Definitions – tight embrace or flexible approach?

Monica Patten and Susan Wilkinson-Maposa

Why is it that when people get together to talk about community philanthropy, they so often end up talking about community foundations? And why does so much of the discussion then focus on their formal characteristics, numbers and assets rather than on what they achieve? These were some of the issues raised by Caroline Hartnell, introducing a breakout session at the recent EFC conference in Athens.

Speaking at the session – whose title asked the question ‘Is the tight definitional embrace of the community foundation stifling the growth of community philanthropy?’ – Susan Wilkinson-Maposa and Monica Patten kicked off a stimulating conversation, which they agreed to continue in the pages of Alliance.

The Athens session …

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa, a social development practitioner and researcher based in South Africa, agreed that people pay too much attention to form and structure when talking about community foundations rather than looking at what they do and the impact they have. She stressed the valuable contribution that community foundations have made – but as one vehicle, not the universal model, of institutional/organized philanthropy. Nor have the assumptions and values underlying the model been tested against emerging knowledge of community philanthropy globally. In particular, she questioned the assumption that ‘community’ is an essentially geographical concept, and that giving must necessarily be a ‘voluntary act’ rather than based in notions of duty and obligation.

The fact that philanthropic traditions existed long before the community foundation model was conceived is often ignored, said Wilkinson-Maposa. The introduction of institutional philanthropy should always take place against a background of understanding of local culture, history and context. In Africa, for example, long-standing traditions and practices of self-help, reciprocity, giving and sharing rarely figure prominently as an entry point or ongoing conversation with communities. A broader promotion of community philanthropy will require investment in developing and piloting a much greater range of vehicles for organized philanthropy.

Monica Patten (Community Foundations of Canada) began by questioning some of the assumptions implicit in the session title. While allowing that there are some who apply definitions rigidly with the aim of excluding those that fall outside them, most practitioners, she maintained, adopt a flexible and inclusive approach. She instanced a Philippine organization that collects regular small amounts from 300,000 people in the local community to support community needs.[1] Who would want to deny them the name ‘community foundation’, she asked. She also questioned the constant harking back to the US model – what about the rather different models developed in Canada and more recently in the UK?

Several speakers from the audience warned of dangers in some versions of the community foundation concept. Too much emphasis on donor services can result in an elitist organization, out of touch with the community’s needs. Too much dependence on donor advised funds may mean a lack of funds to tackle the most pressing local issues.

The discussion was well summarized by Christopher Harris of the Ford Foundation, who stressed the need to move beyond the current emphasis, in looking at the community foundation model, on ‘form and structure’ and to push forward on issues of impact – ‘what we do and how well we do it’ – something that he acknowledged to be in part the responsibility of foundations and other donors.

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa and Monica Patten now continue the conversation.

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa

I came away from this year’s Community Philanthropy Initiative (CPI) networking meeting in Athens – the first that I had attended – wondering if the emphasis on one primary form of organized philanthropy, community foundations, has blinkered our ability to see other options and approaches. One way to build momentum for a broader approach to community philanthropy worldwide is to expand the range of vehicles of organized philanthropy that we can draw on. How can this be done?

One approach would be to consciously learn from the experience of the worldwide community foundation movement by encouraging rigorous inquiry into the results and impact achieved, drawing out lessons regarding what works and what doesn’t as well as about the strengths and limitations of the model.

Another approach is to allow ‘philanthropy of community’ – that is, existing practices of help, giving and sharing – to inform and influence ‘philanthropy for community’ interventions. As grantmakers continue to expand their work internationally, and as the study of indigenous philanthropy burgeons, including inquiry in Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines and within Maori society, a nuanced understanding of diverse expressions and practices of community philanthropy is beginning to emerge. This broader and more textured picture of the ‘philanthropic landscape’ could be a powerful resource to draw on as we develop new vehicles of organized philanthropy.

To illustrate, a four-country inquiry in Southern Africa, covering Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, endeavours to map out community philanthropy among low-wealth communities. The focus is on the mobilization of resources based on ‘help transactions’ among the poor – be it individuals giving to other individuals or giving involving associations. Preliminary data indicates that in addition to money and time, giving advice and moral support are important and valued forms of help. How could organized philanthropy build on this and challenge existing responses which ‘channel money’ towards a problem, assuming financial solutions are predominant?

Monica Patten

I, too, attended the CPI meeting for the first time this year, but I can’t agree that we have reached a point where community philanthropy discussions are really all about community foundations, nor with the implication that we spend most of our time talking about the form and structure our work takes. This was not the case in Athens – and the organizers of CPI and the following EFC AGA deserve much credit for ‘making the space’ for a broader discussion.

But the reality is that most of us do gather to talk about the work of community foundations, though not dwelling on form and structure. At my own national conferences, for instance, we always have sessions looking at how we can work better with other groups – United Way, community economic development specialists, aboriginal Canadians. Indeed, if those with whom we work and serve (communities, donors, grant recipients, partners) thought we were whiling away our time figuring out how to describe ourselves, they would be dismayed!

Having said that, I make no apologies for the work that has been undertaken by WINGS-CF to bring some coherence to the idea of community foundations and to gain a perspective on the growth of the movement. Over the last several years, we have become more flexible in understanding how the roots of community foundations vary from country to country, and we have documented how community foundations vary in their practices and approaches, depending on their circumstances. Our newest Global Status Report ( gives numbers and facts – perhaps too many, as some have suggested – but it also provides a fascinating glimpse into the richness and diversity of the community foundation world.

Susan rightly makes the point that the time has come for rigorous examination of the impact of community foundation work. Though it will be difficult to do, I heartily agree, because it has the potential to help us do our work more effectively and to do away with any romanticizing of the community foundation approach – and for that matter, any other approach. Over time, no matter what the traditions and norms in a culture have been, no approach has succeeded in solving our community problems, or we wouldn’t have to keep doing what we do. But we do need to ask what difference we are making – community foundations and other forms of community philanthropy – and I sense that there is an appetite for such an undertaking. Indeed, in some parts of the world, it is already beginning to happen.

Susan rightly reminds us that community foundations are just one form of community philanthropy. But it is a fact that the community foundation approach, adapted as it has been for different contexts, has grown rapidly and has gained some prominence and traction. (No, there are no community foundation missionaries travelling the world proactively advancing the cause.) Surely this is in itself some indication of its appeal – but also a reminder that we must make sure its development is respectful, grounded in local circumstances, both contemporary and historical, and ideally happens in partnership with others.

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa

I agree that the community foundation model has grown rapidly and gained considerable prominence. The contested issue, however, is ‘why’? In the absence of rigorous impact assessments, the answer is likely to be found in a combination of factors, which could include but extend beyond results. One needs to consider the ‘universal appeal’ of the values underpinning the model as well as the concerted mobilization of resources over the last decade by donors and intermediary organizations.

Monica makes the point that no particular approach to institutional philanthropy should be romanticized. I could not agree more, and would extend this caution to include vehicles that are informed by indigenous philanthropic values and practices that exist in specific contexts around the world. Building on and tapping into what exists can provide a good starting point for developing a broader inventory of models of institutional philanthropy, as it captures local values, priorities and strategies. This could provide insight into what is appropriate and potentially sustainable.

However, this is not to imply that what has evolved organically is static, or necessarily the sole or even best response to the challenges and opportunities faced by a community. Furthermore, one has to consider how resilient or robust local ‘philanthropy of community’ models are and assess the potential of ‘philanthropy for community’ interventions to both support and distort local practice. This is an area that deserves further exploration.

Monica Patten

Susan speaks of the community foundation ‘model’ and other community philanthropy models. Model is a word I think we should be wary of. It conjures up images of a set way to be a community foundation, based on how someone else has developed, tested and disseminated the idea. Of course, that has happened to a certain extent. But so often it is our choice of words that gets us into difficulty, and I for one think the overused word ‘model’ is an example here. It prevents us from appreciating that there are different ways to be a community foundation, or that adopting the label does not preclude experimenting and adapting. It makes us wonder if we are doing it ‘right’ if we do not follow the ‘model’.

Having said that, I agree that the rapid growth of the community foundation approach begs the ‘why’ question. Whether local philanthropy expresses itself through community foundations or not, I think there are several reasons for the rapid growth of local philanthropic forms. Perhaps I should say ‘re-growth’, as there is general agreement that community philanthropy, in one form or another, is as old as communities themselves.

Some of the reasons may be:

  • overall greater awareness of the role of civil society organizations;
  • a growing commitment to the notion that all communities have assets and strengths to be nurtured;
  • a desire to be connected to local community and build on roots and traditions and history;
  • the continuing (and in some cases growing) reality of persistent poverty, in spite of development aid and other interventions;
  • economic and social restructuring that has forced communities to think about what they can do for themselves;
  • a recognition that no one sector – not government, business or the not-for-profit sector – can solve all society’s pressing issues, but that there is a greater chance if we work together.


Susan Wilkinson-Maposa

This dialogue so far reflects for me both a healthy difference in perspective and significant common ground. Where do we go from here? I see the upcoming meeting in Berlin[2] as an opportunity to continue the dialogue and open up the conversation around both conceptual and methodological challenges.

Key questions for discussion could include: what are we losing by not actively and vigorously exploring a broader range of vehicles for institutional philanthropy? What cultural perspectives and experiences exist that we can draw on? How can we unravel key concepts and assumptions regarding community philanthropy and test their relevance in diverse settings? Finally, how can we grapple with the challenges of building models of organized philanthropy from the ‘bottom’ up, potentially building on or tapping into what exists?

Monica Patten

Susan and I clearly do agree on many points, and I look forward to the opportunity the Berlin Symposium will provide for further dialogue.

I accept that the factors I put forward to explain the growth of community philanthropy generally do not in and of themselves explain the growth of community foundations. One possibility is that these factors, real in almost every corner of the world, plus the encouragement of intermediaries and donors, the instant availability of information, and the success (albeit still to be proven in some contexts) of large numbers of community foundations have combined at a moment in time to bring visibility and credibility to the community foundation idea and an appetite to try it out. It is not a single reason, but several.

It is these and other ideas that have to be tested, as Susan says, in ongoing dialogue.

I look forward to that.

1 Pondong Batangan – see Alliance, Vol 8, No 4, December 2003, p3.

2 WINGS and ISTR are jointly organizing ‘Community Foundations: Symposium on a Global Movement’ in Berlin, Germany on 2–4 December 2004. For further information, see or call +32 2 512 8938.

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa is director of the Building Community Philanthropy Project, Centre for Leadership and Public Values, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town. She can be contacted at

Monica Patten is President of Community Foundations of Canada and Chair of WINGS – Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support. She can be contacted at

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