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#ShiftThePower: The Rise of Community Philanthropy, Part 2

The following article is cross-posted with permission from Alliance magazine. Based out of the UK, Alliance magazine is the leading global magazine on philanthropy and social investment. This article is cross-posted with permission.

Part 2 of 2

It’s All about Power

Power is the key to durable development. Power matters because efforts to solve a problem only last while people with the problem take responsibility for it.

This is the topic of the Global Summit in Johannesburg. The preparations and follow-up to the summit are as important as the event itself. The purpose of the summit is succinctly described by Hilary Gilbert when she says "The Global Summit’s #ShiftThePower challenges donors to cut through discredited norms, take a deep breath, and invest in something better." In preparing for the summit, we have identified eight pillars that people suggest for shifting the power.

Developing Durable Development

Alliance-magazine-Eight.jpgSo where do we go from here? Well, the first step is to recognize the new paradigm by capitalizing on trends that are already evident and to begin to explore possible opportunities for further development. One important starting point is the emerging field of community philanthropy organizations, diverse but bound by a shared essence, and grounded within their constituencies, which is gradually starting to realize the power of its collective voice.

Another starting point is among those development actors who are starting to look to the principles of community philanthropy as a strategy for strengthening the participation of people in decisions and the allocation of resources around issues that concern them. There is growing realization that local, participatory philanthropy is a critical piece of the new landscape for civil society, because it combines money as well as the dimension of horizontal accountability. As civil society globally sees increased restrictions on its ability to operate freely, including an increased criminalization of activism and an overall reduction of traditional sources of support, it offers new insights and strategies for local constituency building for issues of rights and social justice.

Once we have recognized the importance of this new paradigm, we can then move on to developing it. The question is how? Evidence from developing the field to date suggests that top-down plans and fixed blueprints should be avoided because to do this would itself be inimical to the paradigm.

Rather than a linear silver-bullet approach, a better way forward involves nurturing the ecosystem in which community philanthropy organizations operate. Many such organizations are small and fragile and the appropriate way of developing them is to support their development according to the rules and priorities they set themselves, rather than norms and standards set from outside.

We will now consider how this might work for the three main constituencies involved—the community philanthropy field, funders and international non-governmental organizations.

Community Philanthropy Field

It is important that community philanthropy organizations feel confident that their day-to-day efforts, which can at times seem messy and challenging, are part of a new paradigm that is holistic, organic, and fuelled by the energies of local people. It is also important to feel the power of a networked approach to development, looking for shape and structure without imposing it, and keeping the right balance between tangible and intangible results. For money to translate into good development, it needs other inputs, including trust, confidence, and a sense of agency.

While intuition, values, and gut instinct are important in developing the work, it is also important to develop rational systems to deepen the evidence base for it. The field needs to develop better measures of its performance and to answer questions about the development field’s obsession with replicability and scalability—perhaps developing evidence-based answers derived from scaled up networks and measures of distributive leadership. Susan Wilkinson Maposa’s "horizontality gauge" offers a new way of thinking about this. It is important to help external donors understand what the field is trying to do and how their support could help.


Donors need to "think jazz"—be flexible, willing to improvise, and get beyond self-imposed limitations. It is important to take time to understand the community philanthropy field and avoid assuming that donors’ own systems and structures should be projected onto local organizations. Bilateral donors need to get beyond their short-term view and accountability mechanisms and widen the development tools they have at their disposal. Perhaps they could take a long hard look at the balance between the need to get significant funds out of the door and the larger development imperatives based on principles of social justice, equity, and democracy, and be prepared to retune their strategy. Private philanthropies—both international and domestic—can use the power of their long-term and flexible funding.

For bilateral donors in particular, who say that community philanthropy is new and unfamiliar, taking them beyond their comfort level, they should reflect on their common practice of creating "pooled funds" or "re-granting intermediaries." Although these are often called "foundations" with local boards and other trappings of independence, they are often so only in name: in reality they tend to be mini-versions of the donors that established them, with systems and structures cut and pasted from the mother ship and with little investment in thinking through long-term sustainability and local ownership, which leaves such organizations vulnerable and fragile when the donor funding comes to an end.

International civil society, including INGOs

There is soul-searching to be done about the business model that has sustained "development" since the term was first coined in 1949 by President Truman. Fundraising has been a rather one-dimensional tool to secure money in order to do the real work. This is unsustainable. NGOs have been existing in ways that we would never recommend to each other as people, hand-to-mouth, year-to-year, with no strategies for saving and a development environment that rewards spending out every last penny. Are these the NGOs—entirely dependent on external resources and so external power—that local people really want?

It is now imperative that international civil society organizations begin to think in more blended, integrated ways, where community philanthropy and local asset mobilization becomes part of a strategy for local constituency building and community development. In this way the divide between "donor" and "beneficiary" can be broken down in favour of the idea of "co-investment" where different actors bring different strengths and needs to the table in a more reciprocal way. And there are still uncomfortable conversations that need to be had by and within INGOs about their real willingness to give up power.


This brings us straight back to power and the discussion to be held at the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy. Our starting point for the summit is that six years ago, community philanthropy was the proverbial tree that fell in the forest: invisible, unheard because big development was not there to hear it. Now, community philanthropy is turning into an oak with ambitions, to borrow a phrase from the civil rights movement, to "stand tall."

In conclusion, we can think of no better comment than that made by Sean Lowrie in his piece on rethinking humanitarian aid when he comments that the original goal of development aid was not to hold power but to develop people. He says: "It is time to stop fretting about control and think instead about maximising impact. The first humanitarians sought neither power nor control, but impact. They measured this in lives saved and suffering spared—and now so should we, their successors."

Read Part 1

#ShiftThePower: The Rise of Community Philanthropy, Part 2#ShiftThePower: The Rise of Community Philanthropy, Part 2Jenny Hodgson is director and Barry Knight is adviser, Global Fund for Community Foundations. Read the original article on the Alliance website.

Topics: Community Philanthropy