Global Fund for Community Foundations; Shifting Power Closer to the Larger Masses

In this interview with the Global Fund for Community Foundations, we learn how community philanthropy strengthens local capacities and is a strategy for sustainable development.

  • Please share the origin of The Global Fund for Community Foundations? 

The Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) was formed in 2006, initially as a three-year pilot project of the Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS) and jointly supported by the World Bank (Development Grant Facility), Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and Ford Foundation. In 2007, a feasibility study was undertaken, exploring our establishment as an independent entity. This concluded that the GFCF was filling an important gap in the global philanthropy architecture, as the only organization solely focused on the development of the community philanthropy field around the world. On this basis, the decision was taken to establish the GFCF as an independently constituted organization, and we registered in both the U.K. and South Africa. 

We believe in people-led development, which means shifting power to the community level. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the most effective way to ensure results that will last, that is owned and shaped by the people they are meant to reach. As such, our mission is to support a global movement of locally owned and directed community philanthropy organizations, which mobilize resources and influence progressive social change. We have channeled the US $9.2 million in small grants to a network of 245 community philanthropy partners in more than 70 countries around the world. In addition to grantmaking, we work to connect the field and strengthen practice by offering various peer-learning opportunities, and by publishing reports and thought pieces that build the evidence-base for the field. An important element of our work is strengthening the link between community philanthropy and other parts of the development and philanthropic sectors as a credible and viable source of partnership and learning.

  • What drives your social impact journey? 

We believe that community philanthropy – which mobilizes community assets (in all their shapes and forms), strengthens local capacities, and builds trust over the long-term – is a strategy for achieving durable development. We use the word “durable” because it suggests the ability of something to be strong, robust, and withstand pressure. Civil society organizations and non-profits that rely solely on external funding are often not durable: their work can be overly shaped by the priorities of their donors rather than those of local communities and, if they have not invested in building a local support base, they are often vulnerable to sudden changes or reductions in aid and philanthropic flows. For us, durable development means resilient systems – networks that include people, communities, and organizations – and strong organizations that are rooted in their constituencies, that share and devolve power, and whose legitimacy rests on their ability to mobilize local participation and giving.

More widely, we are of course a proud part of the global #ShiftThePower movement. This hashtag was first introduced in connection with our 2016 Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg, which brought together 400+ participants from 70 countries. The Summit set out to shine a light on the dynamic and growing global community philanthropy field and to link it more strategically with other parts of the development landscape. #ShiftThePower went viral around the days of the Summit itself and since has taken on a life of its own – and we’re delighted to see this!

The beauty of the #ShiftThePower movement is the diversity of voices it brings together. Community philanthropy actors are part of the movement, but certainly not its only champions. #ShiftThePower often takes on different meanings and emphasis for individuals but, despite this, there is still a strong “us” there. What ties together the movement is the acknowledgment that local practices and systems – which represent a starting point from which real alternatives to current development practices can be built – already exist. However, they are often hidden from view, overlooked, or underestimated. #ShiftThePower, therefore, aims to recognize these local practices and systems and invites a broad range of actors from different parts of the development system to work together towards a new paradigm of people-led development. We have seen that people can easily relate to the core values of #ShiftThePower: agency, trust, equality, dignity, local accountability, etc.

The #ShiftThePower Manifesto for Change makes the aims of the movement more tangible. The Manifesto lays out nine key points – outcomes to move towards and others to move away from – that together could contribute to alternative ways of deciding and doing. We ran a social media campaign in February 2022 which brings each of the Manifesto points to life through cartoons. We were thrilled to see allies around the world participating (in different languages, on different platforms, across time zones, and with different audiences in mind) over the course of the five-day campaign. At the close of the campaign, Rasha Sanur – who works with one of our partners in Palestine, the Dalia Association – commented: “The reason we align with the Manifesto for Change is that it calls for dignity in development by moving away from seeing communities as ‘problems to be solved.”

  • How has your organization been able to catalyze social change? 

Our work is rooted in systems theory. If community philanthropy is to be fully appreciated and supported as a development practice, and if #ShiftThePower is to become a practical reality, we cannot just tinker at the edges but must go deep in pursuit of a redesigned system. This will never be achieved by one organization alone, but rather by numerous groups of people, and configurations of organizations, pushing towards systemic change from different angles. So, in everything that we do, we aim to bring together a range of actors, who are all deeply engaged – in different ways – with people-led development. By mixing diverse configurations of actors together, particularly from different parts of the system who might not otherwise have crossed paths, we hope to discover and encourage new ways of working together. 

Underlying all of this is the idea that we must build movement generosity. In practice, this means the sharing of ideas, contacts, and resources, and pooling our assets and skills when there are opportunities to work together around shared goals. The success or failure of one organization over others should not be the focus: a win for one of our allies is a win for us (and we hope they feel that way too). This means that humility is required from all of us. We also need to get better at recognizing the various strengths that people and organizations bring to the table – harnessing these when appropriate. 

At the GFCF, we are committed to doing our part in the wider #ShiftThePower movement. For example, we provide secretarial and operational support to the #ShiftThePower Treehouse that launched in 2021. The goal is that the Treehouse will be the online space where different actors who believe in the power of people-led development can connect, share practice, learn from each other, build the movement and be stronger together. Our hope is that content on the site will be curated on a rotational basis by members of the movement moving forward. In terms of deepening the #ShiftThePower movement, and supporting new leaders emerging from this, we are also very excited to be announcing the inaugural cohort of #ShiftThePower Fellows soon! Fellows will contribute towards strengthening the global movement, weaving the ideas and experiences of change-makers around the world. While we have some ideas for what this will look like in practice, it is important to us that the first group of Fellows co-create this work. So, watch this space, as we too are eager to see what the Fellows will achieve!

  • What challenges or nuances have you experienced in the philanthropy industry? 

We are continually frustrated by the fact that community philanthropy, along with other local and national actors, is often away from the gaze, or at the edges, of the mainstream development system. This is despite the critical roles these actors play, particularly in times of crises and emergencies. Take for instance the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many of our partners around the world became “first responders” in their communities.

Community philanthropy organizations were able to respond rapidly to COVID-19 because they had strong local networks already in place, and deep knowledge of their communities meant they could quickly identify and reach the most vulnerable. Larger and more formal organizations, both domestic and international, were generally slow to respond to growing community needs. We are seeing this scenario play out again right now in Eastern Europe, as local organizations respond to the conflict in Ukraine. Many of our community philanthropy partners in the region have found themselves at the forefront of humanitarian response, particularly in terms of offering assistance to the millions of refugees who have fled Ukraine.

Not common only to community philanthropy actors but, unfortunately, a reality for many civil society actors is a particularly dire lack of funding for core costs. We think this in part relates to the issue of control, which is another challenge the GFCF and our partners seem to continually bump up against. By keeping partners on the short leash of project funding cycles, funders are able to exert more control over organizations and their activities. Ironically, the same actors who seem to regularly lament about a “lack of capacity” in Southern organizations also seem to be those who invest the least in the core structures and processes of these organizations. As our partner, Emmanuel Waiswa of Civil Collective in Uganda recently stated in his blog Time to rethink “capacity” in the Global South: “Our belief has always been that local communities have the capacity and potential to make a change, but often have only been judged based on externally relevant systems, structures and definitions of ‘potential.’ We refused to become a large NGO, driven by money and funding. We cannot champion communities to be autonomous from external control if we too are clients to such extreme control that requires us to conform to an external definition of what we should be.”

Of course, we also see control manifesting itself in other development practices – monitoring and evaluation, for example. Over the last few years, we have been working with a number of our partners who are also interested in “measuring what matters.” Our paper of this title is designed to advance a conversation about measurement in civil society, as we believe that there is a significant gap between what people working at the local level see and feel is important, and what funders want to hear is happening. Too often, complex outcomes – for example, building dignity and trust – take second place to more easily measured outputs such as “number of wells drilled.” We would like to work towards a new system of measurement that still satisfies everyone involved in terms of reporting and accountability, but which is much more meaningful in terms of organizational learning.

  • Kindly share your perspectives on creating a strong development sector in Africa? In terms of creating a strong development sector in Africa, we believe that external donor support is important and welcome. However, it should recognize, respect, and build on what is already happening, rather than undermine or displace this. There must be an appreciation for the informal giving and generosity that already exists in abundance across the continent. Indeed, it was local networks of solidarity and support that helped many communities to weather COVID-19. GFCF partners aim to tap into and build on, this energy that is already present. For instance, one of our partners in Uganda – the Twerwaneho Listeners Club – undertook a study to understand community values and traditions of giving. Their report Reflecting on the role community giving can play in transforming people’s well-being and development in resource-strained communities confirms that giving is deeply rooted in Ugandan values and traditions and that caring for those around you has always been regarded as a necessary aspect of survival. While societal values have evolved over time, these traditions still exist. The report further examines how traditional folklore and proverbs can be used to continue shaping the local spirit and culture of giving.

For external actors who are looking for positive examples of how to amplify all the good that is already happening, and what sensitive, appropriate donor support on the continent might look like, there are examples to draw from. For instance, the Giving for Change program. The program launched in 2021 and is a new partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs that will invest in community philanthropy development in eight countries (six in Africa) over five years. We are part of the four-member consortium that is leading the program, along with the Africa Philanthropy Network, Kenya Community Development Foundation, and Wilde Ganzen. We are particularly excited to see how flexible external support to grassroots partners can assist them in testing new approaches to mobilizing local constituencies and funding – particularly for issues of rights and justice that traditionally may have been more “unpopular.”

The Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) is the only organization focused solely on growing community philanthropy globally as a central pillar of people-led development and this is done by providing small grants and other supports to community philanthropy organizations, conducting, commissioning, and supporting research, action-learning, and writing that deepens the evidence base for community philanthropy as a strategy to Shift The Power.

They also share their learnings as a way to influence and participate in broader development debates and also work with individual funders who want to build community power, voice, and resources as a way to strengthen and sustain their program investments overall. Find out more about them here

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