Mexico: From charity to social investment

Agustín Landa

Since colonial times the Mexican philanthropy sector has been based on a Christian conception of charity, which had no place for community participation. This was due to the government’s belief that citizen participation would challenge the old colonial and autocratic order.

However, neo-liberal economic systems and the spirit of the times are stripping governments of many of their welfare and social development responsibilities and it is crucial that civil society takes a more active role in shaping the future of Mexican society. What kind of philanthropy and civil society sectors does this new world order demand, and how can we ensure that we get them?

Looking back 20 years

After the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, Mexican solidarity made itself felt and the number of NGOs such as the Fondo de Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Support Fund) and other organizations increased rapidly. The Mexican Government recognized the need for more NGOs, although the process of receiving official sanction was long and tedious. In any case the number and type of NGOs was not sufficient to meet the needs of Mexicans, especially outside Mexico City. Support organizations were almost non-existent. The few donors or granting organizations were focused on alleviating the effects of poverty but not the underlying causes. NGOs were poorly resourced and understaffed and took a welfarist approach. Transparency and accountability were not considered important.

The critical need was to increase the number of NGOs and organize the philanthropic sector, which was the reason for the creation of the Mexican Center for Philanthropy (CEMEFI) in 1988. The rise of the Zapatistas in Chiapas in 1994 created another upsurge in the number of NGOs. The national government, fearing that this would lead to a loss of control, sought to modify local and national NGO laws. That same year, five NGO networks began a long lobbying campaign to persuade the government to promulgate the National Law for the Promotion of the Activities of Civil Society Organizations. Eventually adopted in 2004, the new law formally recognized the civil society sector and its capacity to influence public policy.

Looking forward to 2025

Philanthropy in Mexico has come a long way in the last 20 years. Once an activity that was confined mainly to the wealthiest giving directly, with a few foundations and corporate giving programmes focusing on alleviating the most acute needs of the community, it is now a network of well-organized private foundations, corporate foundations, government granting programmes, home town associations, religious organizations, cooperative unions and micro-lending banks, with community foundations in all Mexican states. Philanthropy now has the means to facilitate the participation of all members of the community, at both national and local level. This is no small advance if we remember that 20 years ago many states in Mexico had no registered civil society organizations (CSOs) and government control was tight.

Twenty-five years ago (2000), Mexico became a true democracy,[1] but for the next eight years local politicians maintained a strong grip on local issues, not allowing philanthropy initiatives to flourish. Nowadays, not only is philanthropy a reality in almost all communities but it has crossed borders, as for instance in the case of the human rights organizations that are securing advances both for people in Mexico and for emigrants in the USA.

Mexico has received enormous sums in remittances during the last 20 years. These remittances are now the driver for the creation of a more organized international and local philanthropy which affects not only the Mexican communities that receive the resources to build schools, clinics, roads and other infrastructure, but also the communities in the US where immigrants have created funds in local community foundations to support their own needs. Many community foundations in Mexico and US are ‘sister community foundations’, for example the New York Community Trust and the Puebla Community Foundation, or the Triangle Community Foundation in North Carolina and the Bajio Community Foundation in the State of Guanajuato.

The relationship between US and Mexican philanthropists, which started about 40 years ago, is now stronger. The Border Philanthropy Initiative started by the Synergos Institute in 2002, with funds from a group of US foundations and the Gonzalo Río Arronte Foundation in Mexico, has grown into a strong network of community foundations along the Mexico-US border that is creating inter-country solutions to common problems.

Owing in part to the exemplary commitment of the Chihuahua State business leaders who created the Fundación del Empresario Chihuhuense, AC (FECHAC) in the late 1990s, many multinational corporations (MNCs) are applying the same CSR values and principles as they apply in their home countries. Both they and local companies are attempting to involve their workforce in the solution of acute community problems. The concept of philanthropy is now rooted in the soul of companies, affecting not only the top managers but all company employees.

The government is now an equal partner with other funders. It has dropped its paternalistic and suspicious approach, mainly because it sees that changes made for the community and by the community are much more efficient, less expensive and more sustainable in the long term. It now understands and promotes citizen participation, and one-time insoluble problems such as delinquency and drug addiction are diminishing. The amount of public money channelled through CSOs has grown tenfold.

All this has happened not only because the number of philanthropy players and their donations have increased but also because of the quality of their giving. Many of them do not see themselves as simple donors but as social investors expecting a social return on long-term investments. This has led to a more accountable, professional and creative civil society sector and longer-term support for social change and building social capacity.

One example is the increasing number of Centres for Civil Society Organizations[2] (CCSOs), from one in 2005 to 25 today. CCSOs are supported by social investors and CSOs who believe in a strong and vibrant civil society sector which can influence, or even change, public policies for the long-term benefit of the community. One effect of this burgeoning of CCSOs is the more self-regulatory approach fostered by the philanthropy sector. Likewise, society has more trust in civil society since it has become more accountable and responsive to long-term social needs. Just to cite an example: in 2005,[3] 79 per cent of the public preferred to give money to a needy person and only 13 per cent to a CSO. Now, in 2025, the opposite is true. Society sees the civil society sector as capable of delivering results and achieving structural changes.

How can the desired scenario be achieved?

A change of culture from within the sector
Philanthropy standards in Mexico are non-existent. Although regulated to an extent by government, the sector itself is reluctant to increase self-regulation and disclosure of information, believing that government would use this information against them. However, CSOs need to increase the level of public trust, and the most obvious way to do so is to show what they do with the community resources they receive.

Civil society needs to forget its internal quarrels and focus instead on how to strengthen the sector in order to increase the flow of contributions, volunteers, trust and community goodwill. The different strands of the sector need to come together to advocate for the passing of laws more conducive to philanthropy and community involvement. The sector will also need to engage with the government in developing mechanisms to communicate the value of civil society’s contribution to development and to foster partnerships among the private sector, government and civil society.

There should also be, says Jacqueline Butcher,[4] ‘a new sense of respect for difference and diversity.’ The concept of civil society, she says, goes beyond CSO concerns about poverty alleviation, ‘reaching out into all lifestyles and into respect for the individual and the right of free association’.

Finally, there needs to be a change from a national to a local approach. The national-level activism that many organizations have followed in the last 20 years has not worked. That is why Mexico does not have strong local organizations. The bottom-up approach that Fulton and Kasper propose in their article (see p19) applies to Mexico, too. That is why of all the community foundations in the country, none exists in Mexico City. The sense of community is rooted more easily in small communities than in large metropolitan areas.

More professionals in the field
Although the number of philanthropy organizations in Mexico has grown in the last couple of years as a result of the increase in corporate social responsibility programmes, the impact of their grantmaking is not clear. Many corporations have created CSR programmes in order to acquire community goodwill rather than to meet the long-term needs of the communities where they produce, distribute and sell their products. This has led to the hiring of marketing or public relations professionals rather than philanthropy officers. It has also created a narrow, short-term vision of what might be achieved.

The truth is that there are very few philanthropy professionals in Mexico and there is a great need to train more. Some university courses have been established, but not enough. Philanthropy training courses should be a part of bachelor and graduate degrees in educational centres all over Mexico. Professionalism of the sector is vital if it is to gain increased resources and contribute to the new social investment approach.

Both old and new philanthropists should be prepared to change their approach from being simple donors to being social investors.

Fostering new leaders
The NGO leaders that came out of the events of 1968, 1985 and 1994 are in their late fifties or sixties now and few young philanthropists are emerging. The Mexican philanthropy sector needs to foster and support young leaders. Foundations should involve younger people in their granting procedures and discussions, as board members or on granting committees.

Numbers, statistics and new rules
Although there is a specific office in the Mexican Treasury Department to grant non-profit status and to receive and process CSOs’ annual financial reports, statistics are virtually non-existent. No data exist on the volume of contributions from the community, Mexican or international foundations, CSR programmes or government sources.

Without such information, neither civil society nor the philanthropy sector can demonstrate the impact and results of their activities in order to persuade the private sector to invest in their communities. The government, meanwhile, lacks vital information on what needs to be done to improve the quality of life among different communities.

Furthermore, clear legislation creating a distinction between grassroots organizations, support organizations and foundations does not exist. New legislation should also promote giving to the civil society sector and facilitate the development of business-related activities by CSOs in order to foster economic development and CSO sustainability. Accounting procedures specific to the civil society sector should be developed. The accounting procedures currently in use are based on business needs and are often not applicable to CSO activities.

New brokers and new granting mechanisms
Since 1999 the number of community foundations has grown from four to 22. This number should be increased many times over. Community foundations should promote their professional approach and capacity to understand donor and community needs among companies, new donors, government and the community as a whole. They will need also to develop relations with their US counterparts in order to facilitate, organize, and use more effectively the diaspora money that is starting to flow from emigrants’ communities.

There is currently only one CCSO in Mexico. Many more should be created in order to support emerging CSOs and philanthropic organizations, build capacity in CSOs and strengthen the sector generally. That is why some international organizations have started feasibility studies in order to become fiscal sponsors[5] to emerging CSOs in Mexico.

Creative and cost-effective new mechanisms for giving money will need to be developed in order to get resources from all citizens. A good example is the ‘rounding up’ option that many supermarket chains have developed in the last few years. This enables supermarket customers to round their bill up to the next peso, with the money collected going to the supermarket’s designated CSO. Another possibility is a mechanism to enable people to grant small amounts of money, say from one to five pesos, at ATMs. With the increasing numbers of bank accounts and debit cards, the donation of monthly small amounts of money will be more feasible and possible. The philanthropy sector should learn from the work of the savings and credit coops, which have established strong relationships with poor Mexicans.


Many of the changes that are needed are happening as this article is being written but, if they are not pressed home, the Mexican philanthropy sector will never play the role that it should be playing. It needs to redefine its role and create its own identity with the idea of generating a culture of inclusiveness and participation on the part of all community members. Furthermore, the sector will need to decide if we move towards a US model or to a more European model where the government participates more in the welfare of the community – which is closer to our history and culture. In any case, creativity and humility will be needed if we are to create the scenario for 2025 that we propose here.

1 This article includes the comments and participation of a group of very distinguished participants in the CSO sector: Laura Sarvide, Concepción Landa, Michael Layton and Jaime Bolaños.

2 In 2000, for the first time in over 70 years, the PRI party lost the presidential elections to the PAN party. However, this change at national level was not reflected at the state level, where the PRI party still holds an enormous control, principally in the poorest Mexican states.

3 The CCSOs are the equivalent to what in the US are called non-profit centres. These centres provide statewide support to non-profit organizations in order to strength capacity-building, attract volunteers and advocate for the sector.

4 Michael Layton & Alejandro Moreno (2005) Donar o no donar: reflexiones a partir de la Encuesta Nacional de Filantropía y Sociedad Civil Proyecto Sobre Filantropía y Sociedad Civil, ITAM.

5 Jacqueline Butcher, ‘A new perspective on voluntarism and citizen participation in Mexico: Recreating civil society/government relationships’, Fifth International Conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research, 7-10 July 2002, Cape Town, South Africa.

6 A fiscal sponsor is a registered CSO with tax deductibility status that acts as an intermediary between a donor and a non-registered CSO. The fiscal sponsor, on payment of a small amount of commission, provides a tax deductible receipt to the donor and channels the donation to CSOs that either are not registered or are in the process of registering. The fiscal sponsor retains oversight responsibility for the money.

Agustin Landa is the Vice President for Outreach and Development at the Popular Autonomus University of Puebla State. He is a Synergos Fellow and was founder and first Board Chairman of the Puebla Community Foundation. He can be contacted at

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