Foundations for social change

Jenny Hyatt and Tamas Scsaurszki

What links the closure of a donor agency, the launch of an advocacy initiative for ‘social change’ foundations and a new masters programme for grantmakers?

The closure

The Balkan Community Initiatives Fund UK (BCIF UK) was established in 1999 during NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) to offer small grants to community initiatives struggling to survive under international isolation while working for peace, tolerance and social integration within FRY. Seven years later, having successfully created an independent grantmaking foundation in Serbia and Montenegro (BCIF S&M),  the UK ‘parent’ agency decided it had fulfilled its purpose and could close – by this time BCIF S&M had developed a powerful role in supporting community-led change processes and a strong ‘local’ identity and received funding from an impressive range of sources.

BCIF began with a philosophy that in situations of crisis and rapid change those best able to ensure the future of their communities are the people within them. This requires a developmental practice which is rare. For example, although BCIF wished to work across all FRY territories, the approach to rebuilding Kosovo in 1999 was not community led and left no space for small-grant funding with integrity. Hence BCIF’s focus on Serbia and Montenegro.  

BCIF’s early development was facilitated by pre-existing, trustful relationships between civil activists in the UK and Serbia/Montenegro. This mirrors findings following the Asian Tsunami that ‘it is far easier to mount an effective response if the funder is already familiar with the … communities’ (Gw/oB, Alliance, September 2006). In FRY, existing relationships led to a genuinely co-owned process to establish an indigenous foundation.

Critically, that process focused on creating a framework that underpins effective grantmaking. This included giving small grants; targeting community-led initiatives; allowing unregistered groups to apply; establishing a multicultural network of local advisers; ensuring ease of application in any of the minority as well as majority languages; and establishing a grants committee of people intimate with the region. This framework provided more than money. It enabled people in small communities, living in very difficult circumstances, to act for their own futures.

Creating this framework demanded risk-taking and learning from failure, which is particularly demanding when working cross-culturally. This played out strongly in considering grant recommendations at BCIF S&M Board meetings (which had a minority, and gradually reducing number, of people from BCIF UK). These were deeply educative processes where ‘local contextual knowledge and experience’ and ‘foreign best practice’ had to learn to dance harmoniously together for the benefit of Serbian and Montenegrin communities. This involved questioning assumptions, letting go, and remaining open to what emerged from the ‘dance’.

More fundamentally, it required trusting the leadership of BCIF S&M to act with integrity in their own context. In the final analysis, it was the quality of that leadership that enabled BCIF UK to decide its job was done. At its celebratory final event BCIF UK was recognized by Andrew Hind, Head of the Charity Commission, as ‘a beacon of good practice – an excellent example of a post-conflict development initiative – creating indigenous solutions and local structures that are going to endure’.

It could have ended there …

‘Social change’ foundations

Except that BCIF is one of a number of grantmaking frameworks initiated from abroad in response to crisis, social injustice, autocratic regimes  and conflict around the world.  These frameworks appear to respond well to the increasing emphasis on countries of the South and East leading their own agendas. Further, they are strong candidates for a more measured and longer-term investment of large flows of funds that appear during periods of crisis or so-called ‘transition’ (that may not materialize in failed pledges, are absorbed by internationals or dry up quickly). Finally, those that manage to transform into indigenous foundations with developmental grantmaking practices have shown that they can become critical players in addressing the issues that led to their creation.

However, indigenous grantmaking foundations are rarely viewed as an entry or long-term strategy for ensuring that independent monies feed into long-term civil society development. This may reflect that they are often viewed as intermediaries – ways of getting money to local initiatives – rather than as institutions with a potential to be firmly rooted in, and responsive to,  their own context. Foundations can also be used as part of an exit strategy – but this limits their ability to build resource or capacity when donor interest is shifting away. Hence, many of these organizations struggle to survive when the ‘immediate crisis’ is over or more pressing concerns take donors elsewhere.

We are therefore initiating a programme of action research to map the range and experiences of internationally initiated grantmaking agencies. Through this we intend to connect foundations in the South and East with potential back donors to enable them to make the case for the early and continued support of indigenous grantmaking foundations in crisis and post-crisis situations. We hope that, in the long term, the creation of such foundations, committed to participative social change and advocacy processes, will be seen as an appropriate strategy to enable poor and marginalized peoples to better shape their own futures.

Yet this requires capacity-building that moves donors beyond the standard learning fare on the mechanics of grantmaking to look at how they engage critically with change and development. To address this, we have started the first MA Developmental Donor Practice (validated by London Metropolitan University) for foundations in the South and East.

The masters programme

Learning from the powerful effects of co-creative processes at BCIF, the MA was designed by indigenous foundation leaders from 12 countries of Central and South Eastern Europe and The Development School. These foundations have either been established since the political changes in 1989 or are in the process of being established as indigenous foundations. They have all had significant foreign (Western) support.

The indigenous donor community, of which they are a part, has secured its place in the political, economic and social fabric of CEE thanks to its ability to navigate the rapidly changing and uncertain times since 1989; its commitment to respond to real social needs; efforts to establish constructive relationships with peers, government authorities and socially responsible businesses; and steadily increasing support from the population at large. Yet this community questions its ability to develop into a sustainable force for social change as international donors’ attention shifts elsewhere.

This question raises profound contextual and strategic issues that indigenous donors will address in the masters programme. These include how they understand their purpose in a changing European and global environment; how they can work with apparently ambiguous roles – as grantmakers,  raisers of resources from their own communities, advocates, capacity builders and community developers; how they develop a national identity with a past that has been much shaped by foreign (mainly US) donors and a present that is boxed in by EU philosophy and funding; and how they relate to the organizations and people they exist to support in building and pursuing social vision? The main outcome of the course will be donors with greater capacity to think strategically about their role and approach as well as to design and practise developmental funding strategies.

The link

So what links the closure of a donor with the launch of an advocacy initiative for ‘social change’ foundations and a new masters programme for grantmakers? Simply that we view indigenous grantmaking foundations with a clearly articulated purpose of social change; strongly rooted local identity; independence of role, and a set of developmental practices as a vital part of the continuing empowerment of countries of the South and East.

Jenny Hyatt is Founder and Honorary President of BCIF Serbia and Montenegro and Founder and Director of The Development School. Email

Tamás Scsaurszki is a Senior Associate of The Development School and an independent consultant based and working in Hungary. Email

For more information

Comment  Alan Fowler

This article triggered two feelings. One an upbeat, encouraging perspective on the notion of ‘perpetuity’. The other, a more uneasy feeling about the ecology of institutional life the authors describe.

The idea of closing down is seldom wholeheartedly embraced by any organization. But the notion of going on for ever is commonly embedded in the thinking, if not the laws, governing foundations. The steps taken by BCIF illustrate how this notion is creatively evolved from a fixation on organization to the continuous generation of knowledge and its dissemination. But why is the masters initiative to be located in the UK? Would not BCIF’s learning predicate establishing the degree programme in the region from the outset?

More problematic is the notion of the establishment of ‘indigenous’ foundations that draw on imported models and resource flows. Community foundations, for example, have shown a highly variable ability to root locally in terms of adequate local financing or public understanding. Perhaps a distinction is needed between indigenous and organic, where the latter is a spontaneous initiative that emerges from particular conditions to fill a niche of its own making or discovery, evolving at the pace of what the local economy can provide.

Which brings me to a related concern: the way that South and East are treated as equivalent categories when it comes to the notion of a foundation as a culturally appropriate and socially accepted type. Experience suggests caution in assuming that sufficient similarity of history and context exist below the generics of the labels employed. A path-dependent perspective may be more appropriate.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

The role of foundations in society

Barry Gaberman