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The Potential of Community Philanthropy: A Flexible Friend?

Community philanthropy has spread across the globe as a means of increasing local ownership and responsibility for development outcomes.  While rooted in the one-hundred-year North American model of community foundations, forms of community philanthropy exist in virtually every culture, and the practice has been adapted and re-imagined to respond to local conditions, priorities, and development opportunities.  The common commphilstrands focus on mobilizing money (alongside other resources/assets) to support and build the capacity of civil society organisations to achieve more inclusive and equitable societies through a sense of social solidarity.

A recently released Community Foundation Atlas listed over 1,800 organisations that self-identified as community philanthropy organisations, and this group could arguably be expanded to include other locally-based funds with multiple stakeholders. The Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (GACP) has been established as a five-year learning consortium to raise the visibility of community philanthropy; examine how it might best be supported; and develop relationships to help community philanthropy to be accepted as a valuable partner for achieving more sustainable and locally rooted development outcomes.

A Shared Learning Agenda
The Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) has worked since 2006 both to support community philanthropy organisations and to draw and share learning from their work.  From a range of studies compiled through participative learning opportunities, what emerges is the importance of philanthropy of community, rather than philanthropy for community.  Philanthropy of community re-balances the power dynamics between local knowledge, priorities, and relationships, and external resources, information, and expertise.  Community philanthropy organisations are often seen as public grant-making institutions that raise funds from a number of sources (both local and international), while their ‘added value’ often goes unacknowledged.  Community foundations are well suited to bridge the gap between donors and grassroots work, engaging local actors in decision-making processes, providing technical assistance, and building community support for their mission – a critical element in human rights work. It is this non-grant-making support that enables community philanthropy hubs to build the capacities of civil society organisations in terms of both practice and of policy influence.  In order to maximise learning, GFCF believes that experience should be tapped from the widest range of community philanthropy organisations.

Regionally and locally based public foundations – independent of private, corporate, or government control – have much to offer in terms of experience and learning. GFCF, which acts as the secretariat of the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, believes that names and definitions matter less than organisational characteristics, practice, and values.  Women’s funds, human rights funds, environmental funds, and other locally rooted funds bring important perspectives and understanding to the overall community philanthropy field.  A specific aspect of their experience is that of framing priorities and adopting inclusive, participatory approaches to decision-making. But as philanthropy increasingly “thinks local,” we must also “act global,” creating space to facilitate the interflow of ideas and strategies from different types of community funders around the world.

Enhancing Learning Potential: Community Philanthropy and Human Rights
The synergies between community philanthropy and the human rights movement are clear from existing experiences. The Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT), working in Sri Lanka, provided a core grant to support the civil rights movement’s work to monitor the exercise of state power and raise public awareness of current issues. The movement ensures that publications are tri-lingual, inclusive, and accessible to all those concerned. NTT also awarded a grant to the Leo Marga Ashram NGO, which uses legal advice and street theatre to empower plantation workers in the Bandarewela district to advocate for their rights.

On the other side of the globe, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland provided a small grant to the ‘Ballymurphy Campaign’ to hold the British Government accountable for the civilian deaths in West Belfast during “the Troubles.” The Community Foundation also held training workshops with members of the Irish Traveller community to support them in making policy recommendations to a government consultation, and the Women’s Reconstruction Fund in Serbia mobilised resources to work with Roma women facing forcible eviction – all aspects of community-based human rights in different contexts.

Community philanthropy organisations are well placed to take forward a human rights agenda because they have a finger on the pulse of marginalised groups and communities. They benefit from inter-thematic positioning, allowing them to make connections between self-identified “needs” and a framing of “rights.”  In addition, drawing on their ability to facilitate networking, community philanthropy hubs can either take the lead in (or a be part of) broader platforms for social justice, such as that represented by the Rede de Fundos Independentes para a Justiҫa Social (Network of Independent Funds for Social Justice) in Brazil.

The GFCF is keen to discuss with funders how best to take this discussion forward, ranging from basic exchange of knowledge to identifying development opportunities. There are a number of opportunities to build on existing relationships and examples of successful partnerships:

  • Shared experience of issues relevant to community-based funds, such as resource mobilisation, the building of community/civil society capacities, approaches to advocacy, or approaches to impact evaluation (women’s funds, for example, have developed extremely useful resources). What are the common challenges? What has worked well?
  • Convening community philanthropy organisations on a regional basis to share learning and perspectives, recognising (and respecting) the value of different experiences.
  • Identifying opportunities for peer learning in specific areas of concern (geographic or thematic), where a community philanthropy approach might contribute to long-term sustainable impact.
  • Identifying development funding opportunities that focus attention on specific themes within community philanthropy and build awareness and capacity to maintain this work. For example, GFCF developed a recent funding call on environmental issues, informed by a 2013 consultation in Mombasa, Kenya, with both community philanthropy organizations and environmentalists.

While these are very initial ideas for discussion, both community funders and the broader philanthropic field can benefit from exploring different contexts, shared challenges, and past successes.  By drawing upon existing knowledge and commitments, we can develop a productive and positive framework for an inclusive approach to community philanthropy informed by inclusive values and clear respect for human rights.

To learn more or share responses, comments, or suggestions, contact Avila Kilmurray at avila@globalfundcf.org.


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