A pivotal moment for community foundations


James Magowan


The Coronavirus crisis is impacting on community foundations in two ways – it is realising their potential to mobilise resources and reach people in need quickly, but it is also seriously testing their resilience.

There are over 800 community foundations in 26 countries in Europe. Hugely diverse in form and function, they are characterised by being focused on particular geographies. They play a variety of roles including funding, convening, and connecting people and organisations, to make a difference in their locality. Community foundations, with their local presence and knowledge, are acutely aware of the differential impact of the Coronavirus – hitting hardest the poor, vulnerable, and socially and economically excluded in their communities. Now, more than ever, their role in civil society and philanthropy is critical.

Some of the factors that determine how they perform throughout the crisis and emerge from it are within their own control, but others are not. Economic strength, the state of the healthcare system, and the nature and speed of the policy responses have all shaped the environment within which community foundations operate and their roles. In every country the state has had to act decisively and at scale – with impunity that has been uncomfortable for some, in particular where there is a propensity to close space for civil society. In other situations, the value of civil society as a critical player is being recognised and championed.

Evidence from our discussions with national networks and support organisations across Europe shows that community foundations have been ideally placed to act quickly – mobilising resources, connecting people and organisations, and inspiring action. This has ranged from immediate response to needs at local level, including in primary health care, to addressing the consequences of ‘lock-down’ on social and economic life, such as domestic abuse, consequences of the digital divide for those without equipment or internet access, economic fragility of the working poor (most of whom do not have the privilege of being able to work from home), counselling services etc. In every corner of Europe community foundations have been engaged in fundraising and delivering responses appropriate to local need – either taking direct action themselves or supporting others to do so. Importantly, they recognise the need to plan, and to start already, to foster recovery, (something which needs to be acted on in parallel with response but which will be required for a long period) and see the interdependence between health and social and economic well-being which require holistic approaches and neighbourhood initiatives – where “local is key”.

Proof of the value of having comprehensive national geographic coverage of established community foundations supported by a professional membership body has been clearly demonstrated in the UK. Within two weeks of the launching of the National Emergencies Trust first appeal some €15m had been distributed to all 46 community foundations across the UK, to establish funds or to bolster their own efforts at local level.

Some good things have already emerged in the community foundation field around Europe such as new ways of working (both internally and with communities and donors e.g. on-line, with great flexibility, supporting core rather than project costs etc), new relationships (with other funders, public bodies and the private sector – pooling finance, skills, and knowledge in ways that reaches deep into communities and enhances impact); harnessing community spirit through engagement of people (in planning, in decision making, and as volunteers taking direct action – from sewing face masks to helping isolated people). Moreover, it has galvanised the community foundation movement within and between countries, and there is a high level of co-operation, and sharing of and adapting practice, through on-line gatherings, web-based platforms, and collaborative initiatives.

There has been much speculation about the post-COVID environment – how will the economy be restarted, what will be the nature of geopolitics, the continued role of the state, the long-term impact on society at national and local levels, even the nature of human relationships. Whatever the scenario, community foundations as trusted institutions, will surely have proved their worth, and where conditions have allowed, will emerge stronger. If there is to be a positive legacy from the crisis it must be in the recognition of the value of local action for global good, in extending and building the community foundation movement across Europe in a way that fully embraces the SDGs in order to do their small bit to help ensure that ‘no-one is left behind’.

James Magowan Co-ordinating Director, ECFI (European Community Foundation Initiative)

Tagged in: Covid-19

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