The role of philanthropy in difficult times—a response from Sri Lanka

This article was originally published on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace website on 28 April 2014. The original article can be found here

satkunanathan_300By Ambika Satkunanathan

Avila Kilmurray’s presentation at WINGSForum 2014 in Istanbul titled ‘Role of Philanthropy in Difficult Times’ resonated deeply with us at the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust (NTT), an indigenous foundation based in Sri Lanka engaged in community philanthropy. While stressing the importance of community philanthropy Avila set out the elements that make community philanthropy an integral part of social justice initiatives. One in particular encapsulates what community philanthropy does best, and lies at the core of the success of community philanthropy; community philanthropy’s ability to ‘be the antennae of the philanthropic world; and in terms of outcomes, it can be the source of social capital that can bridge the global and the local contexts, in addition to promoting solidarity within the local itself’. The experience of NTT, which I share in this article, is testament to this.

As the only indigenous philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting social justice and peace initiatives in Sri Lanka, NTT has occupied a position that while being unique has also required us to deal with a number of challenges. The proliferation of local and international non-governmental organisations- NGOs and INGOs- meant that often NTT was confused with a NGO, a term used in Sri Lanka to refer to a gamut of organisations, including those working on development, rights and research and advocacy, because an indigenous philanthropic organization was something very new to Sri Lanka. This functioned as an advantage but initially sometimes also created stumbling blocks in the form of a lack of understanding of the purpose and role of NTT, which occasionally required us to explain, and even justify our existence and work.

The community organisations we sought to support soon realised that in addition to being yet another source from which they could seek resources for their work, NTT was an organization that was willing to take risks to support new and pilot initiatives that larger international donors were reluctant to support. They also understood that being a local foundation, NTT was positioned to gauge the pulse of local political, social and security dynamics because of its extensive knowledge base and experience working with a variety of CBOs and NGOs, and hence came to believe that NTT was willing to be guided by the local organization in responding to the evolving needs and concerns of the communities. For instance, in the coming years NTT plans to focus on communities marginalized both during and due to the conflict and continue to face discrimination in post-war Sri Lanka, such as the plantation communities and persons with disabilities. Greater understanding of ground realities and complexities also means that, as Avila states, we are more willing to be flexible in our approach given the complex and restrictive environment within which organisations work. The fact NTT is an indigenous organization with staff and board members who are part of and have established relationships with communities, means that there is a level of trust that exists, which enables NTT to work closely with CBOs even during difficult times.

Within the changing funding environment the role of community philanthropy becomes ever more important as traditional donors phase out and resources become scarce. Indigenous foundations engaged in community philanthropy do not stop at providing financial support for organisations, instead, their support often extends beyond grant-making. Indigenous philanthropic organisations can function as entities through which funds can be channeled to smaller organizations that may not have strong managerial and financial systems and capacity to absorb large grants. Through this, indigenous foundations can support capacity building of community organizations, including through strengthening proposal writing and financial managements skills and assisting them to access grants from other donors, including through suggesting and supporting visibility activities and introductions. Particularly in restrictive contexts, social justice initiatives that pay increased attention to initiatives at the community level will also result in greater impact in the long-term.

Avila’s remark that she spent many sleepless nights due to the severely constrained resource base of the Community Foundations for Northern Ireland, is one I would guess many indigenous foundations will be able to relate to, since increasingly indigenous philanthropic organisations appear to be experiencing difficulties receiving support to continue their work. This state of affairs should be rectified given the importance of their work, not only at the community level, but also their ability to make substantive contributions to global social justice initiatives by connecting the local with the global, and making the global matter at the local level.

Ambika Satkunanathan is chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust

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