Jenny Hodgson — from cold bureaucracies towards people-centered institutions

The Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) is a global grassroots grantmaker that works to promote and support the development of organized community philanthropy around the world as an essential part of the infrastructure for an effective and vibrant civil society. We asked the GFCF’s executive director, Jenny Hodgson, to tell us more about the recently-established Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (GACP), and to share her thoughts on the next 30 years of community philanthropy, and what the Community Foundation Atlas might mean for the movement.

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WINGS: How are GFCF and WINGS related?

Jenny Hodgson: Our work is different but complementary. GFCF is a grantmaker rather than a membership network, and our focus tends to be more on individual community foundations and community philanthropy organizations, rather than on networks and associations per se. We use a combination of small grants, technical support, convenings, knowledge gathering and dissemination to help strengthen the community philanthropy sector as well as to raise its profile among other actors, particularly those in the broader development and philanthropy sectors.

Of course, the history of the GFCF and of WINGS are closely connected. The GFCF was originally established as a project of WINGS back in 2006 and was then spun off as an independent organization. It has been fascinating to be on the WINGS board and see it undergo its own more recent process of incorporation. I can doubly confirm that setting up a global organization is a real challenge!

WINGS: Why does the world need the GACP and what do you hope will be its defining legacy?

JH: The Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (GACP) aims to advance the practice of community philanthropy and influence international development actors to help the movement achieve more lasting development outcomes. It’s a multi-stakeholder collaborative with a 5-year mandate.

Over the last eight years, the GFCF has invested most of its effort in building up relationships with and supporting individual community philanthropy organizations around the world. Since 2006, we have awarded some $3 million in grants to more than 150 organizations in 50 countries. This process has helped inform our understanding of their distinct institutional makeup and distinct ways of working that distinguish them from other parts of organized civil society. It has also confirmed the existence of a growing and vibrant—if still quite small and somewhat scattered—global community philanthropy sector.

However, the concept of “community philanthropy” has never really been part of the mainstream development discourse, dismissed either as beautiful but small or simply not acknowledged as a practice at all.

The GACP offers a really important opportunity to bring together what we now know about the field from our grantmaking with a group of donors who, despite their own institutional differences in terms of approaches and priorities, all come to the table around a specific learning agenda. We really want to instill a culture of co-learning within the GACP, where people come together (donors or practitioners) to engage in some creative and critical thinking about the role and potential for community philanthropy as a key driver in strengthening development outcomes.

WINGS: You once said that the post-2015 agenda hasn’t been central to your work with community foundations in the past, but I assume it will feature more prominently going forward. How can GACP and perhaps similar future initiatives contribute to a new framework for global development cooperation or, as you put it following a recent conference in Istanbul, be an “important example of ‘bridge-building’ across different parts of the philanthropic and development sectors”?

JH: The landscape of development funding is going through a rapid period of change, with traditional international aid decreasing and the growth of emerging markets, which work quite differently. Organized civil society—large parts of which have become very skilled at accessing international grants in the past—will have to respond to these changes by coming up with new funding models and ways of working; and that will include identifying local resources as well as those from external sources. Community foundations have the potential to play an important role in channeling and stewarding money in these new and slightly messier kinds of multi-donor, multi-stakeholder arrangements. Furthermore, by growing local philanthropy as well as acting as a channel for external resources, they can play an important role in connecting local interests and larger global agendas in ways that are more integrated.

WINGS: This year marks the centennial of the community foundation movement in the US. GFCF is part of the coalition behind the Community Foundation Atlas, the first comprehensive atlas of the movement worldwide. What does GFCF hope to see as the resource matures?

JH: The Atlas puts an important marker in the sand for the global community foundation movement, showing community foundation “dots” all over the world. Firstly, I hope that the launch of the Atlas itself will encourage those who participate in the full survey to want to be part of it and add their “dot” on the map. Looking forward, I would like the Atlas to become an important piece of the infrastructure for the ongoing development of the community philanthropy field—not just a static map but an active “hub” that can facilitate connections or signpost users to tools and services that can support the ongoing development of the field. A dream perhaps, but we need to make sure that this wonderful piece of architecture is kept up to date as a dynamic and evolving resource!

WINGS: How will the global community foundation movement look 30 years from now? What kinds of creative energies can philanthropists use to achieve this?

JH: I recently came across a quote from Winston Churchill talking about architecture. He said, “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” I think that the same could be said of many of the institutions in the philanthropy and development sectors. We have become so good at knowing how NGOs and foundations etc. are “supposed” to behave (what kinds of policies and procedures, management and governance systems, grantmaking, implementing etc.) that perhaps we have lost sight of their larger purpose, the spark of empathy or justice that led to their creation in the first place as vehicles for improving people lives or protecting their rights.

If, looking forward, community philanthropy—with its emphasis on building assets, agency and trust—can offer one of a number of creative spaces for some fresh thinking about how to shift away from cold bureaucracies towards institutions that are really people-centered, then I’d settle for that.

CommunityFoundationAtlas.org will be unveiled in the fall of 2014. More WINGS interviews here.

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