Associations of grantmakers: why should we care about them?

Barry Gaberman

During the past 20 years, every region of the world has seen spectacular growth in associations that have as a significant part of their mission, if not their sole mission, to serve foundations and other grantmaking organizations. In 1980, a search for associations would have turned up only a handful, such as the Council on Foundations in the United States. By the turn of the century, research reveals about 80 associations working at sub-national, national and regional levels. Why this growth in associations? What do they do? And why should we care about them?

The answers to these questions are closely linked to another set of questions: why do we care about fostering a healthy civil society? How can we ensure that civil society organizations are sustainable? What role do foundations and associations of foundations play in this? Because it is not possible to understand the growth in and importance of associations without answering the latter set of questions, this article begins with a discussion about why civil society matters in the first place.

At the outset, we need to be clear that the associations discussed in this article represent only one type of philanthropic support organization, namely those that are, or strive to be, membership-based. Other organizations fall into two broad categories. First, there are general-purpose support organizations that are not membership-based. These include philanthropic centres (usually at universities) that operate as information clearinghouses, collect data, conduct research, and provide training, as well as those that take more active approaches to mobilizing resources and building foundations (eg the Synergos Institute). Second, there are a growing number of special-purpose support organizations that provide technical assistance in areas such as governance, programme development, fundraising and technology. While both are important additions to the growing global philanthropic infrastructure, they are not the focus of this article.

It is also important to step back and reflect on the mission and purpose of associations and their members. Most of us are so absorbed, perhaps even consumed, with the day-to-day tasks of building our organizations, keeping them afloat, and strengthening their capacity that we seldom reflect on our missions. If we were to take the time to do this, our mission statements would probably include the following: to enhance the livelihoods of the poor, to eradicate poverty, to promote economic development, to advocate for human rights, to support the arts, and any number of other worthy activities. These are important endeavours, but if we shift our attention to how we go about reaching our goals, we might conclude that, for the most part, our chosen instrument is to work through the institutions of civil society. If that is the case, let us focus on four basic but important questions:

  • What is this ‘civil society’ that we work through?
  • Why do we or should we care about fostering a healthy civil society?
  • What does it take to ensure that these civil society organizations will be sustainable over time?
  • What are the roles of foundations and associations of foundations in this process?

What is civil society?

Before coming to grips with what civil society is, we need to understand that our inquiry is not occurring in a vacuum. At the same time that we are trying to delineate the parameters of civil society, the other sectors of society – the public sector and the for-profit sector – are also redefining their roles. And their redefinitions make the boundaries between the sectors a little more messy and change the demands placed on us and the other institutions of civil society.

Let me offer two examples of this redefinition and the consequences for civil society. First, if not universal, then almost so, is the increasing pace at which governments are decentralizing, on the one hand, and decreasing the considerable range of services they once provided, on the other. For the civil society sector, this means that the pressure to do more will continue to mount, and the opportunities to work effectively will increasingly be at local and community levels. Second, this same pressure is felt by the for-profit sector. And this is happening at a time when businesses worldwide are engaged in dialogues about raising their sights from the narrow self-interest of their shareholders to the broader interests of the people and communities that they touch – their stakeholders. These developments present an opportunity to forge new partnerships that might result in more effective programmes and increased resources for civil society.

But let us focus more closely on the civil society sector. The fact that we even define this as a sector is quite recent, and we are still uncomfortable with the language. At one time or another we have referred to it as the not-for-profit or non-profit sector, the NGO sector, the voluntary sector, or the citizens’ participation sector. I prefer the term civil society, not because it is perfect, but rather, it seems to be the phrase that more and more people across all the regions of the world are using. Civil society is not a new term, and writers from Plato to Putnam have used it. The problem is that the term tends to be used quite differently. So, if we have not reached a consensus on a definition, I will not try to do so in this short article.

Instead, I suggest that while we may have difficulty in defining civil society, we know what civil society organizations (CSOs) are when we see them. Basically, we can categorize them under five headings. They are organizations that:

  • provide services, often to the most disadvantaged, isolated and marginalized segments of our populations;
  • educate and train us throughout our lives;
  • do independent policy analysis and assessment;
  • engage in advocacy to make sure that people’s dreams and demands are heard;
  • strengthen our awareness, identity and enjoyment through artistic expression and cultural understanding.

There is also another category of organizations that provides resources to the organizations mentioned above and here I am talking about the philanthropic slice or subsector of civil society, made up of foundations and foundation-like organizations, as well as the increasing number of associations around the world that are beginning to connect them to each other. But more about this latter group of organizations later.

We have good data on the scale of civil society in an increasing number of countries. In a recent study of 22 countries by Lester Salamon and his team, he found some 20 million organizations with total annual revenues exceeding $1 trillion. I suspect that even this number will prove to be an underestimate, so the global count, when we have it, will be a staggering number.

Why should we care about it?

But why should we or do we care about civil society, apart from the fact that it is there and bigger than many of us would have predicted? In the five categories of CSOs suggested above, there is a glimmer of my own bias. But let me go beyond these categories to suggest some broad reasons why we should care and what this means in more practical terms.

If we think about the transitions to more open and participatory systems that took place in Latin America in the 1970s, Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, and Africa and Asia in the 1990s, we can reasonably ask: what will prevent a regression to more authoritarian regimes, as has happened in the past? The answer for an increasing number of people is that in large measure a vibrant civil society and the social capital it builds offer the best protection against regression.

Here I must mention a danger that we can all too easily fall into. Because the civil society sector has such an important role to play regardless of whether we are talking about strong states, weak states or those in transition, we need to remember that it is one societal component and not a substitute for either of the other two sectors, no matter how compelling that prospect may be at particular historical points.

Let us go back to the categories I put CSOs into earlier. For many, this instrumental and descriptive definition of the functions of these institutions may present an incomplete picture for three fundamental reasons. First, in its descriptive simplicity, it does not acknowledge the centrality of the individual as the key actor who forms the associations and institutions in the first place. Because individuals do this to advance their interests through collective action, civil society and its institutions are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

The second reason this picture is incomplete is that it does not touch on the normative dimension of CSOs. For many people, the important point is that these organizations welcome participation, and through participation they build organizational skills, promote tolerance and enhance inclusion – to mention a few elements that go into building social capital. For them, it is also important to differentiate between those not-for-profit organizations that build social capital and those that do not. In fact, they may go so far as to say that the latter should not be considered CSOs.

Third, there are lots of institutions and events that tend to be left out of the definition of civil society. Labour unions and political parties are two examples. Our description also seems to apply primarily to formal organizations, but this may be only the tip of the organizational iceberg. What about the many more informal associations and voluntary groups? Surely, our intention is not to exclude them? Finally, there is the complexity of dealing with social movements themselves, one of the important incubators of CSOs.

What does it take to sustain it?

While we might not be as far along as we would like to be on a definition, I hope you agree that we have both a sense of what the institutions of civil society are and why we should care about them. What, then, are the components of an enabling environment that would enhance the development of a vibrant civil society? Let me suggest five:

  • a legal framework that empowers groups, rather than shackling them;
  • a tax structure that provides incentives, not penalties;
  • the availability of resources to undertake activities;
  • the institutional capacity to implement effective activities;
  • an accountability system that builds confidence in CSOs.

Where do foundations come in?

Foundations are the organizational building blocks of the philanthropic slice of civil society. As such, they can help ensure that some components of an enabling environment will be put in place. They can provide the resources for CSOs to undertake their activities; they can help them build their institutional capacity so they can carry out these activities more effectively; and they can require an assessment of the results – thereby helping to build confidence in CSOs.

And associations of foundations?

However, there are not enough foundations to do all that is necessary and there is only so much that foundations can do acting on their own. To address this dilemma, many foundations are forming networks or associations of foundations and grantmaking organizations. These associations seem to have a number of tasks in common:

  • They provide representation and protection to foundations and their interests in the public policy arena. This work often looks beyond the interests of foundations themselves to assist other CSOs, for example, positively affecting the legal framework and the tax structure in a given society.
  • They often provide services or information about where members can obtain services. Such services can run the gamut from governance, to fundraising, programme development, technology and beyond.
  • In many parts of the world, they are themselves in the vanguard of pursuing initiatives to enhance philanthropy, as well as the number and effectiveness of philanthropic institutions in their regions.
  • Foundations and other grantmaking organizations often get together under the umbrella of these associations. The impact of establishing common purposes through this convening function should not be underestimated.
  • They promote best practices and accountable behaviour – the pillar on which trust in CSOs is built.
  • Finally, and particularly in lower-income countries, they provide a gateway through which foreign funders can establish and support productive working relationships.

We mentioned at the beginning of this article the growth of membership-based associations around the world. The approximately 80 that exist and the dozen or so in the process of formation today can be taken as an indication of their utility and the increasing demand for the roles they play. Although the density of coverage varies greatly, with most in North America and Europe, they are present in every region.

In fact, we can now catch an early glimpse of another stage in the development of this global infrastructure – the propensity of these associations to form alliances and networks among themselves. In the United States, the 28 regional associations of grantmakers have formed a Forum closely associated with the Council on Foundations. On a global level, the Worldwide INitiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS) seeks to build a network of participant associations and support organizations in every region, as does the community foundation component of WINGS for community philanthropy.

So, where are we? Increasingly, people are seeing the importance of a healthy civil society sector in assuring a vibrant and participatory society. Increasingly, policymakers are becoming sensitive to what it takes to maintain a healthy civil society. And, increasingly, foundations and other grantmaking organizations are joining or forming associations to enhance their effectiveness. All in all, we are moving in the right direction!

Barry Gaberman is Senior Vice President at the Ford Foundation. He can be contacted by email at

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Special feature to read

Whose associational revolution? NGOs’ role in creating a good society

Barry Knight