What’s next for community philanthropy?


Jenny Hodgson

Jenny Hodgson

Jenny Hodgson

First published on the Global Fund for Community Foundations blog.

It is appropriate (and no doubt deliberate) that the launch of the ‘What’s Next for Community Philanthropy?’ toolkit has come in 2014, a year that sees the Cleveland Foundation – America’s first community foundation – mark its centenary. This extensive toolkit, which has been produced by Gabriel Kasper and his colleagues Justin Marcoux and Jess Ausinheiler at Monitor Institute, has not really been designed for someone like me. US (and Canadian) community foundations are really the main target audience for this suite of tools and essays. So my comments on the toolkit are framed by my vantage point at the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), a global grassroots grantmaking organization working to support the development of community philanthropy worldwide.

Evolving concepts, changing terminology

Let’s start with ‘community philanthropy’. Unlike in the US and Canada (where community foundations alone can be counted in their hundreds), there are far fewer of these types of organizations (whatever they are called) in most of the rest of the world, and so by focusing on one particular institutional form, you end up with very small numbers. So although community foundations form a large part of our constituency (and we even prioritize them in the name of our own organization – a fact that is not lost on me), we have always embraced other forms of ‘community philanthropy institutions’, including women’s funds, local grantmakers, environmental funds, etc. So I was pleasantly surprised (and also curious) to see that the more inclusive ‘community philanthropy’ is used throughout the toolkit (defined as ‘community foundations and other community philanthropy organizations’).

A global world – fact not choice

One of the perils of working locally (community philanthropy organizations are mostly place-based) is that it is easy to become inward-looking and insular. The excellent essay, ‘Shift Happens: Understanding how the world is changing’ does a great job in providing a succinct overview of six different types of global trends that are having a profound effect on the nature of communities. If you are a community foundation leader or board member trying to convince your colleagues that the community that your foundation was set up to serve is no longer the same, and to find examples of how other community foundations are responding, then this document will save you many hours of internet searches. Although much of the specific data is geared towards a US audience, the essay demonstrates to any reader how global trends (both good and bad) are driving huge changes in our communities the world over.

Community foundations as specialist generalists

Community foundations tend to make grants across a range of different portfolios. This is well understood within the community foundation field, but it can sometimes seem to outsiders like a lack of focus or being overstretched. (In fact, I once got involved in a very long, rather heated conversation with a US immigration official in New York, who expressed great scepticism about the community foundation idea, insisting that all philanthropic organizations and NGOs should have a focus – he suggested water, healthcare or education – and that it was poor form to try to do everything in a community).

What the toolkit also highlights in its examples is how specialized and sophisticated specific programmes clusters and approaches have become within the community foundation field. In our grantmaking at the GFCF, we have also been looking at how to deepen community philanthropy practice around particular issues (such as youth engagement or the environment) so that community philanthropy organizations can deliver excellent programmes within the context of a broader, holistic and networked approach.

A launching point for a more linked-up global field?

Certainly there are some valuable tools in the kit that a community philanthropy organization anywhere in the world could use to test assumptions, stimulate reflection and inspire creative thinking (although for those operating in contexts where local giving is still very nascent, the level of sophistication around different kinds of donor services might seem like wishful thinking). It is also good to see strategies that have been adopted by many of our community foundation partners, often driven more by innovation and instinct than blueprint, are listed and named in the toolkit. So when in the ‘Bright Spots’ tool, which looks at ‘Promising approaches in community philanthropy’, there is a question, ‘What if you solicited small gifts from less affluent individuals?’, I think immediately of Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation in Romania which created a ‘Community Card’ programme through which over 13,000 donors give small amounts each month. Another ‘bright spot’ on ‘Sharing Community Information’, asks ‘What if you conducted routine check-ups of your community?’ This takes me to a recent blog by one of our partners in Ukraine. Moloda Gromada (‘Young Community’) is based in Odessa, which has seen its own fair share of violence, resulteding in the deaths of 42 people on 2 May 2014. The foundation’s director Inna Starchikova describes how, following the violence, the foundation conducted a survey to ‘check the state of health’ (her words) of the community by asking people how they saw their own personal role in allowing the violence to happen and their thoughts on how future violence might be prevented.

What’s next for ‘What’s next’?

A separate essay, which focuses specifically on examples of community philanthropy innovation from the global field, is in the pipeline and I look forward to that. Finally, I wonder whether this kind of reflective, big picture exercise might provide new opportunities for those community foundations that are interested, wherever they are in the world , to create spaces for engagement, solidarity and collaboration. Although there may be huge differences in the financial asset bases of community foundations in different parts of the world, it seems to me that energy, innovation and commitment to community-driven development are plentiful the world over.

Jenny Hodgson is executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

Tagged in: Community philanthropy Global Fund for Community Foundations

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