Community philanthropy seen on upswing

Community giving and participation are essential for social progress and global development, and can generate increased local ownership and local accountability, new report says.

Local participation in community projects can generate increased local ownership and local accountability, says The Value of Community Philanthropy, a report from the Aga Khan Foundation USA and the Charles Steward Mott Foundation.

“Community philanthropy should be a central feature in developing civil society and enhancing the effectiveness of development aid,” the report says.

Still, despite its potential, community philanthropy is “under-developed,” says the report, which calls for a “joint program to develop the capacity of the field of community philanthropy” so it can more effectively partners with foundations and development agencies.

That program, it says, should “strengthen the infrastructure, build key links between partners, and enhance technical features,” such as “definition,” performance and evaluation.

It also should aim to increase the pool of funders and “raise awareness of community philanthropy among official development aid practitioners for whom it is presently invisible,” the report says.

Community philanthropy, or “local people helping each other, by sharing resources for the common good,” is a new force in the charitable world that is “driven by ordinary people working from the bottom up of our societies, rather than wealthy people working from the top down.”

That kind of giving, it says, “has the potential to transform how philanthropy works and in the process help to solve some of the deeper problems in our society, such as poverty, racism, and gender equality.”

The Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support, for example, has charted the growth of community foundations throughout the world over the last 10 years, finding an average of 70 new community foundations a year.

Nearly all that growth has been in North America and Europe, it says, but there also is an “underlying ferment of activity” in other parts of the world.

Community philanthropy is “organized and structured” and “self-directed,” uses “open architecture” so that “anyone can design add-on products,” and operates in civil society, the report says.

It also uses its own money and assets, it says, and is rooted in “values.”

Community philanthropy also is “based on a voluntary impulse embedded in the human condition,” the report says.

It also says community philanthropy has important benefits than can assist development processes.

“When local people act as donors, the hierarchical structure at the heart of development aid breaks down,” the report says.

An “inclusive, non-hierarchical structure,” it says, “can be transparent and accountable, as well as trusting and respectful,” rooted in “true partnerships that promote lateral processes as opposed to top-down relationships.”

Using such “lateral” processes, the report says, community philanthropy “breaks down boundaries between people, taking account of place, issue and identity.

A key element of community philanthropy is “help the other but help the other help the other,” so that “each act of philanthropy begets other acts of philanthropy,” the report says.

That kind of approach “has real potential to work with communities within communities and, in the process, involve the most excluded,” it says. “Such collective activity carries powerful messages for collective ‘within-group’ and ‘between-group’ processes in society, containing the potential to resolve conflicts, build harmony, and develop an equitable frame of reference for the d development of progress within society.”

Making progress in community philanthropy as a “mainstream force in building sustainable civil society and improving the effectiveness of development aid” will require “joining up different parts of the field that are presently disconnected,” the report says.

While community philanthropy “tends to operate from the bottom up, with local actors taking the initiative” and “aiming to influence the way central authorities behave,” it says, most international development “tends to operate from the top down, as a central agency disperses resources to a range of local actors.”

But evidence suggests that both top-down and bottom-up approaches are important, and that “neither is sufficient to deliver progress on its own,” the report says.

“Indeed, what often determines success is what happens at the point at which top down meets bottom up,” it says. “This is the point where outside intervention meets inside culture.”

The report calls for the field of community philanthropy to take five main actions to strengthen itself, including “using clear definitions, metrics and data analysis to demonstrate what works;” mobilizing a “critical mass of people as part of a process of participatory democracy in favor of the common good;” joining “top-down efforts with the views of beneficiaries of programs;” finding “complementary roles for different actors to ensure the sustainability of civil society and the effectiveness of development aid;” and developing “a constructive engagement using plain language.”

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