To form or not to form … an association?

The Second Regional Meeting on Grantmaker Support in Latin America and the Caribbean, hosted jointly by WINGS and Fundación PROhumana in Santiago, Chile in November, demonstrated both the potential value of grantmaker associations and the difficulties of establishing them.

At the end of the two-day meeting, participants were asked two questions: first, was there a value in this meeting? Second, should this group meet again? The emphatic ‘yes’ to the first and the doubtful ‘no’ to the second say it all. Not surprisingly, the main reason for the negative was the lack of resources – mainly money but also time – needed to attend regular meetings.

This meeting, bringing together 16 participants from 14 different countries, was possible because it was arranged back to back with the larger PROhumana/Ford Foundation meeting for Latin American grantmakers and it was substantially funded by Ford. As Soledad Teixido (PROhumana, Chile) pointed out, most people there already meet in different networks, and the conclusion for the time being was that people would try to get together around other meetings but a commitment to annual meetings was not feasible. In the meantime a virtual network would be maintained.

Are grantmakers’ associations needed?

The first regional meeting on grantmaker support took place in São Paulo, Brazil a year earlier. Asked at the end of that meeting whether WINGS should support the building of associations in countries where there are none, the one thing people were sure about was that they wanted another meeting: this one.

Is it useful to create an association in each country? A great majority of Chilean foundations surveyed in 1999 felt an association would be valuable  –  and, said Soledad Teixido, most were willing to pay something to belong. Yet Teixido was among those cautioning against too much haste in forming grantmakers’ associations: for her, the important thing is to promote social responsibility.

Jorge Villalobos (CEMEFI, Mexico) pointed out that in 30 years the conditions of the poor in poor countries has not improved. Civil society has a huge role to play, but the sector needs to be strengthened through sharing experiences and learning from others, and the number and strength of grantgivers in each country needs to be increased. Marcos Kisil (IDIS, Brazil) said that despite acceptance of social responsibility by the Brazilian government, individuals and companies, quality of life is deteriorating.

Kisil also expressed a fear that a proliferation of associations would not be sustainable. Emerging associations usually begin as informal networks, he said. A formal association is an ‘arrival point’ not a ‘starting point’. Some countries are so big that it might be better to have a regional than a national association.

Challenges for emerging associations

Who should be members?
Do donors feel the need for their own space without grantseekers? While foundations responding to the Chilean survey felt associations should include CSOs, Rebecca Raposo (GIFE, Brazil) felt that GIFE members do value their own space  –  and  CEMEFI has developed private spaces within an organization with a mixed membership through formation of affinity groups. The issue is complicated by the fact that grantmaking is not a widely practised activity in Latin America. Many are operating foundations (half of GIFE’s members are hybrids).

Advocacy versus membership services
As Rebecca Raposo put it, ‘there is a problem in the DNA: finding the balance between advocacy and member services’. In a membership organization, advocacy is limited by the relationship with the members. Nor is this just a problem with emerging associations. The US-based Council on Foundations has 2,000 grantmaking members and 100 staff, but it still sees assessing member needs (through annual surveys) and balancing the needs of different types of member as one of its main challenges. The decision not to take a position on the Estate Tax[1] was a clear demonstration of the limitations of membership bodies as advocacy organizations. The Council will advocate on only a very limited number of issues because of the need to respect members’ different views. ‘We must have both,’ said Jorge Villalobos. A membership association must benefit its members but it must also promote a vision to a society.

Sustainability is of course another issue  –  and one that is dealt with in another article in this issue of Alliance (see p29). But according to Raposo, it is not the first question. ‘When we know what we want to do  –  membership services, specific projects, advocacy,’ she said, ‘then we can look for money.’

1 Abolition of the Estate Tax will take away an incentive for people to leave money to various non-profits.

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