This article is the first in a series of articles about Community Led Philanthropy, co-hosted by GlobalGiving. The conversation explores the ways philanthropy can support community-led change. 

Now more than ever, philanthropy and development practitioners are asking, ‘how might we shift decision-making power closer to communities?’ In the wake of the pandemic, the writing is on the wall that strong, dynamic communities are essential to long-term, sustainable change, and external actors need to rapidly adapt.

We’re thrilled to host this Alliance series on community-led philanthropy to explore the ways philanthropy can support and enable community-led change.

The conversation is related to many movements that seek to shift the power in philanthropy and development, but what will make it unique is the focus on ‘how’ we work; recognizing that community-led is a journey, not a destination. Community-led philanthropy is about the ways philanthropists and intermediaries become more community-led themselves as we seek to support community-led change. 

Philanthropists of all kinds are now waking up to the notion that locally-led approaches offer a better pathway to sustained, durable change. The central question being asked now is, ‘ok, so what should we do differently?’ With many smart, experienced people in development organisations, recommendations and ‘best practices’ are plentiful. However, we posited that the missing voices were conversations with and among those on the margins of mainstream development.

We partnered with the Global Fund for Community Foundations and community leaders in six countries—India, Mexico, Nepal, Russia, Vietnam, and Zambia—to co-design a process for: identifying community-led approaches, gathering evidence of such approaches and their long-term impact, learning how funders’ policies and practices promote or inhibit community led-ness.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

1. Community-led initiatives are effective, and the process of being community-led itself is impactful.

Because they are led by people with knowledge of and respect for community members, their culture, and their context, community-led efforts can be especially agile and effective. They are based on local knowledge, relationships, and assets. They are oriented toward community timelines instead of externally imposed schedules, allowing people to learn as they go, do work that meets their standard for quality instead of arbitrary performance indicators, and commit to the outcomes. All of this contributes to a process of ongoing learning and long-term capacity development.

2. Community led-ness is centered around relationships, and at its heart, it’s about how we treat one another.

Relationships are the foundation of community-led work and perform a pivotal function in priority setting, project design, and implementation, learning and improvement. Through strong and well-maintained relationships, communities govern themselves, identify important work, commit to long-term results, and hold each other accountable.

Furthermore, we are all part of many communities; the definition of ‘community’ is in the eye of the beholder. Participants offered different interpretations of the term ‘community.’ For some, it meant people in the same place sharing resources and facing common challenges. For others, it meant people with a shared identity. We are each part of many communities, and it’s up to each of us to define ‘community’ for our context, which may change hour to hour, based on our engagements.

Being community led isn’t about who is in charge, or even why, but it’s about how we come together. We found it’s often less about who leads or manages, so much as the process through which people come together, how they are engaged, treated, and made to feel. It’s this way of working that contributes to a sense of ownership and mutual accountability.

3. Funders can help or hurt community-led approaches. 

Funders inhibit community-led approaches when they impose their own agendas, requirements, and timelines; withhold information, and arbitrarily change funding priorities. Funders can support community-led processes when they communicate openly and work in partnership and express patience, an appreciation for and curiosity about local context, and humility. Flexible funding and non-financial resources are two concrete and important offerings that promote community-led approaches.

We’re not speaking the same language when it comes to community-led. There is nothing remarkable or innovative about community-led work to most community changemakers. But these traits—relationships and trust—are rarely discussed in funding relationships because ‘donors don’t appreciate them,’ according to the perspective of our research partner in Mexico. There is an important opportunity to deliberately elevate these emergent narratives and discourse about community led-ness.

Community-led efforts require strong, collective leadership and a commitment to equity and sharing power. Leadership roles and responsibilities within community-led approaches tend to be more fluid than in more institutional-style organizations. Negotiating cultural, interpersonal, political, and other dynamics is a challenge for community-led organizations, but it is essential for maintaining the flat power structures that cultivate the most creative ideas and the biggest impact. These are skills that are worthy of funding. uid than in more institutional-style organizations. Negotiating cultural, interpersonal, political, and other dynamics is a challenge for community-led organizations, but it is essential for maintaining the flat power structures that cultivate the most creative ideas and the biggest impact. These are skills that are worthy of funding.

Of course, community‐led initiatives face challenges, some of which are inherent in collective organizing and some of which are a result of historical, political, and/or cultural contexts. It’s up to us to learn from diverse communities about what helps and hurts.

The group of community leaders conducting this research created a self-assessment survey. (See the self-assessment and full report here.) The self-assessment was designed to help nonprofits understand how community led they are. But what if we started applying this self-assessment to other players in the space to help philanthropists and intermediaries understand how community-led we are?

Now, in our current phase of this research, we seek to do just that: develop resources (tools, products, services) to meet the needs of stakeholders of all types (civil society leaders, donors, corporate philanthropy leaders, and other peers in the space) as they support community-led philanthropy. And most importantly, we’re understanding how we can be more community-led in the research process and our own operating model.

This Alliance Magazine series will include many voices around the globe exploring the topic of community led philanthropy. Some of the questions we’ll explore are, ‘what does community-led change look like to you?’, ‘why should philanthropy pay attention to community-led approaches?’, ‘what needs to happen for philanthropy to accelerate community-led change?’, and ‘how should we measure the impact of philanthropy that supports community led change?’ Along the way we’ll introduce you to many of our partners who are contributing to this work. Enjoy the conversation ahead!

Alison Carlman is the Director of Evidence + Learning at GlobalGiving

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