Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Fall Conference for Community Foundations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Jenny Hodgson, Executive Director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations.
By: Jenny Hodgson
Working for a global organization based in Johannesburg, I always appreciate the opportunity that conferences provide to meet up and check in with some of our partners from around the world. Although the international contingent at this particular conference may be small in numbers, it is rich in diversity and experience, with community foundation practitioners from countries including Zimbabwe, Egypt, Thailand, Russia, Slovakia and Kenya. The community foundation idea is taking root all over the world, tweaked in various ways to fit and draw on local context, culture and history (I don’t suppose an annual camel race is on the calendar of most conference participants or whether many hold their endowments in trees, for example). While this burgeoning field is characterized by striking levels of energy, creativity and personal commitment, isolation and an absence of peer support also make up part of the picture.
A conference such as this one can serve as a real boost to practitioners who work in contexts where institutional forms of philanthropy are weak, levels of public trust are low – and where community foundations are virtually unheard of… where you spend as much time trying to explain what it is you’re trying to do by setting up a community foundation and why, as actually getting on and doing it. Imagine, you’re with several hundred people – none of whom asks, “But what is a community foundation, exactly?” The highly developed nature of the U.S. field, however, means that it’s not always easy to find conference sessions that speak to the current realities of much of the global field. A recent report by the GFCF, “More than the Poor Cousin? The emergence of community foundations as a new development paradigm” for example, revealed that among cohort of 40 community foundations from low and middle income countries, more than half had an annual budget of only $65,000 and three fifths were five years old or less. However, occasionally it is possible to strike gold.
Just to back-track for a minute. Yesterday morning, I was chatting to a colleague from Russia who is here at the conference about her work supporting the creation of a new type of “rural fund” in Siberia. The Russian village is in a sorry state – dogged by high levels of unemployment, depression and alcoholism, school closures and migration to urban areas. My colleague was saying that while they weren’t “classic” community foundations (Russia already has at least 40 plus of these), she could already see how these small funds could play a unique role as mechanisms for mobilizing isolated and depressed rural communities, both in terms of citizen participation and local resources. Not only does this kind of work require a huge amount of hands-on involvement for what is often only small amounts of money but it has been sometimes been a challenge explaining and justifying this work to others.
Cut to yesterday afternoon and the session on “Transforming Community through Participatory Philanthropy”. As we listened to Janet Topolsky talk about the principles of “Rural Development Philanthropy”, where citizen participation “is the real endowment” and then heard stories from the Shickley Community Foundation (an affiliated fund of the Nebraska Community Foundation), the Blackbelt Community Foundation and the West Central Initiative, my Russian colleague turned to me, eyes wide open and whispered “but this is exactly what I’ve been doing….!”.
Rural development philanthropy, development philanthropy, asset-based approaches to community development – call it what you will, this question of how to draw on assets and energies in low-income communities to bring about meaningful change is the bread and butter of so much of the global community foundation field… The next exciting step will be to start to connect the work of the RDP with developments in the global field.