Why plumbing matters—introducing the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy

This article was originally published on the Global Fund for Community Foundations website on 4 April 2014. The original article can be found here

By Jenny Hodgson

We’re very excited to be unveiling some new changes to our website this month, along with a new-look e-bulletin. These include a new section on the recently-established Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (GACP) and in the future, stories and blogs that link directly to the GACP will be easily identifiable through its own distinct logo.

Refreshing one’s communications tools is always good to do from time to time. However, the GACP represents much more than an opportunity for a re-branding exercise, providing as it does an exciting opportunity to put community philanthropy on the map of international development. The GACP has big ambitions: it “aims to advance the practice of community philanthropy and influence international development actors to better understand, support, and promote the role of community philanthropy in the sustainability and vibrancy of civil society and in achieving more lasting development outcomes.”

And what is particularly significant about it is that its initial funder members are drawn from across the development and philanthropy spectrum, including private foundations (Mott Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund), a bilateral donor (USAID) and a private foundation / INGO hybrid (Aga Khan Foundation), each of which has agreed to commit time and resources to thinking and learning about community philanthropy, to sharing experiences of what works and what doesn’t, to testing concepts across institutional frameworks and to informing and engaging others in the donor space. As a fifth partner and the Secretariat, the GFCF has been charged with coordinating the efforts of the GACP. We will be drawing on our experiences of using our grantmaking to develop an evidence base for the global community philanthropy field, drawn from a diversity of circumstances, institutions and contexts. Over the last seven years, the GFCF has been working to promote and support institutions of community philanthropy around the world. Our work has been driven by a conviction that local development efforts are more effective when communities are able to articulate and address their needs and also when they have a stake—as co-investors bringing assets to the table—in their own development.

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Jenny Hodgson at WINGSForum in Istanbul. Credit Ahmet Ersoy, for WINGS.

The GACP has been established at a time when the global context for development aid is changing rapidly as a recent article on the Guardian Development Professionals website describes. The search for new models and structures has meant many INGOs restructuring to cut costs because of a dramatic reduction in development aid which has traditionally been a key source of funding for many of them. Some internationally active NGOs are relocating their offices to the Global South, for a variety of philosophical and tactical reasons. As the shifting landscape for development aid changes, pointing to a future with less international funding for development, as civil society organizations in the Global South grow stronger and more established and as new assets emerge in traditionally aid-dependent contexts (whether in terms of new classes of mega-rich and middle classes, or of mineral wealth), there is certainly a need for some radical new thinking about what the future architecture for civil society funding might look like.

At the heart of the notion of community philanthropy is the idea that assets exist in every community and that if these can be harnessed and organized, they can be applied to local development processes in ways that are both more cost-effective and more sustainable in terms of social capital (assuming that people invest their own assets when high levels of trust exist).

And yet, community philanthropy barely features in the mainstream development discourse. In a recent article, “An Alternative to Development Aid” on the Open Democracy website, Nora Lester Murad, a leading advocate for community philanthropy as a development strategy and a founder of the Dalia Association, Palestine, writes.

While critiques of international aid are becoming mainstream, there is still little awareness about community foundations as a viable alternative, even in the discourse about funding for human rights. In responding to local challenges and opportunities, community foundations and other community philanthropic organizations offer communities a dignified and creative way to organize their resources towards collective self-reliance for generations to come.

She goes on to describe her own experience of working with a group of local leaders to establish Dalia, Palestine’s first community foundation.

If only Palestinians had their own money,” I thought, “…the wasteful, irrelevant and unsustainable activities posited as ‘post conflict development’ would stop.” But my group of co-founders quickly disabused me of my naïve and simplistic approach. Self-determination is not about having a big endowment. It’s about responsibly and intentionally utilizing the resources we have, mobilizing other resources by modelling credible, inspiring practice, and working transparently, democratically and accountably to pursue our own priorities over the long haul.

Over the past seven years, Dalia has introduced an innovative local grants process, “community-controlled grantmaking”, which involves local community members in decision-making around the allocation of small grants. They have also developed another strand of work around building local philanthropy among local companies. And throughout they have sought to use their experiences of grassroots grantmaking and philanthropy development processes as an alternative to many of the assumptions of international development aid and a model from which to learn.

In thinking about what sustainable development might look like, who wouldn’t find the idea of a local institution that facilitates local people making decisions about their own development, backed by local philanthropic resources, compelling? And yet so far few funding institutions have—for a variety of reasons—had the interest, the resources or the flexibility to invest in creating the conditions which might allow such organizations to thrive.

At the recent WINGSForum, The Power of Networks: Building Connected Global Philanthropy, in Istanbul, the Mott Foundation received an award for its constant and unwavering support for and investment in the development of civil society (and specifically philanthropic) infrastructure around the world. Mott has also invested heavily in the development of community foundations and community philanthropy around the world. In accepting the award on behalf of the foundation, Shannon Lawder, Director of Civil Society described how philanthropic infrastructure might be compared to the plumbing in a house: it’s not the most attractive or creative part of construction and design, you can’t actually see the pipes but you know they are there, they play an essential and yet invisible role and you would be in trouble without them.

Jenny Hodgson is Executive Director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

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