Yes, yes - I know. The focus of the conversations that have resulted in these reports has been elsewhere. It is truly exciting to see the energy and new forms that are springing up EVERYWHERE that share the characteristics of what is now being described as community philanthropy. But what a shame that the true scale of this global movement isn't being represented in these conversations.
I want to go back a bit to Barry Knight's definition of community philanthropy because I believe how he framed that definition is really important - and frankly, quite brilliant. Barry captured the spirit of many conversations involving people from around the world in shaping a definition of community philanthropy - and instead of a carefully wordsmith-ed, dictionary type of definition, Barry compiled a set of qualities that, in combination, add up to community philanthropy. This is also so in sync with how I think about grassroots grantmaking - not easily defined in one sentence, and impossible to separate from the core values that under-gird practice. Barry listed the following characteristics of community philanthropy:
- Organized and structured
- Open architecture
- Civil society
- Using own money and assets
- Building an inclusive and equitable society
If you have read my blog over time, you know how much I fritz over language - not because I especially love fritzing with language, but because I have the seen the power of language to limit thinking. You have probably gathered that I don't particularly love the term "grassroots grantmaking" and have come to accept using it as a practical step forward out of the boxes that "neighborhood small grants" had built around the work that I write about in this blog.
So I'm wondering if it's language that's once again limiting our thinking about the full scope and energy of this growing community philanthropy movement - by not realizing the parallel world here in North America that in some circles identifies as grassroots grantmaking.
With Barry's definition in mind - especially the "using own money and assets" characteristic as an essential component - I can see how grassroots grantmaking could be overlooked as a core mechanism of community philanthropy. After all, the very word "grant" implies that people are receiving money and not using their own money and assets, doesn't it? It suggests that there is a benevolent grantor - with money that comes from donors or private wealth - and that the collecting and distributing sides of the grantmaking equation are separate. And then there's the problem with grassroots - often a code word for "marginalized", "poor", "disadvantaged" or everyday (not individually important) people. So put together, grassroots grantmaking could be construed to mean powerless people who are receiving money from powerful (wealthy) people and organizations so that they can learn that they too can be powerful.
But it's not that. If it was, I wouldn't be in this seat writing this blog. Instead what I see is a flexible, practical, powerful vehicle that more and more people and organizations are discovering as a way to connect monetary giving with the first investors in a community - the people who experience the community every day and are putting their ideas, their time, their talents, their relationships, their personal reputations AND their money on the line for community benefit. It puts money in the mix as just one important ingredient, casting aside two very naive assumptions - 1) that money doesn't matter and 2) that there is a direct correlation between money and impact. Using Barry's words, it does this:
"Having local people involved as donors (I would use the word first investors) us a game-changer in efforts to build civil society and enhances the prospects of sustainability of external funding when the program ceases. If successful, community philanthropy also leads to more lasting, entrenched outcomes by increasing local ownership and local accountability."Even more important is that when there is an organization in the mix such as a foundation, it requires a changed relationship between the organization and local citizens - a relationship that requires reflection, learning and internal culture shifting on the part of those in the organization. It requires a shift from reliance on experts to co-learning with local citizens - walking along-side or even behind rather than leading or directing.
I believe that grassroots grantmaking is a place where the values and characteristics that Barry says add up to community philanthropy mesh with grantmaking practice. My belief is that where you see grassroots grantmaking, you're going to see and feel community philanthropy.
This seems so obvious to me - so obvious that I'm can't help but wonder why we can see community philanthropy with one set of eyes when we look at what is happening outside of the United States, but when we look within the United States, grassroots grantmaking sits at the margins of the silo-ed worlds of civic engagement, social justice grantmaking, and neighborhood capacity building, and community philanthropy is seen as an organizational form - most commonly a community foundation. The exciting world that I see what I look at what is happening in the United States is that it really mirrors what is happening internationally - with some (not all) community foundations fully embracing the characteristics of community philanthropy that Barry describes, and community philanthropy bubbling up in more and more places through many different organizational forms. This is such a hopeful landscape - and grassroots grantmaking, because of the values that embraces, its flexible form and its do-able scale - is adding energy and an easy on-ramp into that landscape.
The problem with failing to recognize the growing grassroots grantmaking sentiment in the United States and Canada as part of this international movement - recognizing it in spirit and not as a narrowly defined grantmaking tactic - is that we are missing out on a huge opportunity that has field building implications - missing opportunities to further a shared identity and invigorate learning, and spread the practice.
The latest report ends with a call to action:
"Community philanthropy has proven to be effective and compelling across a variety of geographic and cultural contexts. It is time to help it become a mainstream development strategy........With the practice poised to improve and grow, now is the time to take action."And some possible questions that should be explored, including:
- What kind of international infrastructure could fund experiments, develop tools, raise
funds, map assets, convene leaders, create networks, and strengthen practices?
- How can we build a global movement for community philanthropy?