Moving beyond the Poor Cousin

In launching ‘More than the Poor Cousin? The Emergence of Community Foundations as a New Development Paradigm’ yesterday, the moderator of the session, Caroline Hartnell, asked the 40 people in the audience to help us to craft the next stages of the study.

The conclusions of the study suggest that community foundations may be the missing piece in the jigsaw of international development, but the work by the Global Fund for Community Foundations is at an early stage. Caroline Hartnell asked the audience to consider questions such as:

  • Does this study make the case?
  • Does the central finding about the importance of ‘trust’ square with your experience?
  • What else do we need to know?

In a lively session, people both offered ideas that supported the findings of the study and asked sceptical questions. For the authors of the study, the session was immensely helpful in guiding us about how to take the work to the next stage.

The evidence base

People liked the methodology of the study. It is based on using the administrative process of the Global Fund for Community Foundations to generate evaluation data about the performance of the grantees. This does away with the need for an external evaluator and yields a combination of statistical and qualitative information relevant to the goals of the Global Fund.

People wanted to see this method extended, both by adding new cohorts of grantees into it and by using other data sets from related fields.  One person suggested that the Mexican experience of community foundations had yielded a cornucopia of data that could be used in a similar way.

The centrality of trust

There was much support for the idea that trust is a successful element in development. In the Carpathians, one person told a story of how a youth group gains much financial support because they are trusted. Several participants, from Latvia to Brazil, suggested how important it was to have an institution that was countering corruption in communities and showing a clean way to operate. In assessing the integrity of an organisation, a key component was who was on the board. In Africa, there was a different dimension to trust. When NGOs said to a funder ‘trust us’, this could mean ‘leave us alone’, but when this was probed deeper, it commonly meant an exhortation to funders to ensure that their requests for reporting on the grant add value to the work, rather than tie the organisation up in bureaucratic activity.

Despite this level of support for the idea of trust, some people thought that our analysis of trust was superficial and needed to go deeper into the relationships between individuals and families.  Staying at the institutional level told only part of the story.

Community foundations as a way forward

It was pointed out that community foundation professionals and development professionals tended to operate in different worlds. Community foundations could offer a sustainable exit strategy for development programmes, but the idea was rarely taken up.

Others were sceptical about the roles that community foundations could play.  Most people felt that community approaches were important but not sufficient on their own.  The role of the state was missing from the analysis in the report and this needed to be put right.  There was little reference to private corporations either. There was also the issue of scale, and the size of the organizations described in the report meant that they were too small to tackle the huge problems facing the world.  Small may be beautiful but size matters.

Next steps for the research

In devising the follow up to this initial study, we will address all of the points raised at the meeting.  Further information may be obtained from Jenny Hodgson, Director of the Global Fund, at

Barry Knight is an adviser to the Global Fund for Community Foundations