Working in philanthropy requires continuous review, reassessment and reevaluation. The UK Community Foundation conference being held in Glasgow, provides an opportunity for community foundations to do exactly that and to challenge our assumptions.
As the world changes around us at an exponential rate, it is critical for community foundations to consider how we also need to evolve and indeed whether our model is still relevant. I say this not as a provocation but as a serious question to justify our existence. Why are we needed? What is our purpose?
The conference discussed the perennial issue of whether we should prioritise advancing the wishes of donors or communities. For me, the two are not mutually exclusive but can be balanced. We provide the navigation and expertise to guide donors as to what are the pressing issues in our communities and we support grassroots groups to access funding and develop their capacity. Rather like a matchmaker, we connect people who care with causes that matter.
But herein lies the crux of the matter, community foundations are more associated with the word ‘philanthropy’ than the word ‘community’ as was shown by a poll at the conference. I would argue that actually the words associated with us should be issues- based and directly related to our communities- ‘fighting for social justice’ ‘advocates for marginalised communities’ ‘passionate about addressing inequality’ these are the phrases that should jump to peoples mind when you mention our name.
As with all UKCF conferences, the passion, commitment and energy of the participants is inspirational but there are still key areas of challenge for us to grapple with. Our credibility comes from the deep relationships with community groups yet as a movement how diverse and representative are we? Do we create the genuine space and engagement that is needed in new and innovative ways or have we become complacent with our areas of expertise and unwilling to take risks?
A key area for development I believe, is as an advocate for small grassroots groups, the anchors in areas comprising people who should be in the driving seat of change. We need to recognise that enabling communities to push for the change they want, means that we need to relinquish our power- a lot of community foundations already do this by using community panels for decision making. But we can be bolder – our uniqueness lies in the close relationships we have with communities so I question whether the grantmaking model we have imposed is suitable for community foundations.
We understand communities, we build relationships, we know the people, so let’s start trusting them. I mean, really trusting them and that means relinquishing onerous application forms, getting rid of tedious monitoring processes and making it as simple and quick to access funding as possible, whilst ensuring that we can evidence the impact of the investments that we make. A pipe dream you might think, but it can be done if we redefine risk, we redefine what we value and we redefine who holds expertise.
Community foundations are unrecognised heroes, their worth is underestimated and their passion is inspirational. Yet if we want to remain relevant and credible, we need to use our unfettered independence to create a new agenda, have a bolder vision and make the internal organisational and cultural changes necessary to ensure our existence and success.
Fozia Irfan is CEO Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation