Think global: emerging lessons from global community philanthropy

Justin Marcoux and Gabriel Kasper

The community foundation may have been invented in the US 100 years ago, but there are now more community foundations outside the US than there are inside the country.[1] And while the US has historically been an exporter of innovation in community philanthropy, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the nation will shift to become a net importer of new ideas from elsewhere in the world in the coming years.

As community foundations have spread around the globe, they have adapted the model to fit local circumstances, and have often ended up looking quite different from US community foundations. They’ve begun to experiment with new forms and to blur the lines between community foundations and other types of community philanthropy, less encumbered by traditional American norms and conventions as they respond to local needs and challenges.

Recognizing this, the Monitor Institute, a part of Deloitte Consulting LLP, has spent the last two years researching the global community foundation movement. We have identified a number of emerging lessons from community philanthropy outside the US that may help spur new thinking and ideas for American community foundations.

In some instances, there are already US community foundations that are leading the way in these areas. But understanding how community philanthropy organizations elsewhere are adapting to local circumstances can nevertheless point to a powerful set of principles and practices when applied to the US context.

Revenues don’t have to come from an endowment

The community foundation structure devised in Cleveland in 1914 allowed money stranded in the charitable trusts of deceased donors to go towards an endowment for the foundation, a ‘community trust’ that pooled the charitable resources of local philanthropists, both living and dead, for the betterment of the area. Subsequent community foundations followed this model, mimicking the trust companies from which they were conceived. They focused on endowment building, asset management and transactional execution – essentially developing into ‘charitable banks’ for their communities. What started off as a response to a particular set of circumstances has come to be seen as the ‘right’ financial model for community foundations ever since.

Community philanthropy organizations outside the US, however, often operate in environments where money is scarce and the concept of endowments is alien. Many, therefore, have explored new ways of funding their operations and of using whatever assets are available.

The Mozambique Island Community Development Foundation, for example, has been exploring the use of cultural assets to support its goals. The foundation is located on an island dotted with stone buildings built by Portuguese traders in the Indian Ocean in colonial times. The buildings were falling into disrepair, so the foundation began to buy and revamp them and other local heritage sites in an effort to draw tourism to the island, fund its operations and generate local economic activity.

In another case, the asset base of Newmont Ahafo Development Foundation in Ghana is being built up from profits derived from gold mining in the Ahafo area. Since 2008 a mining corporation has been donating $1 per ounce of gold produced plus 1 per cent of net profits from the mine to the foundation. These funds support a range of activities, such as educating local residents, building the region’s infrastructure and growing the foundation’s endowment.

Of course, not all communities have historic buildings or mineral rights in their backyards but it’s worth considering how underappreciated assets in your own community – farmland or vacant buildings, for example – could be made to generate revenues for your organization, while also improving the long-term health of your community.

Community building matters

Many American community foundations have historically focused their attention on activities like grantmaking, donor services and endowment management, but community foundations in other parts of the world are as likely to see resident engagement and community building as key parts of their work. In places like post-apartheid South Africa and Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, community philanthropy groups have helped rebuild civil society, engaging excluded groups and helping residents come together to advance the greater good. Such organizations are often well placed to bring diverse groups within a community together, reaching across political, racial, ethnic and religious divides and helping to promote collaboration and meaningful social change.

For example, the Community Development Foundation Western Cape in South Africa launched an initiative called PhotoSpeak, in which local people took photos graphically illustrating their experiences. Over time, the foundation shifted the initiative to focus on specific parts of South Africa’s new bill of rights, using community-generated photographs to help people understand how expressions such as ‘everyone has the right to freedom of movement and association’ related (or didn’t relate) to participants’ everyday realities.

The Community Foundation of Northern Ireland worked to build social ties among those affected by the violence in the country in order to build a stronger community. The foundation focuses on reconciliation and bridging through a number of initiatives like Prison to Peace, which helps former political prisoners make the transition back into society as smoothly as possible. It also runs a Peace Impact Programme, which increases dialogue between formerly opposing groups and works with them to create new solutions to contentious issues.

These global efforts, as well as similar initiatives under way in parts of the US, highlight how community philanthropy organizations are uniquely placed to create opportunities to bring together people across critical divides to weave social ties, build trust and explore solutions together.

Don’t forget your diaspora

For people who have left their country to explore career opportunities elsewhere, giving to charitable groups can be an important way of maintaining contact with home, and community philanthropy organizations can serve as an important conduit.

In Butuan, Philippines, the home of the Ivory Charities Foundation, over half of the residents live in poverty. Recognizing that a large number of Filipinos live and work in southern California, the foundation worked with local partners to create the Butuan City Charities Foundation of Southern California, which supports initiatives such as microlending, starting rural clinics, drilling artesian wells and creating a school library. When the donors involved returned home to the Philippines, the foundation worked to connect them to the projects and people they helped to support.

Diaspora giving can also be high-tech. Hispanics in Philanthropy, a US-based organization that promotes Latino philanthropy, recently launched the HIPGive crowdfunding platform, which allows donors to fund projects across Latin America. The platform vets Latino-led and Latino-serving organizations, and provides online training and financial incentives such as matching grants to spur giving.

These efforts have important implications for community philanthropy organizations: think about how you can find people who care about your community, regardless of where they now live, and find ways to help them feel connected and give back (especially using new technology). In the coming years, as urbanization increases and rural and ‘rust belt’ communities in the US continue to face significant population loss, local community philanthropy organizations can learn from international diaspora giving efforts and explore strategies for engaging people who have moved away, but still care deeply about their hometowns.

The most important lesson

These are just a few of the lessons from global community philanthropy documented in Monitor Institute’s new essay, Think Global: Eleven lessons from global community philanthropy.[2] 

In many cases, the assumptions underlying the work of American community foundations – about how they earn revenue, how they engage donors and community, and what roles they should and should not play – are still valid. But in today’s rapidly changing community context, others need to be re-examined critically, and new possibilities need to be creatively imagined. The work of community philanthropy organizations across the world can serve as a useful source of ideas and inspiration.[3] These organizations have continuously evolved to fit their specific circumstances by taking advantage of unique assets, filling key gaps in local civil society, and connecting with the community in new ways. They have often borrowed heavily from the traditional community foundation model, but have been willing to abandon the parts that don’t make sense for them and to pursue new approaches that better address local needs. This adaptability has been one of the cornerstones of their success. And for many US community foundations, this adaptability may be the most important lesson of all.

Justin Marcoux is a manager and Gabriel Kasper is a senior manager at the Monitor Institute, a part of Deloitte Consulting LLP. Emails and

Lead image caption: The Mozambique Island Community Development Foundation bought and revamped old stone buildings. Photo by Stig Nygaard


  1. ^ According to the Community Foundation Atlas there are 1,822 community foundations globally. According to the Foundation Center, only 763 of these are US community foundations.[1]
  2. ^ Think Global is available at 
  3. ^ The Community Foundation Atlas ( contains profiles, facts and stories from organizations across the globe.

Comments (1)

Avila Kilmurray

This is a timely article that reminds us about the adaptability of community philanthropy when seen as more than a model, but actually a process that can respond to both circumstances and opportunities. The Global Fund for Community Foundations ( offers information on a wide array of community philanthropy practice around the globe. It believes in the power of peer learning between activists engaged in community philanthropy, and recently hosted a networking event attended by community philanthropy practitioners with an interest in environmental issues. The GFCF provides the secretariat for the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, a multi-stakeholder donor learning consortium on community philanthropy. New members are welcome.

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