Community philanthropy chimes with SDGs

SDG 6: Indian women use micro-loans to support herbal medicine practiceThe Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have arrived after years of dialogue. Where the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were formulated in United Nations offices – one was even added as policymakers crossed the road – the long, global consultation process for developing the SDGs has raised expectations for community participation across the world.

The so-called SDG “Road to Dignity” now faces its real test – the potholes of universal implementation in an increasingly unsettled world. CIVICUS Secretary General, Danny Sriskandarajah, recognized the challenges ahead in his introduction to the 2015 State of Civil Society report. He said: “As the world debates the post-2015 agenda the SDGs are the next big test of the international system. The international community needs to show commitment to tackling inequality, and create space for civil society, as a co-owner of the goals, rather than a delivery mechanism for elite priorities.”

In short, effective implementation of the goals needs local hands to transform aspiration into reality. People-centred development matters if the goals are to have any purchase in the favelas of Latin America or the rural hamlets of Nepal. The Global Fund for Community Foundations has gathered case studies from all over the world to show how communities, pooling resources and talent, can implement the goals. The case studies also demonstrate lessons for foundations seeking to contribute meaningfully to the SDGs. These include:

  • Social change needs to incorporate local voice, particularly of affected populations, to inform policy.
  • Change is a slow process leading to an outcome rather than a short-term project delivering outputs.
  • Community philanthropy organizations can act as support and knowledge hubs to invest in and share learning from activities related to SDGs.

Read the full article, with examples of how the work of community philanthropy organizations around the world fit with five of the SDGs.

Alina Porumb focuses on values underpinning community philanthropy in Olga Alexeeva Prize Lecture

 

The 2015 Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize was awarded to Alina Porumb, Strategic Philanthropy Programme Director of Romania’s Association for Community Relations (ARC). On the occasion of the Emerging Markets Philanthropy Forum, hosted by the China Foundation Center and held in Beijing from 23 – 24 November 2015, Alina Porumb delivered the Olga Alexeeva Prize Lecture, focusing on the values underpinning community philanthropy in Romania: 

“The Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize is a great honour and a deeply meaningful recognition of my contribution to philanthropy.

Firstly, due to its connection to the memory of Olga: I remember her courageous, clear and strong voice at the international conferences that I attended. She was an advocate for philanthropy, but also for reflecting critically on our work and doing philanthropy well. Olga stands in my memory as a person of high integrity and high standards, as someone for whom half measures are not enough, who is great at identifying the next step and seeing the potential of each situation. I am grateful for the community of philanthropy professionals around the world who took on the responsibility of managing the Award. Though this, they are bringing to surface inspirational leaders and great work in the field of philanthropy globally, expanding the reach of these practices. Thank you for keeping Olga’s voice strong. Thank you for carrying her legacy. Thank you for taking the next step for a community of sharing, learning and appreciation between peers working to expand philanthropy in contexts in which it is not yet mainstream.

Secondly, this prize is meaningful because it can be celebrated among peers. I know that all of you in this room and all those nominated for the award understand clearly the challenges in emerging societies: lack of trust, defensiveness, inequality, poor governance and poor institutional capacity to tackle complex social issues.  But all of you being here are also aware of the great potential that our societies hold in terms of growing resources and talents as well as a genuine willingness and joy to give, be engaged and contribute. All of you here are the optimists in our societies who were willing to see the potential, the process of the glass filling, even when it was not yet half full. But you are also the realists who have to deal with the daily obstacles towards achieving this potential. It takes courage, it takes determination and most of all it takes persistence. Many of my fellow nominees have been engaged in this work for at least 10 years and sometimes longer. I am honored to be part of a community of philanthropy practitioners in emerging societies, one that understands, values and appreciates the complexity as well as creativity of this work.

Thirdly, it is very meaningful to me that this nomination came from the Romanian community foundations, a field that I have helped build and expand. This feedback from the field and the genuine appreciation beyond divides of institutional politics, in a context in which we’re better at criticizing than supporting those who take leadership, was deeply moving to me. Genuine appreciation, like philanthropy, is truly a gift. It cannot be demanded, it can only be offered. Genuine appreciation, like philanthropy, helps build communities and heals the wounds of division and isolation that we feel in our work. It also helps foster and expand the talents inside that community.

The Romanian community foundations movement has grown in the last ten years, from an idea to 15 foundations (and still counting). More than 40% of the Romanian population has now access to a community foundation, and newer ones can base their work on the experiences of other communities.

The success for the community foundations in Romania is not the result of my work. It is the result of many talented and inspiring leaders – both from community foundations, but also from partners, donors and support organizations in Romania and internationally. My role was rather in building and safeguarding a space where all these talents and resources could come together and strengthen each other; a long term perspective that offered inspiration and guidance; and a fierce belief that through steady work, obstacles will gradually dissolve, that even if we don’t yet know how, we will learn to make it through.

I have brought to this work the values of my generation and my cultural space. I was 13 when Romania has changed a long-term totalitarian regime and started with high hopes, but fragile steps, to build itself as a democratic society, learning from the experience of other countries and reconnecting with its own past. But even before this change, signs of freedom were growing stronger in society. I remember vividly my Romanian language teacher and class master who even before the change encouraged us strongly to think for ourselves, when the mode of operation was to learn by heart what other people were thinking. English gave me access to a world of experience in the field of civil society and philanthropy. I was 19 when I translated a workshop on advocacy, 21 when I started a local branch of a democracy NGO, 25 when I led a research on the grantmakers support for NGOs in Romania.

Being a part of the international philanthropic community, I have learned about community foundations being centers of hope, about the need to invest trust and look for leaders who will be there ten years onward, carrying their work with passion. C.S. Mott Foundation, WINGS, Global Fund for Community Foundations, The Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society at CUNY, Center for Philanthropy Slovakia, UK, Canada and US (community) foundations networks have provided opportunities for learning for me and my Romanian colleagues and we are deeply grateful for this support. I listened to professionals around the world, but more importantly I have observed them in action and been inspired by their work and leadership. This way, I could create my own understanding of what good philanthropy practice is. Then I tried it out and learned from what was working and what was failing. Having received all this knowledge and support, there was no choice but to pass it forward, to encourage leaders of communities to find their inspiration and then refine their own understanding through action and reflection. I have recently heard the story of a donor who felt morally obliged to donate for a scholarship because his grandfather had been supported as well to get higher education more than 50 years ago. We know from our experience that generosity multiplies. Each gift we make will motivate others to give as well and each courageous act we take will inspire others too. So please keep doing this good work.

Some highlights of community foundations work in Romania:

  • Over 1.5 million US$ were invested in local communities through more than 1000 grants and 500 scholarships.
  • Over 10,000 donors contributed only in the last year through sport-based fundraising events.
  • Romanians have a strong interest in supporting children and youth and the future leaders, with about one forth of the grants and all scholarship going towards education. Health, social needs, community spaces, culture and environment are the next supported fields.
  • Many community foundations support giving circles and youth-led philanthropy.

All this work comes with a high level of energy and creativity, a drive to see opportunities and find ways to deal with challenges. It also comes with a strong amplifying effect, creating a movement of generous and active people and communities across Romania. Also, beyond these more immediate results, the key success of the program lays in the creation of a sustainable local infrastructure for philanthropy and civil society engagement that continues to expand and diversify its work.

I would venture to say that the success of community foundations is a combination of broad trends in Romanian society and good timing. But the driving force is the quality of the leadership, with generous and committed individuals supporting this work, each in its role, from local to international levels. In the Romanian context, this came through the emergence of a layer of young professionals, educated after the transition to democracy and connected to what was happening internationally through travel, work or Internet. Together with an active choice to stay in their community, to build a family and invest in the future of their children, they have become more aware of the resources they had as well as the need to look for community based (rather than individual) solutions.

My exciting job was to find and support these motivated leaders and offer, through a network of engaged partners and supporters, access to knowledge and flexible financial support, that allowed for local decision-making on priorities. Study trips, workshops and conferences were helpful in knowing local and international practices, but also in building a ‘community of community foundations’.

What is next? While community foundations managed to reach out to mobile and active parts of the communities and engage them in taking leadership to support local needs, there are still many complex issues facing more vulnerable and excluded groups. There are already successful examples of community foundations supporting inter-generational projects, reaching out to rural areas and acting against discrimination of roma, but all these are areas that call for further engagement. There is a need to stimulate communities to look beyond what they know and are familiar with, towards spaces and groups that they don’t yet know so well, to help them bridge their inner divides, build trust and practice the values of generosity and solidarity. Or in the words of Bucharest community foundation, to support all the inhabitants of their community to feel at home.

Why is it important to continue to build philanthropy based on these values? Latest events, many violent and traumatic, have placed a mirror for our societies to help us define how we want to go about building our future. As of last week, Romania has a new government, with the previous one resigning after massive protests sparked by a fire with tragic consequences at a rock concert in a club with the symbolic name of Colectiv (collective) two weeks ago. Over 50 people lost their lives and over 150 were injured.

The fire had such strong consequences due to poor design and implementation of fire safety regulations. After the event, lots of similar places, but also schools, kindergartens, concerts or sport arenas were revealed to be missing the ‘stamp’ of the from fire department, pointing to a systemic problem. The public accused the corruption, but also lack of care from politicians to issues of public safety. Good debates were carried, but there was also lots of anger and collective blaming.

Romania called for better leaders and competent managers, but also for reflection on how each of us contributes to maintaining a public system that under performs. Clarifying the space of society in the act of governance became a central piece of the debate. While Romanian society is no longer patient, these are exactly the type of changes that cannot happen from one day to the other, the type of changes that require long term vision, collective talent and gradual built up that community foundations can aspire to contribute to. There is a need for a long-term, systemic and ‘quiet and long term revolution’ as my colleague from Sibiu community foundation calls our work.

Colectiv fire and the collective wake-up call that it has sparked came in a wider context of tragic violence cause by terrorism and extremism internationally. Within just two weeks, a Russian plane was crashed, a suicide bombing took place in Beirut and a series of killings with automatic guns took place in Paris. Romania had not recovered yet from the emotions of the Colectiv tragedy, but has been horrified to learn about the events in Paris. Some, but much less, found out about the events in Beirut as well. And reactions of solidarity and shock, of fear and defensiveness as well as of prejudgment and discrimination continued as they did in other places in the world as well.

A poignant sign posted in the Romanian debates was showing that ‘we want change, but we don’t want to be the ones to change’. It carries a strong message that more people are ready to stop the blame game and take responsibility. Even if what happens to our world is so far from us that we cannot fully understand or relate to. Even if we feel overwhelmed with the size and complexity of the issues. Even there is not a balanced reflection in the international media of all these events or particularly when these events are reflected differently through the lenses of geography, ethnicity, race or religion. We see how violence and fear lead to more violence, but also to more fear, stereotyping, and closing in. What happens globally is strongly linked with the local and national realities. From all the corners of the world we need to step in to care for the whole world. It is our world too.

Individually and collectively, we need to take responsibility beyond our immediate environment. To practice generosity, solidarity and compassion, the values connected to the understanding of philanthropy as ‘love for humankind’. And practice less acceptance of intolerance. We need to step up our game and really reflect if our philanthropy practice is truly based on all these values. Also to think what we can do to further promote them further, proactively engaging faith based and secular communities, media and IT, businesses and government, friends, families and organizations in making sure that our societies are really based on the philanthropic values of solidarity and compassion. And the more resources we have – access to knowledge, networks, money, time or talent – the more these also come with a responsibility for the whole, be it a community or the world.

In light of these challenges, let me finish with a few questions for each of us individually and for us as a philanthropic community around the world: are our responsibilities and actions at the level of our resources and potential? Or can we do more?  Can we learn more from the practices of others and the reality checks we receive? Can we change to reflect the future challenges rather than repeat what we have successfully been doing before? Can fully activate the generosity, solidarity and compassion of our constituencies? Can we give more consideration to those ‘unsolvable’ issues, the ones that we don’t know how to approach, because they are big and interconnected?

Even if we don’t yet know how, together we can learn to make it through.”

How community funds help “push power out of the door:” find out more about our recent webinar

Our role isn’t to say “Do A, B and C.” We know a fair amount of how to do what we’re doing and we’ve got a fair amount of experience, but ultimately, if we believe that the only people that can build and sustain a community are the people that live and work there, I’m not convinced that what matters is what I tell people to do. What ultimately matters is what people decide is in their best interest. In many cases we’re helping to facilitate that conversation, share information, or community leaders from a neighbouring community may go and share their experience. Jeff Yost, Nebraska Community Foundation, United States

“We believe that everybody is involved in a community, every child, every grown-up is a donor and we believe that every small contribution can become big. And therefore we say that we enable our community members to talk to each other.” Johanna Hendricks, West Coast Community Foundation, South Africa

Our recent webinar looked at how two community foundations – one in South Africa and the other in the United States – are using community (affiliated) funds to build grassroots philanthropy as a development tool and to stay local. Or, as put by Jeff Yost of the Nebraska Community Foundation, how community funds help “push power out the door.”

Missed it? See below for links to the webinar itself, a full transcript, presentations and a set of additional tools and resources.

Watch the webinar

Read a transcript of the webinar

 

Presentations:

Johanna Hendriks, CEO, West Coast Community Foundation

Jeff Yost, President and CEO, Nebraska Community Foundation

 

Additional materials:

“A different vision of rural philanthropy” by Jeff Yost

Nebraska Community Foundation 2014 Annual Report

Nebraska Community Foundation “Turn up your dream switch” video

West Coast Community Foundation “Hands of hope” video

 

From tinkering to transformation: why Africa needs a strong community philanthropy sector

The familiarity of the scene was both startling and sobering. A couple of months ago, I joined a field visit to a village in eastern Uganda, a stunningly green and mountainous part of the country, rich in coffee and banana trees. The experience transported me back twenty years to my first proper experience of Africa.

Back in 1992, fresh from university, I had spent a year in a village in the far southwestern tip of Uganda, teaching English (one text-book per ten students) and Health Science (which depended too much, unfortunately, on my rather inadequate chalkboard drawings). I learned how to crochet (and spent many an hour producing intricate seat covers in white and dazzling pink and discussing the relative merits of Uganda village life versus that in large British city with my crochet friends, the school’s secretary and the librarian), attended several weddings in far flung corners of Kabale’s surrounding hills, and wondered why tins of World Food Programme fish were being sold at our local shop. And all against the backdrop of booms of gunfire, that were the sounds of a civil war being fought over the border in Rwanda.

At school, each term a nurse would come to school to check if any of the girls were pregnant. If yes, they were promptly expelled. And, too often, bright students would disappear for weeks on end to return, after a severe bout of malaria, with less of a sparkle in their eyes and less ability in their schoolwork. I also got to see how various government policies played out at village level. Uganda’s World Bank-supported Structural Adjustment Programme was then in full flow: in the village this meant that the school closed and all teaching was halted as “ghost” teachers were weeded out from the pay roll. It was a mystifying process to all of us. In terms of elections, years of brutal civil war and a complete break-down in trust, had led the government to introduce a new, fully transparent system that dispensed with ballot boxes and involved voters actually lining up behind their chosen candidate so that there was no doubt as to the result (and on voting days, there also seemed to be more beer in circulation than usual). Most people seemed to feel it was a more credible process than closed, and often stuffed, ballots boxes.

But what I learnt more than anything during that year was how different the world looks from a position of poverty. Obviously I was a comparatively wealthy foreigner, but as the months went by, I got to understand and appreciate the forces – so often random and unstoppable – that shook and shaped the community: heavy rains wiping out a field or a home, cerebral malaria or AIDS taking away a breadwinner. The effect was to limit people’s expectations, and to foster a sense of passive fatalism, powerlessness, and ultimately acceptance. And beyond that, I learnt how the community saw the forces of “development” – as something wholly external, something “done to” a village, a project or initiative that might seem bewildering to those on the receiving end, but which would be accepted dutifully with the conclusion that “someone up there” must know what they are meant to be doing. 

And here we were two decades later, in a very similar looking village in Uganda. Although the overall story we were there to hear was a positive one (a small grant had helped the community to organize itself through a goat farming project, people who had never really spoken to each other were now working side by side and the women “had found their voice”), it was hard not to feel a sense of disappointment, and by extension, of something close to guilt. There was the deep curtsey of the woman who greeted us, eyes cast down, hand extended in the formal elbow-hold African handshake that is sign of respect although, sometimes, feels like supplication – that the outsiders must automatically be better or superior; the hint of gender dynamics that dictated that the woman stoop so low but not the men; the village school – that looked exactly like the one in which I had taught my more memorable classes on water-borne diseases – more suited to housing cattle than learning, and with a metal roof that would be the cause of an almighty and deafen clatter whenever it rained; stories told of children still being sent home from school because although primary education is free, there are still various hidden fees needing to be paid and parents still failing to manage this.

Don’t get me wrong, the overall trajectory of social development indicators in Uganda is generally positive. Under-five mortality rates are down from 178 per 1,000 to around 60, and there has been a significant reduction of mother to child transmission of HIV. What was striking, however, was how the overall conversation in the village had remained the same: the goat story was a bright spot in a broader scene of stagnation, poverty, and isolation. No one we spoke to could think of anyone from the village who had actually ever left to get work in the nearby town, let alone Kampala.

The term “brief-case NGO” is a well-used shorthand across Africa for the dodgier parts of a civil society sector that is not particularly well trusted. And indeed, in the village, the stereotype rang only too true: its only previous experience of an NGO had left a bad taste – promises had been made, but this was followed either by a change of heart or downright dishonesty on the part of the NGO which was never seen again.

Standing there, watching and listening, I felt a sense of sadness and shame. How could it be this way? I have spent the last twenty years studying, learning about, working in philanthropy and development – a fast-changing field where new ideas, approaches, the next “silver bullet” pop up with an astonishing frequency. Structural adjustment had come and gone. Then there were the Millennium Development Goals and, coming soon, the Sustainable Development Goals. In philanthropy we’ve seen grantmaking and non-grantmaking approaches, the emergence of “strategic” philanthropy, venture philanthropy, impact investing…  And yet, here in this one village, it struck me that fundamentally very little had really changed for people; that an isolated community had never been aware of – let alone been involved in – the lively and dynamic conversation that the rest of us in development have been having.

Of course, critiques of aid are not new and there are some particularly good and urgent ones around at the moment. In fact, it was a meeting to explore ways to demonstrate and advocate for more community-driven approaches to development that had brought me back to Uganda this year (the goats project was the result of a highly engaged grant made by the meeting organizers, Spark Microgrants). For two days, against the stunning backdrop of Mount Elgon, a group of NGOs and a couple of donors had mulled over the contradictions and complexities of development aid, all united in the belief that there had to be better ways to work and that each of the organizations present possessed some component of that “better way”.

I note, with no small sense of irony, that too many meetings in hotel conference rooms can only reinforce the sense of displacement I’ve already described. What is the alternative? (Ideas please! There’s a comments section below). But I am afraid I am going to have to take you to one more conference room before I finish here.

A few weeks’ before the Uganda visit, the GFCF had brought together a group of community philanthropy partners from across Africa in Arusha, Tanzania, to meet and learn from each other and to also to work together to better articulate a development approach that can be more reflective of the interests and abilities of the people it’s meant to serve. So we were joined by people from Egypt, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ethiopia, who each represent the various scattered and multi-lingual outposts of this emerging conversation about community philanthropy as an alternative development approach.GFCF Partners convening in Arusha, June 2015

One of the main topics of discussion was around a piece of research that the GFCF has been working on with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in South Africa. We were interested in testing the hypothesis – often aired but harder to demonstrate – that local grantmakers and foundations bring something distinct to the table; that, beyond money, local foundations can play all sorts of other roles, as mentors, connectors and long-term sources of support; that they can support and help build local organizations which can indeed bring in local people and not just leave the business of development to “experts” (I lost track of how many people had joined savings or self-help groups and contributed to village funds on our site visits to Limpopo for the research, but it was a phenomenal number); that when such local foundations are themselves fundraisers trying to address issues of their own long-term sustainability, such preoccupations get – consciously or unconsciously – passed on to their grantees; and that issues around decision-making and governance – and therefore power – become more important than ever. The kinds of things that might move a community from being passive recipients of development to engaged participants.

We wondered whether we could identify, together, some of that “magic mixture” and if so, whether we would be better able to say why, for example, local African foundations are better than external donors at doing things like reaching deep into communities in meaningful ways, in listening to local people (without the same complications that can often arise from visits from “outsider”) and in building trust. If that village in Uganda had had a ten-year relationship with a local grantmaking foundation (as in the case of the Makutano Development Association in Kenya) would the situation have looked any different?

It is clear that there has to be a fundamental shift in how development is done and it needs to offer a framework that connects people to people, ideas to ideas, concepts to concepts, vertically from communities to big donor institutions and, as importantly, horizontally across communities in all their diversity. Tinkering at the edges of development is fine but what is needed is big change.

We were fortunate to be joined at our meeting by the redoubtable Joyce Malombe, author of the first report commissioned by the World Bank back in 2000 to examine the potential role for community foundations to play in fostering community-driven development, and someone who can be relied upon to bring a conversation down to brass tacks. We asked Joyce to reflect on the current state and relevance of the African community philanthropy field. Here are some thoughts that stayed with me:

 

  • There is nothing more powerful than when people / communities know what it is they want, and can be supported in voicing those aspirations, and building the institutions that can deliver them.
  • That’s the magic so often missing from “development.” If communities are left behind, or out of the mix, development will never get anywhere
  • If we, as practitioners, believe the above, then we have no choice but to make it happen: we need to get better at talking about what we mean with clarity and confidence and at demonstrating what successful community development can look like.

 

Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director

Sri Lanka to South Africa: Reflections on my community philanthropy study visit

I joined the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT) in February 2015 as I was keen to work with grassroots initiatives in Sri Lanka. After working with the Trust for four months, I was offered this spectacular opportunity to meet with organizations and activists in South Africa that do similar types of work as NTT. The visit was organized by the GFCF and though I am not new to the subject of community development, community philanthropy is a new area for me. This is a subject that did not cross my path in my academic or career experience before. I equipped myself for this study visit with background reading about South Africa and some studies/research done on the subject of community philanthropy. Despite this groundwork, it was a surprising experience to see how “real” community philanthropy can be!

I was able to understand more about community philanthropy with every conversation I had. I heard many powerful stories of community philanthropy initiatives from the GFCF and learned about its support for such initiatives. In fact it surprised me when I understood how broad community philanthropy can be and how practical it is when I met with the Community Development Foundation Western Cape. They have creatively used seed funding from the GFCF to inspire community contributions for a small-scale environmental project, thus community “giving” is extensively defined. Witnessing and understanding the well-established systems in place for community philanthropy initiatives such as YouthBank and other community projects at the West Coast Community Foundation was equally impressive and inspiring. Meetings with other individuals broadened my definition of community philanthropy, as I heard about relevant academic research, and heard numerous simple and practical examples of the field in action.  Gayathri Gamage (C) with Beulah Fredericks of CDF Western Cape (L)

Inspired to be an advocator for community philanthropy, I plan (in fact have already started) to prepare the findings of this study visit as a paper, along with a step-by-step practical plan, that can be used by NTT and other grassroots initiatives in Sri Lanka, looking to add a community philanthropy lens to their work. This will not only help to contextualize my learning from this study visit, but will also allow us to introduce a new, strategic approach to development that empowers communities to make decisions about their own future. The importance of such a community-driven approach will also be examined through building an evidence-base around the work, which will be achieved through surveying our partners on the ground. I plan to continue updating this paper like a journal, adding the findings and good (replicable) practices of community philanthropy as I grow in this area of work. I found the materials developed by GFCF for community philanthropic organizations to be very helpful and believe they can be contextualized for replication in preparing the above plan.

I think that opportunities like this study visit broaden horizons and make us reflect. It helps one to understand the bigger picture, and to put into perspective what they do in their small communities / or in their countries. Engaging in discussions with colleagues doing similar types of work has helped me gain more confidence in my own work, and how I can best contribute to society. Hearing success and failure stories has especially motivated me to look for more innovative approaches to implement in my country. We should all take these opportunities to learn, share and reflect on our work: it is like this, I believe, that the case will really be made for community philanthropy, and the sector will continue to grow.

By: Gayathri Gamage, Programme Officer, Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust

A different kind of funder? Grassroots grantmaking for radical change: Q & A with the Edge Fund

The Edge Fund is a grantmaking body that supports efforts to achieve social, economic and environmental justice and to end imbalances in wealth and power – and give those it aims to help a say in where the funding goes. The GFCF spoke with the Fund about what makes it different, and how it aims to create social change at the community level.  

 

GFCF: What motivated the donors involved in Edge Fund to come together and how do they decide their priorities?

Edge Fund (EF): Edge Fund started out with a meeting back in April 2012 attended by 17 people. Only four of them were donors, the rest being activists working on a range of issues. From the beginning, the priorities for Edge have been decided by all members, whether they are able to give money or not.

The motivation for donors came from a belief that change must come from the bottom up, and therefore that people who are protected from the effects of inequality by their wealth and other privileges should allow others to share in the decision-making on how donations are used. Many of the donors feel uncomfortable about their wealth and have been almost relieved to share the responsibility of deciding on how to use it. It’s also about attempting to put our values into practice.

As with all decisions in Edge, priorities for funding are made through a collective process. Through a series of meetings we discussed our values and aims and came up with our original funding criteria, which has recently been revised.

 

GFCF: Edge Fund has a very participative ethos in terms of decision-making – how does this work in practice?

EF: Our recent review process is a good example of how we work. We have a Facilitating Group, which works behind the scenes to keep things moving and to keep an eye on what needs doing. For our latest review, the Facilitating Group drafted some proposals based on feedback from members and any problems that arose from the last funding round. These proposals were then discussed during two meetings, in London and Manchester. Members were also invited to give feedback via email or phone.

With the feedback of the Facilitating Group, we revised the proposals concerning how we fund, and asked members to complete a survey to express their views on each of them. We aimed to have 50% of the membership complete the survey (which is about 50 people). With some proposals all members agreed with them, with others there was a majority who agreed and others who still had concerns. We worked with each of those members to address their concerns within the current proposals until everyone was happy.

It helps that we have a philosophy of constantly reviewing, learning and evolving so members can feel assured that if a new proposal doesn’t work, there will be an opportunity to put it right in future. Nothing is set in stone!

It probably seems like a long and complicated process, but it means that we get a lot of input, and from people who have applied for funds themselves (so they know from experience what works best). It makes for better decisions. More than that, it hopefully means members have more of a sense of ownership of the organization.

The process for deciding on which groups get funded is again a combination of methods. We have several groups set up which are the first to look at particular applications, for example our Race and Ethnicity Committee will look at applications on this topic and remove those they feel don’t meet basic criteria or are problematic in some way. With guidance from the Committees, members then score a random selection of applications out of ten and an average is used to determine the short-list. The short-listed applicants are asked to provide more information and then come to a meeting to discuss their projects with members and other applicants.

Finally, all those who are able to attend the final funding meeting (including applicants) vote to decide how the funds are shared out, with the highest scoring receiving £3,000 and the rest £1,500. Having a process that is informed by many voices, including real life experiences, seems to work very well. Our members are soon to spot groups that haven’t been entirely truthful in their applications as often they know the groups on some level.

As James Surowiecki says in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, a group of people with a diversity of opinion, independent voices and local knowledge are smarter than a small group of “experts.” Sadly in grantmaking, often the “experts” who make the decisions have little in the way of lived experience or real connections to the groups they fund. There are always challenges, particularly around enabling everyone to be able to participate when the group is diverse and people have very different needs, but it’s worth it.Members & grant applicants use chickpeas to vote on proposals

 

GFCF: What scale of grantmaking has Edge Fund found that makes a difference in effecting social change?

EF: We fund very small groups; the average annual income of the groups we support is around £2,500. Many have got by for some time just using their own money (including people whose only form of income is their benefits). For groups of this size a few hundred pounds can make a big difference. What is most useful, for most groups, is longer-term support. We hope to be developing a new funding plan that funds a set of groups over three years, bringing them together every six months to share with each other what has been happening in their community, the work they’ve been doing and what they’re learned.

There is often a strong focus in the philanthropic world on impact. Of course, we all want to know if the funds we give out are useful but there is a balance needed. Too strong a focus on impact and outcomes could be blamed for the lack of funding for longer-term social change work that is hard to measure.

Bringing oppressive systems to an end is a long and hard struggle, and measuring social change is extremely difficult as it’s not tangible like more traditional charitable work. A campaign that fails can sometimes be a powerful trigger in mobilizing people to take action. Also, when you’re looking at a whole range of groups using different approaches it’s impossible to say which had the most impact.

We could put more resources into attempting to measure impact but we prefer to put as much money as we can into getting funds to the right groups. And for Edge, it could well be that the thing we do that has most impact is bringing different groups together to learn about each other’s struggles or perhaps the learning our members go through by reading applications, making funding decisions, meeting groups and engaging in discussions about systemic change, power and privilege. It’s a steep learning curve for some.

 

GFCF: Are there particular types of grants that you have found to be particularly effective?

EF: All of our grants are unrestricted, which means groups have full power to choose what they do with the funds and to adapt and react to what’s going on around them, without being tied down or having to ask permission. We are particularly happy when a group we’ve funded shares their learnings and experiences with other groups (and our members) during our Forum for Radical Sharing. A range of groups come together, working on issues such as immigration, disability rights, or climate change, and often surprising connections and collaborations arise. It’s fantastic when groups we fund begin to support each other in ways that are completely independent of us, bar the initial introduction.

 

GFCF: How does Edge Fund learn from its grantmaking – and how does it take forward this learning in terms of policy/practice change?

EF: We ask our grant recipients to report back on how they’ve been getting on since they received the funds, in whichever format they prefer, but this is not mandatory. We prefer instead to encourage them to attend our Forum for Radical Sharing, where funded groups, members and others come together for a day to look at what groups have been doing, the challenges they are facing, and who in the room can help them to overcome them. Since many of our members are from the groups we fund, much of the learning comes through them as we review and revise our policies and procedures.

 

GFCF: What other grantmakers/donors does Edge Fund work with?

EF: We often get enquiries about our model from other funders and are happy to share information about what we do, what works and doesn’t. For example, one of our members recently took part in a panel during the Engaged Donors for Global Equity (EDGE) Funders Alliance conference in the US, followed up by a presentation at Heinz Endowments, which distributes $60 million a year.

There seems to be a real interest in more democratic and accountable models of grantmaking. We’ve been involved with the European EDGE Funders Alliance too.

We have not as yet worked with other funders, mostly because most others are bound by charitable laws and are unable to fund the kind of groups that we do, or they find them a little too radical. However, we’d love to consider options for foundations who approach us wanting to fund some of the groups we work with; for example, perhaps they may be able to fund some of our Sharing Forums.

 

GFCF: What is the advice that Edge Fund would give to community foundations and other locally based funders, drawn from its experience?

  • Let go! Let the community decide. It works! Plus it can be a tool for bringing groups together to help build solidarity between movements, share tactics, and learn from each other.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, if you’re genuinely led by those affected by your decisions you won’t go too far wrong.
  • Keep asking for feedback, keep reviewing, keep evolving!

Community philanthropy in the spotlight at UNDP Small Grants Programme regional convenings

Over spring 2015, representatives of four community philanthropy organizations were invited to speak at UNDP Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme regional convenings – one held in Thailand and the other in the Dominican Republic – to inject a community philanthropy perspective into discussions, and to begin to explore how these development actors, seemingly so different, could finds ways of working with each other. Upon their return to their individual organizations, the GFCF followed up with these four individuals – all current GFCF grantees – to gather their thoughts on the following:

Community philanthropy works from the bottom up, quite different to how the UN, an enormous global organization, approaches its work. “Small grants” can also mean vastly different amounts depending on whether you are speaking with a local community philanthropy organization, or with a representative of the UNDP Small Grants Programme. Given these significant differences in approach and scale, after your time at the UNDP regional convening, did you observe any overlaps in terms of practice, values, principles, etc.? What were some of the more obvious differences? Beyond partnerships at the local level, what do you see as some of the opportunities for community philanthropy to connect with the UNDP Small Grants Programme?

 

Susana Aguilar Romero, Operations Coordinator

Fondo Acción Solidaria A.C. (FASOL) (Mexico) 

It was surprising to learn about all of the similarities between the UNDP Small Grants Programme and FASOL’s own small grants programme, particularly in terms of philosophy, values, and the operational side of the programmes themselves. One aspect that was especially interesting is the UNDP’s plan to incorporate a “services” programme to complement its grants, which sounds a lot like Grantmaker+ and which is very similar to a capacity-building program that FASOL is currently developing. However, because of its organizational structure, the UNDP Small Grants Programme is more rigid in terms of the scope of its grantmaking and the size of grants it offers.

FASOL works more with grassroots organizations, and thanks to a network of volunteer mentors who recommend our grants and offer ongoing support to our grantees, FASOL seems to have more flexibility. Trust is a key value in the work we do with grassroots groups. For FASOL, emerging from our participation in the regional convening is the chance to strengthen our work with different networks organized around common themes, such as indigenous peoples, climate change, and REDD (a UN collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries). 

Another point that featured prominently in the regional convening was the need to improve evaluation and assessment around social action. We share this observation because, often, the indicators that are used fail to capture very important results, such as increased understanding and agreement about natural resource conservation, or the strengthening of community capacity. It might be a good idea to implement a pilot programme in a limited set of countries to evaluate not only the direct outcomes of an environmental project, but also changes and growth in terms of network and group capacity.

 

Vuong Thao Vy, Grants Coordinator

LIN Center for Community Development (Vietnam)

The regional convening showed not only differences between the two approaches but also possible synergies between the UNDP and community foundations. In fact, it seemed the UNDP was interested in what it could learn from our sector in order to improve its own programmes.

The UNDP has the advantages of experience and reputation, robust procedures and documentation, and close connections with local governments. The UNDP “sets the rules” for its grantmaking process: potential grantees need to be qualified to implement projects that carry with them significant funding. Many of the UNDP’s projects and initiatives would be considered as large grants instead of small grants in the eyes of community foundations. Meanwhile, community philanthropy organizations are working from the bottom up. By engaging their stakeholders in grantmaking, community foundations are better able to: listen to their stakeholders’ needs; inspire them to change or improve their approach to philanthropy; and, nurture their desire to develop their capacity and to contribute to community sustainably.

In its new operational phase, the UNDP is committed to being a “Grantmaker+” which is certainly a guiding principle of most community foundations. Based on this common objective and each side’s strength, the UNDP could perhaps help to bridge the distance between local governments and community foundations, and to bring more visibility to grassroots work. At the same time, community foundations can help to equal out the traditional donor/beneficiary relationship by acting as a bridge between larger development actors and initiatives on the ground. Additionally, while the UNDP is better at mobilizing funds from governments and civil society, community philanthropy organizations pride themselves on leveraging different local kinds of resources (money, time, expertise, skills, networks, etc.). The two sides can certainly learn from each other in this regard, in order to better achieve their programme objectives, while ensuring the best use of resources and capacity.

 

Justin Welch, Executive Director

Monteverde Community Fund (Costa Rica) 

Although we work at different scales, and the processes for defining strategic priorities are much different, I saw a strong overlap between the practice, values and principles of the UNDP Small Grants Programme and ours at the Monteverde Community Fund. The UNDP Small Grants Programme in Costa Rica has been instrumental in grassroots development projects, especially those within the context of the National Biological Corridor Program. 

Community foundations should certainly be in contact with their UNDP Country Representative as they will be looking to develop partnerships in terms of resource matching and leveraging, as well as the strengthening of civil society capacities. The latter, I feel, being a forte of community foundations because of their ability to cultivate personal relationships over time and their flexibility to address the evolving needs of community groups along their individual path of development. Community foundations interested in exploring partnerships with the UNDP Small Grants Programme in their respective country should be aware of the intersection between the following thematic and strategic foci, which are important determining factors for funding decisions:

Thematic Foci:

  • Environmental: International waters, biodiversity, climate change, persistent chemicals and waste management
  • Social: Governance, civil sector capacity-building
  • Economic: Sustainable livelihoods, energy access

Strategic Aims:

  • Sustainable cities
  • Intelligent agriculture for climate change adaptation/agro-ecology
  • Grantmaker+
  • CBO-Government platforms
  • Social inclusion

Other Important Concepts:

  • Managing information in order to demonstrate donor impact, sharing new knowledge and learning, and improve institutional practices/operations
  • Thinking about replication, upscaling and mainstreaming
  • UNDP Small Grants Programme support for your area could come in the form of separate donations to a number of individual projects, or larger “strategic projects” that could include a number of smaller projects under an umbrella initiative

 

Sadhana Shrestha, Executive Director

Tewa (Nepal) 

My first day at the regional convening was somewhat overwhelming – trying to wrap my head around the massive differences in scale between community philanthropy and the UNDP “Small” Grants Programme, not to mention trying to keep up with the acronyms laced casually throughout the various presentations. But I eventually overcame my initial shock, and even began to enjoy the convening. As much as we had been invited so that UNDP staff could garner a better understanding of work happening on the ground, in the community philanthropy space, I took advantage of the opportunity to hear what was happening at the other end of the development spectrum from where I find myself.

And it was good to hear of a UNDP initiative that focuses on grants to communities, that seems to have done great work in many countries. Interestingly, there seemed to be quite a bit of buzz in the room about the potential contribution of community philanthropy to this work particularly in terms of: access to existing networks on the ground to overcome staff capacity constraints, knowledge sharing, and best practice in community engagement. The role and function of Grantmaker+ was also a hot topic. So while there did certainly seem to be synergies, my only concern was in this enthusiasm in the room being translated back into UNDP programmes and systems in an effective way. How can one idea or approach be adopted and understood across such a huge organization?

Despite this, it was particularly useful to meet the Nepal UNDP Country Director, who I’m sure Tewa will have contact with in the future.

The little development engine that could

This piece originally appeared on the Devex website

By: Diana Ohlbaum, Independent Consultant and former Deputy Director of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives 

It’s not big. It’s not shiny. But there is a promising train of sustainable funding for local priorities, and it has been largely missing from discussions of country ownership and financing for development. What is this overlooked and underappreciated engine of growth? Community philanthropy.

Community philanthropy refers to foundations and other social enterprises that are funded and controlled by members of the communities they serve. They raise significant amounts of money locally from individuals and businesses, spend money locally through small grants for worthy projects, and are held accountable by local communities. You can’t get any more “locally owned” than that.

As an example, a women’s fund in Nepal, known as Tewa, has mobilized contributions from 3,000 Nepalese donors to invest in local grass-roots institutions. Its model of emphasizing small philanthropic gifts has taught women how to be responsible donors as well as grantees, and given them the tools to overcome dependency and powerlessness.

Likewise, Kenya’s Makutano Community Development Association undertook a long-term commitment to building community capacity, resulting in the construction of a road, nine dams, 17 wells, 162 pit latrines and a secondary school, as well as putting 10,000 acres of land to productive use.

While international donors, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, routinely look for local organizations that can distribute and administer “umbrella grants,” community philanthropy is something different. These foundations are not the fiscal and programmatic agents of foreign funders, nor are they simply service providers. They are grantors in their own right…

To read the full article, please visit the Devex website. 

From bad to just right: Why is it so hard for bilaterals to support community philanthropy?

In a few weeks’ time, the GFCF will be inviting UK-based NGOs and development agencies to join a discussion in London about community philanthropy. We will be exploring two questions in particular: “How can community philanthropy contribute to development?” and “What can development do to support community philanthropy?”

The fact is that the notion of “community philanthropy” is not well established – or even well-known – within the mainstream development discourse. For the most part, it has been private foundations such as the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation, among others, that have supported the development of local foundations, often in the context of larger programmes focused on strengthening the infrastructure for local philanthropy and civil society. Beyond this small cluster of private foundations, the idea of strengthening community philanthropy as a strategy for building local assets, capacities and trust, or for enhancing transparency, accountability and good governance has limited currency.

But is change on the cards? In recent years, the mutterings of dissent against the international aid system – particularly the role of bilateral and multilateral aid agencies – have grown to become an increasingly audible rumble. And what is particularly interesting is that these critiques of current aid conventions, while they come from very different places, are often saying the same thing. Take these two comments:

“Projects composed of short-term injections of money for too specific a cause have proven to rarely lead to maintainable opportunities for the supposed beneficiaries….Instead of targeting isolated problems for specific time periods, a more holistic approach must become an ambition.”

“[The] projectized approach to capacity building, and to aid in general, rarely leads to sustainable outcomes in part because it treats partners as “implementers” and skews local resources toward donor-identified priorities…As a result….[an] organization itself may be actually weakened in its ability to respond to local needs and distracted or diverted from its core activities.”

The first is from a speech given by Sibongile Mkhabela, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in South Africa, a strong advocate for the importance of a robust African philanthropy sector. The second is from an excellent set of articles published recently on Devex by Diana Ohlbaum which offer a critique of USAID in particular, as well as some thoughts on how it could do business differently. Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, and previously was a senior professional staff member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a deputy director of USAID‘s Office of Transition Initiatives. Two voices from very different parts of the development space but their messages are strikingly similar.

When it comes to how big donor agencies engage with community philanthropy, whose proponents see as offering solutions and strategies for overcoming the short-term nature of development aid and in strengthening civil society so that it more locally owned, the experiences are varied. What is clear is that the term “community philanthropy” barely features in the discourse of large donor institutions. (Perhaps, at some level, it is a matter of language. Also the fact that the term philanthropy – and the “baggage” it sometimes brings of charitable acts by the wealthy that reinforce the status quo – has never really sat comfortably within the language of mainstream development. An important conversation for another day!)

In recent weeks, through different meetings in the course of my day-to-day work as well as conversations with partners on the specific issue of support from bilateral and multilateral aid agencies, I have arrived at the conclusion that the experiences where community philanthropy and development meet fall into three main categories.

 

1. Missing the picture altogether: Undermining community philanthropy

First, the worst experience. (Names and organizations withheld here to save on awkwardness all round). Here, an international donor institution was delighted to find a local organization that knew its community, had great connections (largely established through an intensive and sensitively crafted grassroots grantmaking programme) and that could even complete their complicated application forms in English.

The short version of this failed adventure goes something like this:

  • The donor (let’s call it B) had strong programme interests and wasn’t interested in the work of the local organization (A). Instead, B wanted A to adapt to its own agenda once the grant was awarded, which pushed A far beyond its own focus and areas of expertise – not to mention comfort zone.
  • Then there was the issue of “capacity building.” Rather than this being an overall interest in the long-term well-being of A, this was really capacity building so that A could complete B’s very complicated reporting forms.
  • The funding itself didn’t arrive when it was expected so A was left with staff hired and ready to work but with no money to pay them, a very stressful situation for an organization with no reserves to tide them over. (Something for which the professed sympathy from B’s staff – who were meanwhile receiving their salaries as usual – fell a bit flat with A).
  • A faced enormous constraints in implementing the programme because every activity and outcome had needed to be determined well in advance. This left very little wiggle room for A to be able to take its usual responsive and flexible approach, essential in the complex and unpredictable environment in which it was operating.

The list goes on. But perhaps the most important point here is that B had no interest in what A brought to the table in terms of its previous work – the level of trust, the efforts to which it was going to start a conversation about local resources and local agency, etc. In short, B was not interested in A’s strengths as a community philanthropy organization. All it saw was a “project implementer” and, in taking such a short-sighted view, it pushed A into an impossible situation which left it highly vulnerable – both in terms of basic cash flow but also in terms of its reputation with the local community.

 

2. The half-view: Supporting certain aspects of community philanthropy

If you were to ask a donor such as DFID (The Department for International Development of the UK Government) whether they support community philanthropy, the answer would most likely be a “No.” However, if you were to ask DFID if they had ever been involved in establishing a foundation then the answer might be a “Yes.” And if you were to ask them if they had ever been involved in supporting the creation of a YouthBank – something of a signature piece of the global community philanthropy field then, you might also be surprised to hear another resounding “Yes.” That is currently the case in Mozambique, where DFID funding has supported the MICAIA Foundation to establish the first youth-led grassroots grantmaking programme in the Chimoio District. Also, part of MICAIA’s plans from the start has been the idea of establishing a long-term community fund for youth development which can draw on local as well as external resources. The feasibility study for this has also been part of the project that DFID is supporting.

MICAIA’S YouthBank participants

Pulling together these pieces, it sounds as though DFID is in fact supporting community philanthropy: perhaps it is just a matter of different organizations using different language and terminology. Almost, but not quite. It is indeed a positive thing that MICAIA’s complex and ambitious work in Mozambique, targeting young people who have often felt excluded from their own development, is being supported by DFID. But, as anyone who has ever set up a community grantmaking programme of the kind that targets small amounts of money to groups that have never encountered anything of the kind before, this is often labour-intensive, unpredictable work. It takes time to build trust and to create the conditions for local groups to be ready to receive and deploy resources in the most effective way and a “cushion” of flexible funding can be a godsend.

Of course, bilateral donors can’t usually behave like private foundations: they don’t have the same degree of flexibility and can face multiple internal constraints in terms of accountability, programme and funding structures. Looking forward, then perhaps the key is leverage, with more funding partnerships between different kinds of donors where each can play to their relative strengths. But for that to happen there needs to be much more conversation and exchange about how different funding organizations see the world and their role (and its limits) in bringing about change. Let’s hope our meeting in May can be one place to advance this conversation.

 

3. Seeing the full picture: Proactively supporting community philanthropy

Finally, there are the instances where bilateral donors have been able to embrace what might be seen to be a broader community philanthropy development agenda (even if that is not the particular terminology that is applied). Last week, I joined a roundtable discussion on community philanthropy in Ho Chi Minh City, hosted by the LIN Center for Community Development. The GFCF has partnered with LIN over a number of years, providing small grants aimed at stimulating local giving (matching funding), for research, peer exchange visits and overall institutional development. In turn, LIN has been an important and generous source of learning and sharing for other community philanthropy organizations. At the meeting was a representative of Irish Aid. And guess what? Irish Aid has also been providing small grants (including matching funding), as well as opportunities to learn and share more broadly within the region (in fact, a group from Laos was just coming to the end of a week’s study tour, funded by Irish Aid). Like the GFCF, it has also regarded strengthening LIN as a key priority, above and beyond its ability just to deliver programmes.

March 2015 Roundtable at LIN Center, Vietnam

So it’s not all bad news, but there is definitely something that needs to be done about better communication between different kinds of donors, a more intentional “laying out of wares” when it comes to what each can offer, and a more rigorous deconstruction of language so that where there are synergies, they can be arrived at more easily. Platforms such as the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, which brings together a set of different kinds of donors (including, interestingly enough, USAID), offers an excellent starting point for this kind of thoughtful interaction.

I wanted to share a final thought that came out of one of the conversations that resulted in this blog. We were discussing the aid industry’s preoccupation with the “end user”, to the extent that virtually everything between the cheque leaving their account and the end user is just a link in a production chain, a cost that needs to be accounted for. If community philanthropy organizations can be repositories and stewards of social and financial capital, of trust across and between communities, models of good governance and horizontal accountability, then how about rethinking a category of “end user” which includes such institutions as a good in themselves – not a conduit or a mechanism but something that local people care about, own, give to and turn to in times of need?

 

Jenny Hodgson

GFCF Executive Director 

Acknowledge the power imbalances and act!

 

This piece, written by Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director, originally appeared on the European Foundation Centre website.

 

As the United Nations prepares to release a new set of Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the current architecture of the international development sector. The good news is that, according to United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, the MDGs have reduced extreme poverty by half although the benefits have not always been evenly spread geographically and there has been less success on key goals relating to women and children.

However, in the pursuit of poverty alleviation and other global development objectives over the last few decades, the donor community has at the same time contributed to the creation of a global development “industry”. This has turned many NGOs (global and local) into highly skilled proposal writers, budget-jugglers and masters of development jargon, who compete with each other to serve the needs and requirements 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, and result in hefty reports landing on desks in London, Brussels or Washington, far away from the very people that the development sector is meant to be serving.

 

Community philanthropy: Offering an alternative model of development

It was this frustration that, 17 years ago, led to the creation of the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), Kenya’s first public foundation. 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, in which people were relegated to the role of “beneficiaries” with “needs”, rather than as citizens with assets who could play an active role in their own development. They also saw how Kenya’s rich systems of mutual giving, as well as its growing middle and wealthy classes, were never part of the local development equation and wanted to create a local institution that could both build up the capacities of local organisations and at the same time, harness local assets and resources in new and strategic ways. It is the same frustration that is today fuelling the creation of the Haiti Community Foundation, a project 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 was going to international organisations, 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 and indigenous foundations that are emerging around the world. Although this “family” of institutions – which includes community foundations, national foundations, issue-based funds and other grassroots grantmakers – may differ in terms of context and origins, they are all seeking to model new types of philanthropic behaviour and practice by harnessing local resources and traditions of giving, blending them with new institutional forms. They do this in a number of ways:

  • By using small grants to support initiatives and build the capacities of grassroots groups, which tend to slip under the radar of most international donors. Small grants are also highly effective when it comes to building up a local donor base in places where public trust in institutions is low: they can be easily and transparently tracked rather than disappearing into institutional costs (nothing symbolises the “mystery” of development and puts local donors off more than the four-wheel drive car!), and they are also proof of the fact that development doesn’t always require big money but instead sustained and targeted support that can catalyse local action.
  • By building up a local support base. This is not just a funding strategy (although it certainly changes the power dynamics with external donors when an organisation can bring its own locally-sourced resources to the table) but also derives from the belief that development outcomes are more lasting when people invest their own resources.
  • By playing this double role as both a hub for local asset development and a developmental grantmaker, these organisations are able to act as a bridge between different sections of a community, linking resources and needs, as well as goodwill and good ideas. This unique, horizontal “linking” role is one that most other NGOs are rarely positioned – or encouraged – to play, so entrenched are they in issue-based silos (another distorting effect of mainstream development, whereby everyone is a specialist and generalist organisations are seen as “lacking in focus”).
  • Finally, these organizations are often rich in social capital. When a community philanthropy organisation in Romania or Nepal has a support base of thousands of local donors, no matter how small the individual gifts, that surely says something about how embedded they are in their community, and how much the organisation is seen as part of that community rather than a construct introduced from above. Although the budgets of these institutions might be small, this aspect of local trust and buy-in is often something that gets overlooked, with international aid directing large amounts of money to competent NGOs on the basis of administrative / proposal-writing / English language capacities.

 

A changing landscape for aid: What role for donors and civil society?

The emergence of these new types of community philanthropy institutions is happening at a time when issues around ownership, flows and governance of resources are being seen as more critical than ever. As the established architecture for international aid is changing, so is the landscape in which it has traditionally operated. For traditional international donors, whose influence is already starting to diminish with the arrival of new forms of South-South cooperation (which often requires much less in terms of compliance), I would suggest that it is time to do some real soul-searching about the kind of legacy or footprint that they want to leave behind in developing contexts where they have already been active for decades. Some food for thought:

  • Think long-term and think holistically (even if just a little!). Of course, numbers matter particularly given the growing preoccupation with metrics in development, but there is also something short-sighted about only concentrating on the tangible, the countable, and the “bang for your buck.” Often, development projects seem to me like someone deciding to decorate just one room in a house, self-contained and beautiful, with all mod cons, but forgetting to check whether the plumbing works, the foundations are intact etc. How about investing in partner organisations so that they can plan for their future as a longer-term social good and so that when you leave, you leave them in good shape.
  • Local people-centred institutions matter. International development needs local NGOs but when they are shaped too much by external funding they might not be the kinds of NGOs that local people really want. Local civil society organisations can play an important role in negotiating with other institutional players (state, corporate etc.) but their ability to do also depends on some degree of legitimacy / local buy-in.
  • Acknowledge the power imbalances and act! I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard of a staff member in a community foundation who has moved on to an international NGO, where they will no doubt earn a bigger salary and greater prestige. There is something wrong with an aid system where international organisations end up poaching the best local talent and where local organisations are perceived as less “valuable” than international ones.

As the international aid community and its civil society partners reflect on the MDGs and look forward to the next round of development goals, it seems a good time to engage in some critical introspection, as well as some creative thinking. 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 last 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 both timely and essential if international development is going to engage constructively around real issues of power and ownership.