitable show which starts local government officials and members of the business community. The community foundation’s annual show in Rubtsovsk

In Tchaikovsky, meanwhile (in the Perm region) the community foundation has developed an innovative partnership with the local university around the monitoring and evaluation of its social programmes.

And the New Angarsk Community Foundation (Irkutsk region) holds an annual fair where local NGOs present a range of different social projects all looking for financing from local businesses, who can “buy” a project. Such fairs have proved successful in various different cities but in Irkutsk they have been particularly effective, thanks to a rigorous project selection process and some good marketing.

These are just some of the examples of creative and innovative ideas that flew back and forth at the conference, all underlined with a strong spirit of fun and lots of energy.

Money and purpose

Mechanisms for giving are all very well but it is when it comes to the purpose or intent behind such mechanisms that things can get more complicated. Often in Russia the work of many charities often appears to stem from a sense of pity and it is pity which leads to money being raised for people one feels sorry for. But pity isn’t always the best starting point if you want to be effective, and it can often cause more problems than it solves. So, for example, orphans get sweets instead of a new family, or an unemployed person ends up dependent on benefits instead of getting a new job etc.

Among Russian community foundations it seems that real effort is being made to go beyond charity motivated by pity to something more significant and lasting, where cooperation and collaboration are emphasised. So, for example, local government and business contribute resources to a common pot, grants to community initiatives are awarded through a competitive process and decisions around their allocation are made through a joint committee. At least, that’s the idea. But even here the danger is that “shared resources” refers only to money and other assets, such as experience and expertise (of local donors) are overlooked.

In my view, the main measure of success for Russian NGOs (and indeed, among NGOs) seems to revolve too much around money. That seems to be what gets people excited, often more so than the impact on the ground. Within the specific sub-sector of community foundations, however, it does not seem so marked. Perhaps this is because community foundations are more focused on community development rather than, say, raising money for emergencies or humanitarian causes.

“Money is not your only resource and it’s not even the most important”, Vyacheslav Bakhmin of the C.S. Mott Foundation told conference participants. Similarly, in her presentation, Nancy Straw gave specific examples of how community problems can be solved without any money at all. A public meeting, for example, if properly organized and conducted can be a very effective way for community members to identify and resolve key issues.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Mott Foundation (right)

There are those foundations, observed Bakhmin, which are set up to do good for the local community. They can be good and effective but they can also be useless and disempowering: in either case, they are organized in ways in which ordinary people are beneficiaries, passive participants in the process. And then there are community foundations which are of the community, about which local people can say “this is ours”. They may also make mistakes, but if they can manage to engage, involve and bring local people together then that can really count for something. Indeed, in Russia today, there might be nothing else out there that is quite as valuable.


Guest blog: The Great Untapped – revolutionizing development through community-based organizations

It was a risky venture from the start: a group of colleagues from south and north, jungle and city, Spanish and English and Kichwa-speaking backgrounds coming together to do something that to our knowledge had not been done in the Ecuadorian Amazonian province of Napo: ask communities what projects they wanted to implement themselves, give them a little bit of money and a lot of practical training to bring the projects into existence, and invite them to help make the process better the next time around.

Learning to graft cacao in community of Canambo

That was the simple premise of Amazon Partnerships Foundation (Fundación Tarpuna Causay), which Ecuadorian and North American colleagues and I founded in late 2008. Going from premise to program was not simple, however, and the lessons we learned revealed not only the source of rampant dissatisfaction and disappointment in development work, but glimmers of opportunity for community-based organizations (CBOs) to bring about a fundamental shift in the nature of aid.

Our experience, as one example among many, suggests that effective development is not simply about pouring more money into CBOs. It’s about flattening the power structure so that community-based organizations come to the table as equal negotiating partners on all aspects of projects, from design to outcome measurements to funding. This shift could help international funders realize the long-elusive increased return on investment, and more importantly, unleash the immense power of communities to change their lives.

Changing the Power Dynamic: A Compelling Reason

From the beginning, we saw no point in joining the overcrowded field of non-profit organizations working in international conservation unless we had a compelling reason to do so. Having worked for years in Latin America, I had seen the same problems we all see in development: lack of services and support reaching communities, lack of community participation, lack of commitment to the projects (both from the community and outside the organization), little or no use of projects, disunity, and community infighting. Beneath the evidence of failed projects, a sense of apathy or sometimes disgust prevailed. Despite the fact that many people in communities would claim they wanted “projects”, those who were not leaders looking for self-aggrandizement or personal gain were often tired of the routine that built up their expectations but left them disillusioned in the end.

Meanwhile, plenty of good organizations were genuinely committed to saving the Amazon rainforest, but many lacked the agility, the access, the time, or communication skills to get to know local populations and figure out where the organization’s and community’s agendas intersected. This lack of understanding contributed greatly to raised and dashed hopes. It also diminished the likelihood that all stakeholders could evaluate the situation from a different angle, to identify the strengths or assets that communities brought to the table and determine how these could be used to meet the communities’ priorities.

Like others who promote asset-based community development, we believed a major problem was that communities were not the drivers in their own development. Organizations that support them, while staying true to their own mission, should collaborate as truly equal partners, which meant changing the power relationships so that above all else, communities determined their priorities and would take responsibility for their own development. Based on that premise, communities would have greater agency in seeking support from NGOs, government institutions, and foundations. Our desire to try to change the power dynamic, to experiment with supporting communities on their timetable according to their self-defined priorities, compelled us to dive in.

Practicing the Community Self-Development Methodology

Through trial and error, the Amazon Partnerships Foundation (AFP) team and our community partners created the Community Self-Development Methodology, which yielded highly positive results. Our intention was to work with fewer communities in greater depth. We established relationships of mutual trust and accountability that would enable us to respond to changes, allow time for the community’s learning curve, and provide a natural give-and-take that helped us understand how to improve our support. Our reach was not extensive; our focus on relationships, training, and learning, however, was intensive.

With a volunteer board, just two staff members, and a small budget, we funded seven projects ranging from rainwater catchment systems to reforestation to organic agriculture practices. We conducted more than 100 workshops on project management for eleven communities, and positively impacted 1300 women, men, and children in three years. More than half of the communities we worked with achieved outcomes based primarily on their own benchmarks that qualified them to submit a follow-on proposal, all of which were approved.  Even more encouraging was that communities were practicing the values our methodology intends to promote: creative problem-solving, greater transparency, and understanding and accountability instead of punishment and finger-pointing.

For example, the community of Campana Cocha, which installed more than 50 rainwater catchment systems and planted 135 trees, has been inspired by their own success to come up with other creative ideas. Before their APF project, most believed that expanding a costly and ineffective piped water system was necessary to meet community water needs; now they want to expand the use of rainwater catchment systems. On land that had been cleared to build government houses, they now want to replant trees and pursue conservation projects that will help transform Campana Cocha into an “eco-community.”

Project Coordinator Patricia Grefa reviewing a community report in Campana Cocha

An example from the community of San Pedro de Chimbiyacu shows how the group explored the implications of transparency in their rainwater catchment project. In a meeting in which community-elected inspectors shared results of monthly visits to determine how well families were maintaining their systems, two women disputed their scores. The inspector explained what she saw on inspection day and that she had a responsibility to record true information. After a spirited conversation about why data collection and verification are important, the entire group concluded that the inspector’s data would stand for calculating the overall maintenance scores for the project. The inspector agreed to do a follow up visit for the two households in question, submitting that data in a separate report.

Resolving conflict through accountability was an important part of the project in the community of Canambo. At a meeting we held with the project committee (elected by the project participants) everyone acknowledged that the outcomes of their organic cacao production project weren’t sufficient to qualify for follow-on support.

We discussed how APF could have helped the community better understand the budget process, and how the committee leaders could have been more transparent with incidental spending so participants would have been more willing to cover unexpected costs. The community president said he wanted to use the project management skills acquired through working with APF to submit a proposal to a different funder, and he requested our technical assistance. Working through problems together, we all left the meeting with a clear understanding of what we could do differently next time, and the relationship between APF and the community was stronger as a result.

The Great Funding Disconnect

While communities were starting to discover their power to meet basic needs and confront climate change, other organizations started to recognize that APF’s relationships with communities could help them find groups to work with. On the one hand, we found this encouraging: communities that had worked with us gained skills, confidence, and clarity about how they wanted to continue improving their lives, so they had greater capacity to make the most of projects with other groups. On the other hand, we were concerned that some of these organizations, which did have a mission of promoting well-being and environmental protection, were circumventing the process of building trust and accountability with communities so that they could meet “community participation” requirements from their funders and guarantee their operational budgets.

The question of how to build genuine partnerships for better results also came up as we worked with international aid agencies, for example, the German Development Cooperation (GIZ)[1]. GIZ in its various iterations has partnered with the Ecuadorian environment ministry for years, helping to secure UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation for the Sumaco-Galeras national park. The agency recognized the importance not just of gaining international protected status for the park but of supporting communities’ livelihoods through agro-forestry and forest management programs. With the goal of building natural resource management and policy-making capacity so programs can be managed locally and permit the eventual withdrawal of outside support, GIZ has a strategic interest in working with local partners to help execute its outreach and education initiatives. Its budget is structured around these training and technical assistance objectives.

Without question, GIZ has provided valuable financial assistance for some local organizations, including Amazon Partnerships Foundation. GIZ contributed a portion of the budget for our locally filmed documentary on climate change and for the creation of an implementation handbook for the Community Self-Development Methodology. GIZ also helped fund local staff. This financial support aligned with our larger strategic goals: to promote climate change awareness, local leadership, and grassroots capacity to bring about change, and to build a strong local team that could act as role models both for community members and professionals in the local non-profit sector.

While this funding was indisputably beneficial, unfortunately we weren’t able to leverage it in ways that could make the biggest impact. What we experienced with GIZ was similar to what we experienced with other institutional supporters, namely funding parameters that were too restrictive, time-elongated, or reactive to serve the goal of building an organization, not simply executing a project. Despite maintaining a positive and productive relationship with GIZ staff who visited project sites, shared our materials for education and outreach, promoted our projects among regional government agencies, and turned to us to help build liaisons with communities, GIZ did not have a budget mechanism for making a significant investment in our organizational development.

This was a missed opportunity for us, of course, because the difficulty in raising money eventually caused us to scale back our on-the-ground operations and look for other ways to continue implementing our methodology. We believe GIZ also missed an important strategic opportunity not just with Amazon Partnerships, but with the sector in general. With even just a fraction of its resources as an international development agency, it could have invested in cultivating a cohort of qualified, local organizations that foster genuine community-powered development. A network of communities with the capacity to give meaningful feedback on natural resource planning and to meet some of their own basic needs would have helped GIZ accomplish its long-term conservation goals. Those communities would have bought in to GIZ’s vision because they could have taken some ownership of it. CBOs, as the logical and most effective liaison with individual communities, could have played a key role in that process.

Our critique is not intended as a criticism of GIZ or any other institution. International funders (whether private or government) and NGOs must juggle numerous and competing agendas that complicate even the best efforts to build grassroots capacity. But our story suggests that exploring how we can create a culture of partnership between funders (and NGO intermediaries) and CBOs could result in much greater success for everyone.

Real Change, Big Rewards

Community-based organizations are generally characterized by the fact that they work locally, maintain on-going relationships with local people, are led or managed by local representatives, and use local assets, whether monetary, in-kind, or otherwise. Geographically and culturally closest to the people they represent, CBOs have the most insight, most influence, and most agility to incubate, catalyze, or nurture projects. They are at the fulcrum of real change.

The question is: how can we unleash the power of these organizations? Based on APF’s experience, we believe that CBOs:

  • Need the freedom to develop their organizational identity and professional processes. They need the financial flexibility to develop missions that reflect their constituents’ priorities and promote projects that people want.
  • Can benefit from administrative support and training. Larger organizations can share ideas for how to streamline processes, collect useful quantitative and qualitative data, and communicate the grassroots agenda to stakeholders that are farther removed from it. The key is for outside organizations to listen to CBOs regarding what is feasible for local circumstances.
  • Need platforms for exchanging information with other CBOs. These platforms give people the encouragement to turn good ideas into concrete initiatives, which can feed into the development strategy that they have helped create along with institutional or large-scale players.

This doesn’t mean writing a blank check–it means getting to know CBOs and allowing CBOs to know funders, letting go of some of the gatekeeping, and establishing real dialog. It is in everyone’s best interest to ask questions that cannot necessarily be answered with a checklist: What’s really going on on the ground? What are people saying? What are the good ideas? What are the biggest challenges? Where do the communities’ priorities fit within those of the funder?

Just as we witnessed applying a similar philosophy with communities, a relationship-based approach between CBOs and bigger funders helps promote more mutual transparency, better opportunities for qualitative evaluation and impact measurement, and more agility in responding to actual grassroots needs. Organizations like Global Fund for Community Foundations, which has taken this funding approach with Amazon Partnerships Foundation and dozens of others, has ample evidence proving that nurturing the CBO sector in the Global South results in meaningful change in communities–everything from better access to services to increased problem-solving capacity and creativity.

Of course, relationship building takes time and may require a funder to make some structural changes. For large organizations, this may seem like an all-but insurmountable challenge, but testing a relationship-based funding approach in one department, working group, or funding area could help determine how and whether it has organization-wide application.

With so much promise to cultivate bottom-up–top-down development, we should seize the moment to reassess the power dynamic between CBOs and funders. The stakes are simply too high for not re-evaluating business-as-usual strategies, and the benefits could be gamechangers.

Mary Fifield is Executive Director of the Amazon Partnerships Foundation. She is also the author of a blog called Earth in Here 




[1] GIZ is the product of a recent merger of several separate German government agencies, among them DED and GTZ, which were Amazon Partnerships closest local allies.