Tewa, a women’s fund in Nepal, found itself on the front line when the recent massive earthquakes hit the country, said Jenny Hodgson, executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF). Her main point: that community philanthropy has a key role to play in disasters and emergencies. The occasion: a session called ‘Community resilience in the context of emergencies: The role of community philanthropy’ at the 26th European Foundation Centre (EFC) annual conference, held in Milan last week (20-22 May).
So what is this key role? Session participants were invited to think this through in an interactive exercise facilitated by GFCF adviser Barry Knight. A dam has burst in China, he told us, covering a huge and inaccessible area of land; already 175,000 people are dead.
Each table was given some Monopoly money for grantmaking and asked to make decisions about how to spend it in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and later, when the first relief efforts were over. While most tables chose to give most of their money to international NGOs or local governments in the immediate aftermath – although even at this stage people recognized that community foundations might be able to help connect them with small local groups that might otherwise be missed by the relief efforts – when it came to spending for the long term, most allocated a substantial proportion of their funds to community foundations. Our table chose to keep most of our money back for the reconstruction phase, giving just 20 per cent to community foundations for the immediate relief phase.
The two speakers, Vesna Bajšanski-Agić of the Mozaik Community Development Foundation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albert Ruesga of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, gave us a vivid illustration of what community foundations can offer in an emergency.
They know where the good work is, said Ruesga, which the good organizations are, who the good leaders are. They can come up with the best ideas for sustaining efforts; they bring a knowledge of local politics; they are sensitive to mental health needs, particularly the psychological effects of trauma on children – something that the humanitarian system tends to be very bad at dealing with. As local organizations, they have a big stake in the success of their efforts. Also, the donor’s money actually goes to the community affected by the disaster. If you give to a big NGO, Ruesga told us, typically only 20 per cent goes to the local community; the rest goes to the national HQ.
Vesna Bajšanski-Agić talked movingly about last year’s floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which coincided with the 2014 EFC conference, held in Sarajevo. The Mosaik Foundation was not set up to respond to disasters, she told us. But it turned out that in the worst affected states members of Youth Bank, which is supported by Mozaik, were at the forefront of relief efforts. Community knowledge and links can be activated immediately, said Bajšanski-Agić. People know who needs help and how to get to them. A bridge that had been built through community philanthropy to enable children to get to school more easily was washed away by the river, she told us. It wasn’t on the map so couldn’t be rebuilt with UNDP money, so Mozaik raised the money, of which 30 per cent came from the flooded communities themselves.
Community foundations can undoubtedly play a valuable role after a disaster, but more than one session participant reminded us that investment in disaster prevention is much more cost-effective as well as more effective in reducing human misery – and again disaster risk reduction can be done through community foundations.
Despite the enthusiasm about community philanthropy shown by all at this session, there is at present scant evidence about the potential role of community philanthropy in times of crisis, said Avila Kilmurray, GFCF director of policy and strategy. What the Global Fund wants to do is to capture stories and lessons from people who have been through disaster situations and to develop something useful both to donors and to community philanthropy organizations (CPOs) – including practice notes and policy points. If donors were generally as convinced of the value of community philanthropy in disasters as session participants seemed to be, CPOs would be taking their place as central actors in disasters and emergencies the world over.
Caroline Hartnell, Alliance magazine.