The Summit: weaving a new, multi-coloured fabric for development


Jenny Hodgson


It’s hard to believe that six weeks have passed since almost 400 of us from over 60 countries gathered in Johannesburg – in the heat of the South African summer – for the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy.

At the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) we are still digesting what came out of the Summit and how we can build the momentum it created, but we are also eager to hear from you. You’ll see that we are asking you to complete a follow-up survey and we would also encourage you to join the conversation by posting a comment below, or contributing to the discussions happening on social media (#ShiftThePower is still going strong!).

When we introduced the #ShiftThePower tagline for the Summit, it was because we wanted to convey the message that it was not meant to be an inward-looking, “industry” event for the global community philanthropy field. Instead, our objective was to position community philanthropy – with its emphasis on local asset development, capacity building of local groups and strengthening social trust – as a central tenet of any strategy that shifts power and puts people in charge of their own development.

We also wanted to position community philanthropy alongside other similarly intentioned efforts and begin to connect the dots between them in a more structured way. The work of Adeso and networks such as NEAR, for example, emphasize local agency and locally-developed solutions, as well as a new ecosystem built around cooperation amongst southern networks.

Other pieces of this landscape for bottom-up development include specific tools and strategies, such as participatory grantmaking, network mapping and strengthening, constituent voice and crowd-funding platforms, not to mention new research and learning centres and networks, all with their roots firmly in the constituencies they serve.

Many of the different pieces of what could become an alternative system for development were represented at the Summit. There is definitely further weaving to be done, but it seems to me that we already have some of the essential threads of a new, vibrant, multi-coloured fabric for development.

Much of the Summit is still a bit of a blur for me (another reason why we are asking for feedback). Organizing an event, I now appreciate, makes it much hard to attend an event. But here – in no particular order – are a few things that have stayed with me:

1. The enormous energy and sense of resolve in the room – particularly given that it was established that almost half of those present had travelled for more than 16 hours to get to Johannesburg!

I can speculate where that came from – the relief, validation and joy of practitioners who normally feel like outliers meeting their extended family and feeling that they are part of something larger than just themselves.

For me, having spent so much of the last ten years moving between like-minded but often isolated community philanthropy initiatives and organizations around the world, it felt like the official “coming out” of a field. That warmth extended to the kind of language that was used consistently throughout: the emphasis on people, compassion, trust and dignity on the one hand, and rights, social justice and transformation on the other. This was not a gathering of technocrats for sure!

2. Bilateral and multilateral donors need to be part of the solution.
At one point, the suggestion was made that if you want change, then you should abandon plans for working with official development aid altogether and look for other resources. I don’t think that can be right. In fact, it has been the “need” of big institutional donors to be able to disburse large grants with a quick turnaround and short-term results that has distorted so much of civil society, alienating organizations from their original roots and turning them into bureaucracies accountable to external, rather than local, constituencies.

The shrinking space for civil society globally emphasizes more than ever the need for civil society organizations to have strong local constituencies who can support and defend them. Bilateral and multilateral donors need to factor this into the ways that they work, so that the institutions they help create aren’t the first to be closed down on the basis of their lack of local legitimacy.

One thing that the emerging community philanthropy field can demonstrate is concrete ways in which local organizations can channel and deploy external resources while at the same time growing local support and local resources too.

3. This was a global conversation.
It isn’t always the best idea to bring people together from around the world, attempting to create a single rallying cry: nuance can get lost, global disparities overlooked, and the predominant narrative is too often shaped by the loudest and most powerful voices.

But speaker after speaker highlighted that people and communities can feel disenchanted, marginalized, excluded, ignored anywhere in the world (a fact that became particularly evident in 2016 with publics protesting through the ballot box in the UK and US and the rise of xenophobic, anti-migrant, anti-minority, anti-global sentiment in many parts of the world).

Whether it is addressing issues of racial equity in Alabama, engaging communities in southern China or breaking dependency mindsets in Kenya, there is a role for bridge-building organizations to play that have at their core the objective of building compassionate, inclusive and diverse communities, hearing people’s fears and investing in their ideas. The Summit challenged the notions of “us” and “them”, of North and South, of donor and beneficiary, developed and developing. Andrew Milner, in a recent blog for Alliance, put it very succinctly:

“The ‘north-south’ divide is no longer between countries, if it ever was. In a world where inequality is increasingly pronounced and is replacing poverty as the great bogey of development rhetoric, the division is really on a much smaller and more finely-calibrated scale – it’s between communities.”

4. It’s all about networks – and cobwebs.
I have been thinking a lot about networks and scale this past year. We always say that the strength of a community philanthropy organization lies not necessarily in how big it is or how much money it has: instead, it lies in the relationships it has within its community, the ability to connect and build trust among those that might not want to, or be able to engage directly (because of a lack of access, lack of trust or lack of information).

Success is reflected in the ability to oil the machinery of a community so that assets, ideas and trust flow in ways that are often organic and self-directed. This lies at the heart of community philanthropy and I think it should probably also lie at the heart of broader efforts to advance a people-led development agenda.

The mapping exercise that Summit participants undertook with the assistance of Root Change was particularly instructive on that front. On the one hand it showed how a handful of (mainly northern) organizations are key influencers in the community philanthropy space (providing money and knowledge in varying degrees) and that regional networks are still relatively weak.

I take that map as a challenge to us all so that when we repeat the exercise in a few years’ time we see a much more even distribution of networks, particularly in the global south, as well as a community philanthropy field that is connecting in various ways with a variety of other civil society actors. An African proverb (borrowed from the Root Change website) says it all: “When cobwebs unite they can tie up a lion.”

Having each other’s backs – what comes after the Summit?

What are your thoughts and impressions from the Summit? What struck you? What can we do together? Please, let us know…!

Jenny Hodgson is Executive Director for Global Fund for Community Foundations.

This article originally appeared on the Global Fund for Community Foundations blog, on 17 January 2017. The original article can be found here.

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