People in a field

Beyond buzzwords, do community foundations offer an alternative to top-down development?

At the risk of championing another buzzword that becomes meaningless after it’s been used in a thousand proposals, community foundations may offer an alternative to the top-down approach to development that many want to disrupt.

Local philanthropy is not yet development sector jargon, yet many believe community philanthropy offers a different paradigm for delivering truly sustainable development.

The community foundation is gritty and durable, grounded in local context because – unlike many outside interveners – they have to live with the consequences of whatever they create.

What is a community foundation?

What are the characteristics that make an organisation a community foundation rather than an NGO? How is ‘local asset mobilisation’ any different to ‘local ownership’? Why is this any different from the previous approach to community building or participatory governance that we put in our last logframe?

The Global Fund for Community Foundations recently convened a group to explore what community foundations share. The diversity in the room spoke to why we struggle to articulate the concept. We heard from well-resourced, professional outfits working in multi-stakeholder partnerships. Next to them were volunteer-run enterprises, raising awareness of local organic farming. Organisations in conflict-affected states shared stories of the resourceful ways they’ve sustained their grant-making amid escalating violence.

The thread that connects these organisations is not their sector, approach or funding practice: it’s their values. All community foundations share the belief that locally-owned, locally-led development is not just the latest sector jargon, but the reason they exist. Although their capacity may differ, the aim for a community foundation is to build a connection between those with resources and those with needs. The fundamental vision is one where ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ are one and the same.

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For a community foundation, building local assets isn’t about an external agent buying a building then handing it over; it’s about looking for assets – knowledge, skills, resources – that already exist, and harnessing these for the shared benefit of community members.

Using a community’s assets to meet its needs

Rather than conducting needs assessments, stakeholder consultations or research-based interventions, community foundations bring together citizens to agree what they need, and to work with them to meet that need.

This approach is asset-based, not needs-based. It side-steps the victim/saviour dynamic for one where people work together to co-create solutions. We all know how resourceful people can be, even in the most challenging contexts, yet traditional development approaches often undermine agency by viewing communities as ‘lacking capacity’ or ‘needing support’. Outside intervention is often helpful and necessary, but community foundation advocates argue that traditional development programmes may overlook solutions by focussing so heavily on what a community is missing, rather than what they can contribute.

Community foundations challenge the notion that Northern INGOs have all the capacity and Southern CSOs have all the legitimacy. A community foundation responds to its constituents, and therefore questions of legitimacy and capacity are as relevant if you’re operating in Manchester as they are if you’re operating in Mombasa.

Alternative accountability

As a strategy for building sustainable civil society, it’s a tempting one. There are certainly many Value for Money arguments that can be made about the ways in which community foundations can ‘leverage inputs’, ‘shorten the supply chain’ and have ‘a multiplier effect’. But I suspect that many community foundations won’t want to play that game.

Community foundations are writing their own rules, quietly subverting top-down development. The donor/recipient power dynamic is different when your donor is your next-door neighbour. It’s accountability, but we’re unlikely to see any measurable indicators to verify it. It’s about sharing out of solidarity, not measuring for aid accountability. Community philanthropy may not become a buzzword any time soon, but I imagine those practising it won’t mind.