Supporting European community foundations

Burkhard Küstermann

The number of community foundations in Europe has increased considerably over the past 20 years, so has the number of organizations that provide them with support. What support do they offer? What kinds of organization are they? Where do their resources come from and what lessons can they teach about the future development of the community foundation sector? In the run to a major gathering of community foundations, I present insights from a survey conducted by the European Community Foundations Initiative.

A diverse sector
Community foundation support organizations are very diverse. In only a few instances are there specialist community foundation associations, two examples being the Community Foundation Movement in Latvia and UK Community Foundations (UKCF), though there also organizations dedicated to the community foundation field like Lokale Fondsen in the Netherlands and the Roots and Wings Foundation in Hungary (both set up 2013).

More typically, community foundations receive advice from organizations committed to supporting the community philanthropy movement more generally, or to supporting civic engagement.

Most support organizations were established after the turn of the millennium, with the oldest being UKCF, set up in 1991.

Click into the map for more detail. Map courtesy of the European Community Foundation Initiative (ECFI).

Form and funding
The most frequent legal form of the support organizations is that of an association (9 of the15 survey participants fell into this category). Only six of the nine participating associations fund themselves through membership fees and for the sample in general, raising subsidies (12 of 15 organizations) and running programmes requested by members (8 of 15 organizations) were of much greater significance for the funding of the support organizations than membership fees.

One consequence of their limited funds is that the vast majority have only one or two staff members dedicated to community foundation support. With ten employees, UK Community Foundations is one of the largest.

Aim, not name
Generally the main emphasis of the support organization’s mission is not on the strict community foundation form, but on the desired impact – the strengthening of communities – the support organizations are trying to foster.

The Community Foundation Movement in Latvia, for instance, states: ‘The mission is to promote philanthropy and civic engagement in various areas throughout Latvia.

The “Community Foundation Movement” is the national competency centre in the field of community philanthropy.’

The primary work of the support organizations is in providing advice. Apart from advising on specific foundation initiatives, most assist community foundations in their strategic development (9 of 15 support organizations) and in resolving legal issues (7 of 15).

It’s also worth noting that over half of the support organizations (8 of 15 organizations) offer not only offer advice to the community foundations themselves but also to those who want to support a community foundation’s work.

As the community foundation movement evolves, the range of support organization activities becomes more varied and more sophisticated. The Centrum pre filantropiu (Slovakia), for instance, promotes ‘giving circles’.

Another critical activity is convening. Activities include peer learning events (Romania), workshops (Czech Republic), meetings of CF working groups (France), summer academies (Latvia) and annual meetings (Latvia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria), and national conferences (Romania).

Earned income
Running programmes is an important source of income for the vast majority of support organizations. The content of these also reflects the development of the community foundation movement.

Just like water, the ripples of community foundations’ work can be felt far and wide.

If initially the main focus is on publicizing the concept of the community foundation (for instance, in the Community Foundation Support Programme in Hungary), the second step is usually start-up training for would-be community foundations (Starterclass in the Netherlands, for example).

The more highly- developed a community foundation is, the more specific are the programmes provided by the support organizations: the Bulgaria Community Foundations Development Program for example combines provision of institutional development grants and technical assistance as well as training.

Since the support organizations’ work is chiefly focuses on assisting community foundations in their everyday work, there are few resources to devote to scientific research of the sector.

Only six of the 15 survey participants try to conduct surveys to document the development of the community foundation sector in their country (Germany, the Netherlands and Romania are among these).

Should the support organizations be advocates for civic engagement? Opinion is divided. While seven organizations regard this as a proper field of activity, six do not, while two organizations did not take a position on the issue.

Many components are needed to make solid community foundations.

In this connection it is interesting to note some responses to the survey which indicate that, even where it occurs, advocacy of civic engagement is not yet regarded as a strategic objective.

The Community Foundation Movement in Latvia saw it as ‘opportunity-based’, others pursued it ‘occasionally’ (AKN – obcanske sdruzeni in the Czech Republic).

We may expect that with the further growth of the community foundation movement in Europe, not only will their philanthropic significance increase, but also its potential to exert proactive influence at the political level.

Current challenges in the work of support organizations
The countries that are still at the beginning of developing a community foundation movement are faced with the challenge of promoting the idea, finding the CFs’ place among other local development actors (corporations, local authorities, associations), setting up CFs and raising the initial capital (for example, France, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain).

Once community foundations are established, the primary tasks are in making their work professional and ensuring their sustainability (as cited, for example, by the Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation in Bulgaria, AKN – obcanske sdruzeni in the Czech Republic, Community Foundation Movement in Latvia and UK Community Foundations).

Implications for community foundations themselves
Community foundations want to help shape the local community. Therefore the support organizations also identified a number of key points of focus for the work of the foundations.

  • Community foundations must listen in order to ascertain the local needs which enables them to identify and deal with urgent issues.
  • The community foundation develops philanthropy advice and impact assessment expertise and demonstrates impact on the basis of its project work.
  • Good content-specific work enables the community foundations to generate trust and awareness of community foundations, which guards against any tendency for them to become inactive organizations or ‘dormant funds’.

Key points for ECFI
The support organizations for community foundations are diverse in terms of organizational form, resources and approaches to their work.

This variety has implications for the European Community Foundation Initiative (ECFI).

If ECFI is to strengthen the European community foundation movement overall, the following three points appear to be critical cornerstones for its work:

  • Identity requires a jointly-owned concept of the term ‘community foundation’. Across national borders, the unifying aspect is ‘shaping the local community’, which seems the most appropriate basis for such a joint concept.
  • The idea of the community foundation movement and the development of community foundations are both strengthened when CFs are connected in a network. The fact that ECFI has set itself the task of promoting dialogue across national borders is therefore especially welcome.
  • If support organizations get their funds mainly from their programme work, we should give some thought to the degree to which a higher-level regional organization could open the door to programmes at a European level.

Professor Burkhard Küstermann is scientific consultant to the European Community Foundation Initiative.

A longer version of this article can be downloaded on

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