Leadership that has the potential to transform vision into reality was the theme of the UK Community Foundations (UKCF) conference held in Belfast in September. Over 250 delegates workshopped, master-classed and shook a foot or two at the traditional ceilidh sessions to ground their respective realities. Voices from across the Atlantic, in the form of Paul Schmitz of Leading Inside Out and Rahul Bhardwaj of the Toronto Foundation explored leadership from the community up. The mandatory tour of the ironically named Belfast “peace walls”, in contrast took many of the UK delegates by surprise. How can one translate this stark reality into a vision in this still physically divided society – many asked. “But I thought it was all over”, said another delegate in a startled tone. Well yes – but!
Forging European solidarity
A pre-conference session on “Exploring community foundations: Their roles and prospects across Europe” brought together representatives from a range of community foundations in Central and Eastern Europe to discuss an update on the state of philanthropy in Europe. In addition to the growing numbers of community foundations (much assisted by the consistent investment by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation) a number of transformative trends were identified that, while context specific, were seen as expanding the role of community philanthropy. Nurturing participation and building social capital were both high on the list shared by Professor Haralan Alexandrov of the New Bulgarian University. He argued the importance of the sometimes intangible contribution of community foundations, such as offering a responsive, caring approach to community needs as compared to the more rigid bureaucratic practices. He also noted the work of community philanthropy in the area of cultural and community identity, a particularly sensitive topic in many parts of Europe at present. Community foundations are managing to strike a delicate balance between protecting local cultural artefacts and symbols while, at the same time, introducing new concepts and ideas. They are a core factor in empowering communities to “re-invent themselves” in the face of globalization.
Specific examples of current challenges were shared by Johanna Von Hammerstein, CEO of the BὒrgerStiftung Hamburg and by Jasna Jasarevic, Executive Director of the Tuzla Community Foundation. Jasna described the intensive programme of work with 20 different communities that are supported to work together in an inclusive manner; while Johanna reflected on the power of arts and culture to encourage participation. The issue of inclusion was taken up in a sharing of experiences and challenges around the inclusion of members of the Roma community across Europe. Beata Hirt of the Healthy City Community Foundation reflected on her experience in Slovakia over the past two decades, where initially developmental programmes had to be put in place to ensure Roma participation. But while this approach was no longer needed, there are still societal challenges where people fear difference. The recent advent of refugees in Europe was also felt to increase the risk of a popular politics that is exclusionary in nature, although Irene Armbruster, CEO of the BὒrgerStiftung Stuttgart, commented on the number of new volunteers that were getting in touch in order to offer support to the refugee families that are arriving in Germany.
Modelling community foundation support and exchange across Europe, Hans Fleisch, Secretary General Association of the Bundesverband Deutscher Stiftungen (Association of German Foundations) outlined the main pillars of a new European Community Foundation Initiative that will focus on fostering leadership by peer learning and exchanges, as well as raising the profile of community philanthropy in Europe through studies, donor education and advocacy. The initial five year programme of work is being taken forward by the Association of German Foundations, Center for Philanthropy in Slovakia and UKCF, around a six point strategic plan due to be rolled out in 2016. One aspect of the work will see the design of a European conference for community foundations, to raise greater awareness and support networking across Europe.
Has community philanthropy a role in supporting refugees?
This was the question that was asked at a GFCF Breakfast meeting during the UKCF gathering. Some 20 representatives of community foundations from Romania, Slovakia, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the UK agreed that there was a contribution to be made, although to be effective it needed to be context sensitive and coordinated with more general civil society responses. Tamas Sasaurszki of the Ferencvaros Community Foundation outlined the current situation in Hungary, which is caught between official political reaction and the practical response of many local volunteers in helping the refugees passing through their country. The fact that the people coming forward to volunteer are often from outside the traditional NGO sector was noted as a potential opportunity for greater participation in the future, but also a phenomenon that community foundations need to be able to respond to. The community foundations in Milton Keynes and Kent, in the south-east of England, described the immediate pressures, including the position of unaccompanied children arriving in their communities.
It was agreed that follow up consultation would be useful in order to share more detailed information and to provide a platform for linking with other philanthropic initiatives. The GFCF has also launched a survey in this regard, in order to map the various community foundations reacting to the refugee crisis across Europe. Indeed, many community foundation activists in Eastern Europe already have direct experience of living through, and organizing, in the face of societal change. This offers a real opportunity to bring vision and reality together through the principle of solidarity.
Avila Kilmurray, GFCF Director – Policy & Strategy