Whom do you trust to lead community improvement?

Whom do you trust to lead community improvement?

This question keeps rolling through my head as I’m participating in the Growing Social Impact for a Networked World conference.

It’s not an easy question. It gets to the heart of a person’s values, upbringing, work history, own sense of self-control, and more. And, it’s a tough conversation for a group, whether that group is a philanthropic family or a foundation board.

But I’m convinced it’s an essential question for self-reflection by foundations and philanthropists, especially now as people, communities, and nations struggle to find the best paths out of the recession.

I think when you boil everything down, a foundation or donor ends up with three choices as answers:

  • Citizens – philanthropy that strengthens citizen engagement and leadership and even helps them exercise their voice in and lead community progress. It’s philanthropy that puts its trust in everyday people, consumers, start-up social entrepreneurs, and unincorporated networks.
  • Frontline delivery mechanisms – philanthropy that strengthens nonprofits, schools, and congregations. It’s philanthropy that puts its trust in the professionals who have studied the issues and had experience in delivering effective solutions.
  • Strengthening institutions – philanthropy that strengthens the ability of government agencies or the corporate community to move our communities and nation forward.  I know that most people will hate that I’ve lumped these together.  But I see them both as expressions of supporting the existing aggregations of power (market and elected).  And the philanthropy that puts its trust in them looks similar – support of public policy, public will-building, multi-sector partnerships, etc.

The easy answer is to support all three, and it can be sometimes be smart to do. But “all 3” is also the weak way out.  It disconnects giving from fundamental core values and beliefs – of the real answer to where you see power* and authority should be placed.

As one example, the community foundation field especially struggles with this question because they try to serve all three audiences simultaneously. Their answers show through how they design their strategic philanthropy and community leadership initiatives. Some answer “We’re about empowering donors and/or neighborhood residents to lead change” (trust the people).  Others answer “We’re about building strong nonprofits and social entrepreneurs through grants and capacity building services” (trust the delivery system).  And others answer “We’re about building community assets for the long run and hiring smart staff to run initiatives” (trust us as the institution to lead change).

As another example, funders in my adopted hometown of Pittsburgh are paying for an assessment of the community development system. Though the essential question above hasn’t been explicitly asked in discussions so far, funders, intermediaries, and government officials are revealing their biases. Some see the community development system at its roots as being about supporting citizen-led change; others as about robust delivery of units, jobs, and saved lives; and others about catalyzing and increasing the investments of government and financial institutions.

So, what’s your answer – where do you place your philanthropic bets?  And, do you have other answers?


Caveat:  I’m a white Midwestern guy, child of two generations of entrepreneurs, with an employment history in state government and endowed foundations. Many will say I have no standing or legitimacy to discuss power dynamics. I’m ok with that.

One thought on “Whom do you trust to lead community improvement?

  1. I’m still chewing on your comments/questions. But I have an initial reaction to your caveat: I think you’re exactly the kind of person who should be interrogating power dynamics. Not only from the perspective of a funder, but also as a white guy.

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