Are we the right sort of glue?

Linetta Gilbert

If there is one thing that my experience of working in community philanthropy has taught me, it is that, if community philanthropy institutions are to fulfil their potential to increase the welfare of all members of a community, they must engage the abilities and resources of all of those members. This lesson has been reinforced by the example of a relatively new organization, the Alabama Black Belt Community Foundation, which is drawing on the talents and ideas of all sectors of the poor rural communities it serves.

The experience of witnessing diverse people work together, share power, and pursue the common good shaped my expectations of community philanthropy as I began working in a community foundation more than 15 years ago. It seemed to me that a common goal for such institutions would be to create a geographic space where all people – regardless of economic status, educational attainment, or race – could contribute knowledge, energy or money to ensure that all residents in their area could hope to live in a safe and vibrant neighbourhood and secure a decent education for their children. It seemed logical that those types of contributions would be welcomed by all organizations that have a stake in the health of their community, including non-profit organizations, businesses and governments.

Since joining the Ford Foundation, I have been privileged to see many types of community giving around the world. These community philanthropy organizations offer evidence that community philanthropy can and does make connections and build trust between people in communities who are doing the work and people with resources and access to decision-makers, both of whom have a stake in more equitable and just communities. Perhaps the greatest value of this form of giving is its tendency to invest in and to celebrate human competencies and cultural traditions. It uses the creativity of these ‘donors’ in tackling tough community issues.

Well-being and betterment

My vision for community philanthropy is greatly influenced by a definition that the European Foundation Centre developed in 2002.[1] It suggests that community philanthropy is the giving by individuals and local institutions of their goods or money along with their time and skills to promote the well-being of others and the betterment of the communities in which they live and work.

I am particularly struck by two elements in that definition. The first, the giving of goods/money along with time and skills, reminds us that community philanthropy is a collective act. Therefore, communities must intentionally establish a culture in which a broad range of people give whatever they can, and where each gift is valued and important. When such a culture takes root, donors of all levels begin to take ownership and pride in what is achieved; they recognize that their individual contribution was part of the collective community solution.

The second element – promoting the well-being and betterment of others – is crucial to the current challenges facing community philanthropy worldwide. Community philanthropy organizations must begin to pay real attention to the specific conditions that affect the well-being of people in their communities. One of the things that I’ve struggled with is the meaning of well-being. Does it mean the happiness, security, safety or other interests of individuals? To answer this question demands that staff and board of community philanthropy organizations find ways to take heed of the words and visions of the people they exist to serve. But defining well-being is not enough. Philanthropy must also take strategic risks and demonstrate what it can do to advance the welfare of others.

Community philanthropy can garner the resources to bring about a real change in the living conditions of a specific area. As I see it, supporting such change in the immediate, intermediate and long term represents an investment in the betterment of the community.

Philanthropy as ‘love of humankind’

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita further clarified this for me. When originally asked to write this article, I was still trying to take in the reality that two very violent storms had wreaked havoc on a region of the United States where my family and I had lived for 20 of the past 25 years. If the root of the word philanthropy is derived from Greek words meaning ‘love of humankind’, I asked myself, what role will organized philanthropy play? Will foundations, large and small, demonstrate this ‘love’ as they participate in rebuilding this area of our country?

Then I thought: will donors in the Gulf Coast region (Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) take these disasters as an opportunity to draw ideas, energy and financial resources from people within the region to redevelop their communities? Will organized philanthropy support the development of a vision of racial, economic and social equity and invest long enough to see it happen?

In my mind’s eye, I could see a few places in the South where the ‘love’ of humanity, community concern for the well-being of others, and the commitment to create resources for the betterment of others is occurring right now.

‘Using what we have to get what we need’

Not far from the Gulf Coast, in Selma, Alabama, a relatively new organization, the Alabama Black Belt Community Foundation, serves a poor rural part of the state. It was set up three years ago because the founders believed the living conditions for too many of its resident were unacceptable; they were also aware that opportunities were very limited for many families in the area (most of whom are African American). Poor schools, a lack of well-paying and stable jobs, poor housing and limited economic activity were some of the conditions identified by residents in the 11 counties of the Alabama Black Belt region.

It was also clear from the planning process that people of different backgrounds with varying levels of financial resources saw the need to organize human and financial capital into an institution. Taking the motto ‘using what we have to get what we need’, the foundation realized that much of the region’s wealth is found in the people who make up the region.

Several town and community meetings resulted in farmers, teachers, economic development agency leaders, elected officials, young and elderly people, private philanthropists, artists, faith leaders, college and university scholars and administrators and business leaders adding ideas about what a community foundation should and could do with the resources of the people of the Black Belt.

Two years later, and with much struggle to respect and embrace the potential and actual contributions of the whole community, an excited and engaged foundation exists. Its board has African American and White leaders, young and retired workers, a mainline church lay leader, a university administrator, a local blues singer, civil rights activists, an elected official, civic and corporate leaders. Their goals are to improve educational and economic opportunities in the 11-county area to ensure an equitable community for the long term. Everyone is encouraged to give.

Engaging young people

Creating vibrant communities that work for all their residents requires that leadership in all sectors be generated and regenerated. A small entrepreneurial consultant firm called Hindsight quietly challenges community philanthropy to engage young adults as donors and potential community leaders. Through conversations and focus groups with young adults in several communities, Hindsight recognized the untapped potential of this group to serve as contributors of time, talent and wealth.

Building on this interest, Hindsight has developed a strategy to help engage young African American adults in community philanthropy. In two US cities, groups of young people have created Giving Circles which reflect their own ingenuity and understanding of the meaning of giving. These circles are also spaces for young donors to gain deeper insights about their communities as they move into community leadership opportunities.

I want to encourage my colleagues in the field of community philanthropy to think about our work as creating resources that ensure purposeful giving, potentially long-term financial assets, and values-based intellectual capital for communities. As we reflect on our work, we should ask ourselves: do our organizational investments reflect the soul of our organizations, the communities we serve, or both?

Creating a strong glue

I learned some time ago that the Japanese word ‘bando’ means strong glue. As I go about my work at the Ford Foundation and visit leaders across all sectors of society, this word often comes to mind. Certainly, community philanthropy has the potential to be the ‘strong glue’ in communities throughout the United States and worldwide. The question we as leaders of philanthropic institutions must ask is, ‘Do we have the courage and vision to be the glue that brings diverse people together to work towards their shared aspirations for equity, rather than a glue that keeps far too many people stuck in conditions that deny their dignity and deprive them of opportunity and hope?’

1 European Foundation Centre Report on Community Philanthropy (2002).

Linetta Gilbert is Senior Program Officer, Community and Resource Development at the Ford Foundation. She can be contacted at L.Gilbert@fordfound.org


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