Grappling with the present, looking ahead to the future – an interview with Jenny Hodgson
07 Jun 2023
This interview with GFCF Executive Director Jenny Hodgson was conducted by the Federation of Romanian Community Foundations following the event “Grappling with the present, looking ahead to the future: A regional dialogue on #ShiftThePower” held on 16 May 2023 in Bucharest. The event was co-organized by the GFCF, the Federation, Bucharest Community Foundation and the National Network of Local Philanthropy Development in Ukraine. The interview originally appeared on the Federation’s website.
Federation: In 2016, you first introduced the concept of #ShiftThePower. Please tell us more about the movement and how it relates to the current developments in Eastern Europe, from your perspective. What is your experience with Romanian community foundations in this regard?
Jenny Hodgson (JH): The hashtag #ShiftThePower first emerged in the lead-up to the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in 2016. At the time, the Summit represented a “coming out” of community foundations and community philanthropy organizations as a largely hidden or unknown section of civil society. Our work with these kinds of organizations over the previous decade had helped us to understand that community foundations are not just a financial intermediaries but that they also play important roles creating new spaces for people to participate in civic life and have their voices heard and, that with their emphasis on mobilizing local resources and cultures of giving and their grants to grassroots groups, they were also playing an important role in shifting and sharing power.
Unlike community foundations in North America whose origins lie historically in the banking sector, the driving force behind community philanthropy organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and, yes, Eastern Europe, has and continues to be more about a set of tools and development approaches that are aimed at activating communities and “oiling the machinery” of trust within and between them. In that vein, the story of Romania’s community foundations offers a great example of how public trust can be built and maintained over time, as evidenced by their ability to mobilize communities and significant local resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, the influx of refugees from Ukraine as a result of Russia’s invasion.
At a time when the larger international aid system is being forced to reckon with a history of top-down, donor-driven, short-term approaches that perpetuate power imbalances and overlook, undermine or even displace community assets, a key objective of the #ShiftThePower movement is to tip the balance of power towards local people and away from external agencies, and to ensure that local people have control over the resources they need to enable them to build the communities they want.
Federation: The concept of “community philanthropy” is on the rise in recent years – and it marks an interesting paradigm shift, in which institutional philanthropy takes the back seat when it comes to durable development. What notable changes do you think this shift in power dynamics is likely to bring in the future?
JH: Although the idea of community philanthropy as strategy for building assets, agency and trust has grown in visibility and reach in the past few years, there is still a long way to go for it to be considered not just “nice” but “essential” if, that is, we are to realize a future that is “negotiated, participatory and widely owned.” The number of institutional donors that invest in community philanthropy as a good in itself, that builds relational power and deep and long-term knowledge of communities which can help improve outcomes across a range of different issues is still quite small and that needs to change.
Federation: One of the power-phrases of the #ShiftThePower movement is that “those we seek to ‘help’ have much more power – in the form of knowledge, skills, networks – than they are given credit for.” What are some of the best ways in which such individuals, grassroots groups or other civil society actors can raise their voices, make themselves heard and challenge the old ways of doing things?
JH: Overlooking or dismissing the power – and other resources – that lie within communities has long been a major shortcoming of the dominant funding system. Alongside it runs the idea that external funding is “the only show in town” and, therefore, the only thing that needs to be accounted for. And yet anyone who has worked with communities knows that that is simply not the case. The #ShiftThePower movement offers a space for people and organizations from across the funding and civil society ecosystem to come together to shine a light on alternative and more equitable approaches and practices that are bubbling up at the edges all around the world, as well as to advocate collectively for reform and transformation in mainstream donor practices. As the supply side of the funding system (donors and INGOs) are being forced to confront how they work through big global commitments such as the localization agenda, #ShiftThePower is about building the demand-side of systems change.
Federation: On 16 May, you were present in Bucharest for a regional dialogue on #ShiftThePower, under the name of “Grappling with the present, looking ahead to the future.” How was the experience and what are some key takeaways from the meeting?
JH: It was a real pleasure to be at an in-person meeting again after such a long time, and to feel the amazing energy in the room. With COVID-19 and now the Ukraine war, community foundations have had a lot to deal with in the past few years, responding to immediate humanitarian needs and dealing with longer-term issues facing their communities: as the war in Ukraine enters its second year, longer term work aimed at building social cohesion between the established communities and new arrivals (whether refugees or, in Ukraine itself, those displaced internally). Participants described the importance of strong relationships with the community, often built over years, when it came to responding to recent crises and how trust is often the most essential currency.
As the world turned its attention to the war in Ukraine, however, the sudden influx of international humanitarian aid into the region has had an impact on local civil society and often not in positive ways. The pattern of where money has gone follows that seen in humanitarian crises all over the world, with only a tiny percentage of money going to local civil society actors. INGOs with no or little experience of working in the region have set up shop there, bringing with them an aid machinery preoccupied with the movement of money, rather than the “most precious resource, which is activist energies” as one participant put it. In some instances, INGOs had opted to work with community foundations and other local funds: on paper this was an excellent strategy because of the latter’s knowledge of the context and their ability to direct resources to known and trusted local groups. However, the reality has been much more challenging, with heavy and unreasonable demands, over compliance and reporting serving to undermine community foundations’ existing relationships with the communities and organizations they work with.
“As crises have come,” observed one participant, “our relationships with the community were key in order for us to be able to respond effectively.” As participants broke up into groups, the issue of brokering between big aid and community philanthropy – and the different kinds of systems, approaches and power that they represent – was among the topics discussed. Others included broader advocacy efforts aimed at directing more money to local groups, countering negative narratives perpetuated about civil society, telling new stories of change and making the case for core support. Overall, it was a rich and complex set of discussions, held together by an overall sense of shared purpose and direction and the belief that new ways of doing and deciding that “invert the crazy logic” of so much donor funding are both essential and already happening in the field of community philanthropy.