At Long Last, a Detailed Baseline Analysis of the Community Foundation Movement
Significant differences in terms of age, staff numbers and assets have made it difficult to identify common causes and concerns. It has been particularly challenging to foster a dialogue—to say nothing of collaboration—between community foundations in the West and those working in the emerging economies of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and other parts of the Global South. The former tend to be well established and resource-rich. Though often possessed of abundant resourcefulness and social capital, the latter are generally younger and less developed organizationally and financially.
The Community Foundation Atlas was conceived in part to help build a sense of solidarity by interpreting the field to its members. Seeking hard data about the commonalities and—yes—divergences that characterize the world’s place-based foundations and other community philanthropies, the atlas project partners undertook an international survey that has yielded the single most comprehensive dataset about community foundations ever assembled.
Having assessed the data supplied by the first 478 survey respondents, representing place-based philanthropies in 52 countries, the Community Foundation Atlas is able to present a much “flatter” picture of the field. While documenting organizational and regional diversity, analysis of the data has also helped to clarify the movement’s “essence.” For example, survey questions measuring endowment values, grantmaking budgets and the like confirm that financial metrics are not distinguishing characteristics. It is the common “texture” of community foundation work, into which the survey delved at length, that makes this a dynamic, if still not fully fledged movement.
Exploring the work from multiple angles, the survey included questions about programmatic priorities, provision of nongrantmaking services, civic leadership roles, community accountability and engagement, institutional partnerships and, finally, measurable achievements. A statistical analysis of the responses to each question was conducted by British social scientist and community philanthropy authority Barry Knight.
Knight’s careful dissection of the survey data has produced a long-needed baseline of hard data illuminating the important characteristics of community foundations. His thoroughgoing analysis also uncovered telling regional nuances in origin stories, developmental needs and achievements. Click on the button to read or download his report, entitled “Dimensions of the Field.”
Add your voice by posting your reactions to the survey data and analysis on Twitter with the hashtag #GlobalFoundationMovement. To start the discussion, several overarching themes suggested by the survey findings are summarized here.
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The global community foundation movement is steadily gaining momentum. In the past 14 years, the number of known community foundations in the world has nearly doubled, from about 1,000 in 2000 to more than 1,800 in 2014. (By contrast, it took the field 85 years to reach 1,000 strong.) The survey data suggest that the recent explosion in growth is being driven by “grassroots activism,” meaning that local people in more and more places are seeking this means of bettering their communities in the face of political turmoil or governmental dysfunction.
The movement has tremendous untapped potential. Seventy-five percent of the world’s community foundations were established within the last 25 years, and many are still in their developmental infancy or adolescence. As these organizations come of age programmatically and financially, the track record of their older peers suggests that they can be expected to play increasingly potent roles as agents of community development and social change.
Despite ever-increasing competition for charitable dollars, community foundations, by and large, are gaining financial strength. Nearly 80 percent of the survey respondents reported improvement in their organizations’ financial status over the previous three years.
One of the most common characteristics of community foundations is a belief in the importance of accountability to local people. Almost universally professed by the survey respondents, this belief stands in marked contrast to the seeming inaccessibility of entrenched bureaucracies, large institutions and multinational corporations.
Public perceptions of community foundations as highly responsive organizations may be another factor driving the movement’s growth. The survey documents the remarkable spectrum of respondents’ program priorities, their provision of a broad range of important civic services, and their willingness to partner with all sectors of society. These data underscore, in Knight’s words, the “protean nature of community foundations, confirming that no matter what the particular needs of their communities may be, they are able to be responsive.”
Strengthening civil society is the arena in which community foundations believe they are making the greatest difference. Survey respondents report making significant contributions to the enhancement of local assets, the development of a local culture of giving and the establishment of local networks and trusting relationships. They were much less willing to take credit for achievements in addressing such issues as crime or poverty. “It seems that community foundations see their main contribution as building the architecture for solving social problems,” Knight observes, “rather than solving the problems directly.”
If the survey data have a bottom line, it is that complex problems are usually best addressed when those affected are involved in the design of solutions. “Doing things to” people often results in failure. Place-based philanthropy is on the rise globally in no small part because community foundations have resoundingly demonstrated to the world their ability to bring local people and resources to the table to address local needs.
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Comments from the Field
“Barry Knight’s report is a must-read for people who care about the field. It’s especially mind-expanding to see how U.S. community funds compare with colleagues abroad. Lots of food for thought.”
—Dr. Albert Ruesga, President and CEO, Greater New Orleans Foundation (United States)
“Reliable and relevant data collection has become a critical component to understanding the breadth and depth of a community foundation’s work. This survey provided that data. A global baseline has been established that will provide the field with the tools required to continually track our impact.
I was especially delighted to see the connection between philanthropic trends and achievements. This will be so helpful when reaching out to new community partners. And the potential for deeper country tracking is of special interest to the Canadian landscape, where our roots are deeply embedded in the community leadership space.
We have been modest for too long—time to shine the light on our achievements and celebrate our successes!”
—Jane Humphries, Vice President, Knowledge and Foundation Development, Community Foundations of Canada
“I was delighted to note how, particularly in the Global South, the emergent community foundations reflect and are supporting the grassroots, people-led movements for social change.
The best description of what I felt in going through this information was ‘affirmation’!
In totality, the atlas provides valuable insights and thereby essential direction for advocates of philanthropy-that-has-its-ear-to-the-ground and supports progressive social change. For philanthropy support organizations like ours, it paves the way for a lot more work to help build the field.”
—Chandrika Sahai, Network Coordinator, Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (India)
“The Community Foundation Atlas, more than I have ever witnessed before, has captured in a ‘one-stop shop,’ very accurately and succinctly, what I have come to experience in running a community foundation in the last ten years, but now brings out the global picture as well, which is really refreshing and energizing. I feel in the right company!”
—Janet Mawiyoo, Chief Executive, Kenya Community Development Foundation (Kenya)
“I very much appreciated the breadth and depth of the analysis—with each question that arose in my reading, the answer was usually found on the next page. I very much liked seeing the standard deviations included in the different charts, as well. How different the responses are and what variation there could be was really helpful in beginning to map out a picture of community philanthropy. I think including both the raw data and the factor groupings gives a good message that you heard the individual respondents, but then packages the findings in language that people gravitate to.
The report drove home that community philanthropy really is ‘of the people’—responsive to local context and needs within a community, not an out-of-the-box philanthropic approach.”
—Hope Lyons, Director of Program Management, Rockefeller Brothers Fund (United States)
“In a unipolar world, where development is measured in terms of GDP growth, the state and the corporates have joined hands in marginalizing civil society. In this context, the role of community foundations is very significant in addressing social justice for marginalized communities. At the Dalit Foundation, we emphasize the value of equality, working primarily with so-called untouchables in India. Our organization believes in the development of trust, capacity building of the community, raising local resources, and most importantly, accountability to the community. We believe that these are key aspects for a successful community foundation.”
—Santosh Samal, Executive Director, Dalit Foundation (India)
“‘It seems that the key concept in the idea of a community foundation is “community.”’ If that finding from ‘Dimensions of the Field’ sounds like stating the obvious, think again. It’s the cheering outcome of the first sound analysis of global data on community foundations. It tells us that although community foundations vary drastically in their origins, scale and method, they are succeeding worldwide in engaging and enriching their communities.
The analysis identifies patterns and trends, using clearly explained statistical techniques to produce something like a regional typology of community foundations.
This is gold dust for anyone interested in understanding how context affects community foundation development, and why tailored approaches are so important if community philanthropies are to thrive in places far removed from their North American roots. An important and timely piece of work!”
—Dr. Hilary Gilbert, Chair, Community Foundation for South Sinai (Egypt)
“A century after the movement started, community foundations in South Asia are forging an identity and taking bold strides in shaping the local philanthropy movement in the region. This publication comes at the right time of our learning curve.
The information about the origins and evolution of the field, new and emerging trends in program priorities and their potential influence in the not-for-profit ecosphere are invaluable resources for the growing field.
This publication will help us root ourselves in the values of a community foundation and yet challenge us to take this knowledge and respond to the new world of community philanthropy.”
—Sumitra Mishra, Country Director, iPartner (India)
“‘Dimensions of the Field,’ like the thrill of unexpected drops and turns of a rollercoaster, takes you graph by graph into sudden revelations and rather uncomfortable questions arising from the data analysis and the benchmarks of community foundations in different parts of the world.
At last, a sample study addressing the field as a GLOCAL movement!
If, as the research suggests, our main contribution is ‘building the architecture for solving social problems, rather than solving the problems directly,’ can we become better ‘architects’ by learning from other regions, especially when our ‘scores’ are polar, and if so, how do we go about it in this complex glocal context?”
—Svetlana Pushkareva Hutfles, Executive Director, Kansas Association of Community Foundations (United States)
“‘Dimensions of the Field’ is a great achievement. Barry Knight guides us through the approaches and achievements reported by an important number of organizations, revealing the evolution of the movement within cultures and regions, enriching the model and opening up the dialogue among those working in community philanthropy. It is a starting point in the sharing of learnings and best practices that will lead to the strengthening of our movement.”
—Lourdes Sanz, Philanthropy Director, El Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía (CEMEFI) (Mexico)
“‘Dimensions of the Field’ is a hugely valuable study in understanding and moving the field forward! Personally for me, it was revealing that programme priorities did not have women as a category. This is so because at least for the rapidly growing number of women’s funds all over the world, equity and justice is focused around women’s well-being and advancement. But, as Barry himself concludes, this is but the ‘starting point for further research,’ and it needs to be!”
—Rita Thapa, Founder, TEWA Women’s Fund (Nepal)
“The report provides a unique and fascinating insight into the movement of community foundations across the globe. With data from a significant segment of the field, the analysis answers several important questions about what we have in common and how we differ, and what circumstances influence our establishment, growth and impact.
It seems clear that, whatever niggles there may be about nomenclature, ‘community foundation’ is a concept—dare I say a brand?—with worldwide status.
Being part of a wider family is powerful and empowering, and seeing the data from this report, I wonder if we collectively make enough of our combined scale and reach.
‘Dimensions of the Field’ does not provide a simple recipe for community foundation success. But the list of ingredients is set out more clearly—although it is up to each territory to set about combining them in context. Clearly the mix will differ from Rhode Island to Russia, from Scotland to Singapore and from Germany to Ghana. Where future research could help is in better understanding the role of the donor in what is, ultimately, a vehicle for community philanthropy no matter where its location. How funds are focused is as likely to be as much about donor passions, preconceptions and personalities as it is about evidence-driven programme design.
The report also raises important questions about what it means to engage local people. I come at this with accountability and transparency at the front of my mind. I believe that we in the field must be able to show how we answer the promise, cited here ‘to be of and for the people’ of our place. But our people include our donors—who may themselves be from all walks of life—as well as those who benefit from their philanthropy.
Community foundations are hesitant to highlight achievements, the report tells us. I am, perhaps counter-intuitively, reassured by that. In a world of supposed outcome metrics, it does us no harm to show humility. All funders should be wary of claiming grantees’ results as their own since we are almost always only part of the package, and since change for beneficiaries may be ascribed to many forces, their encounters with a funded project being only one among them. But perhaps we should go further, collectively, in drawing lines of cause and effect between the growth of community philanthropy, and the development of social capital through our commitment to finding and backing great organisations on the ground. That would be a worthwhile—and valid—demonstration of impact.”
—Rob Williamson, Chief Executive, Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland (United Kingdom)