Foundation Executive as Community Builder

“…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 DiersBill TraynorEveryday DemocracyGrassroots GrantmakersProject for Public Spacesand 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!

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One thought on “Foundation Executive as Community Builder

  1. I’m less concerned about whether you call it ABCB or not – and that’s not in anyway a dismissal of that set of trainings. I think over the years we’ve spent a lot of time trying to name the activities that we engage in – often because we want to measure it. But the bottom line for me is this: are you meeting them where they are. And in this case “them” means who you’re working with, be it client, community, organization, etc.

    And based on Hunt’s mission to support place-based organizations, the ABCB methodology makes sense. But so does a Vandeventer-style network builder, or FSG’s description of backbone organizations in Collective Impact. As a funder, you have the power to act not just as a funder, but as a convenor, a connector, even as a facilitator (as long as you acknowledge and take into account the power dynamics of being a funder at the same time). And if you can craft the right mix of those roles (and a few others I haven’t named), each of those roles can leverage the others. Yes, you can give money for program. But you can also support the development of a core set of network/partnership capacities that allow your grantees to increase their own impact through collective (coordinating, cooperating or collaborating) actions.

    I too have spent a lot of time recently reflecting on my own lessons learned – in part to better articulate what I want to do next – and I think over the years have spent a lot of time focusing on the programmatic aspects of the work (be it teacher preparation, college access, workforce development, etc) and not as much time focusing on the work of building the relationships.

    And I’ve come to the conclusion that the work is only sustainable through healthy relationships. Call it network development, coalition building, strategic partnership, what have you. The question boils down to how do you facilitate an environment within which change can thrive? And for me, the answer lies in having the right people at the table, and facilitating the co-creation of the cross-community relationships; between organizations, funders, stakeholders, etc. Now, you can’t have a network within paying attention to what the program is. But you won’t be able to sustain the work of addressing whatever the issue is if you don’t pay attention to the partnership. The relationships.

    Then again, maybe I haven’t had enough coffee yet.

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