The Foundation World Needs Community Philanthropy to Succeed

“Participation is the new endowment.”

This observation from the Aspen Institute’s Janet Topolsky has been stuck in my head since I read it a month ago in the Nonprofit Quarterly. She was part of a panel discussing the recent report The Value of Community Philanthropy by the C.S Mott Foundation and Aga Khan Foundation.

The article came around the same time that philanthropic provocateur Emmett Carson spoke in Pittsburgh. He cited the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative’s research showing the majority of civic leaders across America don’t feel informed about the work of foundations and can’t cite an example of a foundation’s impact. He thought the lack of awareness also led to poor public policies, including those that propose to restrict philanthropy or decrease charitable deductions.

In addition, polls show that Americans’ trust in institutions is continuing to decline while their participation in anti-establishment groups is rising. For example, in Edelman’s 2012 Trust Barometer, only half of Americans trust a nonprofit to do what’s right or see a nonprofit leader as credible.

The Philanthropy Awareness Initiative tells us to counter the lack of awareness (and I suppose trust) with increased strategic communications. I’m not convinced that increased communications works when people don’t feel personally and emotionally connected – when tan issue doesn’t touch their daily lives.

I’d argue that true community philanthropy is the most effective and sustainable countermeasure to the lack of awareness and trust in foundations.

Community Philanthropy’s Benefits
There are many different takes on the definition of community philanthropy, but the benefits described would definitely be healthy for the foundation world and for the communities it serves. A few examples:

  • Asian Americans/ Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) describes community philanthropy as when “Communities expand their pool of economic assets, build their social capital, and demonstrate enhanced and increased capacity to develop tools that meet their own needs.”
  • The Mott and Aga Khan report lists six common characteristics: organized and structured, self-directed, open architecture, civil society, using own money and assets, and building an inclusive and equitable society. It notes that when people give together, they build self-identity, trust, and community leadership. Their giving to solve local problems confers legitimacy on the solutions that is missing from government aid or big foundation projects.
  • Bill Schambra recently reminded a group of grantmakers that the acts of everyday citizens forming associations and nonprofits are fundamental to sustaining and strengthening democracy. He also saw the foundation world as at best ineffective in supporting these acts, and at worst accidently working against them. His comments could easily apply to community philanthropy and foundations’ support for that approach. The TCC Group’s Chris Cardona also writes regularly about philanthropy’s role in society and about democratizing philanthropy.
  • A relatively new project, Adventures in New Giving, looks at community philanthropy through the lenses of the sharing economy and the new technology tools that accelerate collaborative giving and building communities of givers. Lucy Bernholz and many others also are watching and writing about these trends.

Supporting everyday people in getting together, giving together, solving problems, and innovating together. Shouldn’t the benefits of community philanthropy be an easy sell? Shouldn’t participatory philanthropy be the new endowment?

Connecting Foundations and Community Philanthropy
And yet, most traditional foundations don’t seem sold on the idea. Even community foundations often miss the point and end up practicing philanthropy in communities but not practicing community philanthropy.

I do think that community philanthropy efforts can and will succeed without (or in spite of) support from traditional foundations (or “Big Giving” as Tim Hwang calls them). Giving circles, Awesome Foundation chapters, and other micro-philanthropy efforts will keep kicking butt on their own.

However, there’s too much at stake for traditional foundations to ignore community philanthropy. It is too easy to lump even the most community-minded foundations into “the establishment,” not to be trusted and not to be left to manage itself. Big Giving needs community philanthropy to reconnect civic leaders and everyday people with the power and joy of organized philanthropy. To make their work more of the community and less like an inaccessible, disconnected option only for the wealthy and powerful.

Regional associations of grantmakers could actively invite community philanthropy into the fold. More foundations could adopt community philanthropy approaches (see the  Philanthropic Ventures Foundation and Grassroots Grantmakers’ members as examples). As the Mott and Aga Khan report notes, foundations could improve government programs through community philanthropy. Heck, foundations could even pick up on my idea of developing Trusted Community Giving Centers.

So what do you think? Is community philanthropy a great answer to rebuilding civic trust and broader connections to the foundation world?

4 thoughts on “The Foundation World Needs Community Philanthropy to Succeed

  1. Excellent post. When more than 70% of giving is from individuals (as opposed to foundation giving)…is on the rise, then it is no doubt time to look at models that engage donors/philanthropists in achieving impact with their collective resources. I’m also a huge fan of Janet Topolsky who is a visionary in rural philanthropy/impact. Rural impact work quite naturally gravitates to this model of “Supporting everyday people in getting together, giving together, solving problems, and innovating together.” Finally, the Social Venture Partner is worth raising up in this conversation as well. Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring post.

  2. Excellent comments on Philanthrophy, There seem to be lack of awareness in Developed World on role played by such Foundation as the Agakhan one and only if politicians cite the role played by these Institutions, or other measures are used to bring about awareness, there will be a tendency by the rich to think of getting richer only-and no contributions from them can be expected.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I don’t know a ton about international development or global philanthropy, but community philanthropy work definitely could use more respect from politicians and leaders of all forms.

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