Why community philanthropy enables people-powered, sustainable development from the ground up


Clara Bosco


This blog is part of a series that provides reflections on a new GrantCraft Leadership Paper “How Community Philanthropy Shifts Power: What Donors Can Do to Make That Happen”, published with the GFCF and Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy in April 2018.

Across the board, civil society groups are finding it increasingly difficult to organize in ways that pursue a radical transformation of the current social and economic structures, while also mobilizing the resources needed to keep on keeping on.

The current funding landscape makes it hard for most civil society groups to not only grow and thrive, but to even to exist. The tendency of donors to make fewer, larger grants and the increasingly onerous audit/risk requirements are making it particularly difficult for small, Southern and spontaneous formations to access financial resources – except as sub-grantees of bigger, often Northern, first recipients. And, in the process of becoming increasingly proficient in meeting funders’ requirements, these organizations have progressively lost touch with the communities that they claim to serve. Such donor-dependent behavior has straightjacketed these groups into foreign agendas and externally dictated processes which come with serious limits to support systemic, lasting change. This turns complex political processes of social and institutional change into technical, more easily-delivered and risk-averse projects.

Moreover, the widening and deepening attacks on civic space and the related erosion of basic freedoms makes the situation even worse, especially for the more change-seeking parts of civil society. In the past few years, concern about “closing space” for civil society has increased even in the philanthropic sector, particularly because the movement of money to support civil society organizations is being monitored, controlled and often stopped by governments in the name of protecting national interests against terrorism, money laundering, and foreign influences. So more devolved practices that ensure local ownership and accountability, and invest to build stronger organizations, seem to have become an important ingredient to add to the mix of strategies necessary to countering this worrying global trend.

In such a difficult context, community philanthropy seems to be one of the most relevant approaches to building locally-empowered constituencies, creating long-term sustainability, providing legitimacy and addressing power imbalances.

The session New Approaches to Civil Society Resilience organized at the last CIVICUS’ International Civil Society Week in Suva, Fiji showcased a rich diversity of “positively deviant” stories resonating with community philanthropy approaches. These strategies included growing and sharing different assets while staying grounded in communities (where the best resources are), looking beyond strictly financial support (also as a way to flatten power dynamics and challenge traditional notions of donor and grantee), and adopting organizing models that build community and trust, irrespective of external donor’s requirements. Similarly, in various funders’ convenings hosted by CIVICUS aimed at exchanging ideas on improving access by small, southern and spontaneous civil society groups to the resources they need, community philanthropy was recognized as one of the emerging approaches that really supports local ownership and sustainability while flattening power dynamics and promoting more horizontal forms of accountability.

Community philanthropy has become an essential part of civil society thinking because it brings people together around a common identity or goal, using models that build on local assets, capacities and trust. A community provides a framework for trust (around values, the work done, and people). And without trust, there can be no meaningful engagement from people.

Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director, rightly argues that community philanthropy “shouldn’t start with money, it should start with people, what they have and what they want to do, and what would make this happen.” External funders must reconcile with the fact that in order to be effective in an increasingly restrictive environment they should move resources more directly and democratically to civil society close to the ground. The outcome is empowered and resilient people coming together and mobilizing to find solutions and resources to solve problems where states and markets fail.

The paper How Community Philanthropy Shifts Power: What Donors Can Do to Make that Happen is essential reading for anyone wishing to better understand the thinking behind and practical applications of community philanthropy. For external funders interested in discussing or even beginning to apply some of these approaches, this paper – using very accessible language – offers plenty of guiding questions and practical action steps while, at the same time, showcasing many examples of community foundations from various parts of the world.

Clara Bosco is Senior Advisor of Civil Society Resourcing with the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS

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