“…outside resources will be much more effectively used if the local community is itself fully mobilized and invested, and if it can define the agendas for which additional resources must be obtained.” - Building Communities from the Inside Out, John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, 1993.
I’ve been reflecting on how much my early training in community economic development continues to influence my current work in philanthropy. I fell into both professions by accident, and the book quoted above and subsequent training on the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach continue to be integral to my worldview.
I was lucky that mentors ranging from neighborhood leaders to national foundation staff continued to introduce me to leaders and tools that worked in the same spirit: Jim Diers, Bill Traynor, Everyday Democracy, Grassroots Grantmakers, Project for Public Spaces, and Cambridge Leadership Associates, just to name a few.
Because of these influences, I tend to take as a given that:
- All people and communities are full of assets and capabilities
- Smart community leaders help people identify those assets, make use of them, and grow additional skills and talents
- Enduring community improvement starts with everyday people connecting with each other, cultivating their civic leadership and civic entrepreneurship skills, and planning and acting on the future of their community
- Community building and trust building work has value by itself and not just as a means to another end
In looking back on my first year as executive director of a family foundation, I realize that I’ve continued to adapt these influences to the family and its philanthropy. I see my work as an internal community builder. My job is to help each family member identify her or his philanthropic skills and interests, and create an environment in which those skills and interests are recognized and flourish. And, my job is to help them stay connected to each other and become more invested in and mobilized around their foundation’s future.
The tougher task is to continue the ABCD spirit in the foundation’s grantmaking – to see the nonprofits and communities we serve as full of capabilities, and to ensure our grants help them build on their assets effectively. Years of work in grantmaking unfortunately often translate into a lazy “been there, funded that, didn’t like the grant report” cynicism and distrust in community improvement powered by everyday people. I hope my role can be to guard against that cynicism and distrust, including in myself.
As I write this, I’m attending the 2012 Family Philanthropy Conference. NCFP’s CEO Retreat has started the conference with a discussion of the family foundation CEO’s role using GrantCraft’s Roles@Work materials. “Community builder” didn’t appear as a role, though many of the roles described feel familiar, including bridge builder, connector, organizer, talent scout, and validator.
If the asset-based community building approach makes sense to you in family philanthropy work, drop me a line. I’d love to find more foundation staffers who are working from the framework!
(Also posted at