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Name & praise: What we can all learn from community philanthropy

This post is part of my name and praise series. A counterpoint to naming and shaming, I highlight best practice in creating more equitable relationships between Southern and Northern development actors.


I have a confession.


Despite working in international development for quite a while, I have been (and still am) largely ignorant about community philanthropy. That is possibly because it sits proudly and deliberately outside of ‘traditional’ international development approaches, the part of the sector I’m most familiar with.


It could also be that community philanthropy has been deliberately marginalised because of its goal to #shiftthepower, a threatening prospect for actors (i.e. Northern donors and implementing organisations) who stand to lose out from changes to the status quo.


What exactly is it?


Community philanthropy utilises the resources and assets that all communities possess (whether monetary or otherwise) in a way that creates shared ownership and delivers a more horizontal power dynamic than we typically see when external actors ‘programme’ in that community.


As Hilary Gilbert writes, one of the key differentiating features of Community Philanthropy Organisations (CPOs) is their reliance on publicly-raised funds – this means they must “secure a licence to operate by being responsive to community needs.” A responsibility many external development actors successfully shirk.


For Gilbert, this model has clear advantages: “small CPOs combine a set of properties which, in the right circumstances, enable them to punch well above their weight – sometimes producing results that heavier-handed, top-down development can only dream of.” I can attest to the fact that behemoth organisations in the North could most definitely only dream of effectively mobilising communities – that is, if this were even their priority to begin with.


But don’t take my word for it, because there are many excellent resources out there. I recommend starting with the many publications of the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF), a grassroots grantmaker supporting community philanthropy globally. For Northern donor organisations, I particularly recommend this report by Jenny Hodgson and Anna Pond, who deliver targeted and accessible advice on how donors can support the community philanthropy approach. For an illuminating Twitter Chat on (re)defining philanthropy, have a read of the Thousand Currents post (and their other resources as well).

How does it work in practice?

As a non-expert on community philanthropy, the best thing I can do is show rather than tell.

I had the privilege of interviewing Aisha Mansour, who is the Executive Director of the Dalia Association in Palestine. I was put in touch by Fieldworks, an innovative social enterprise that aims to unlock the potential of locally led non-profits by empowering and networking them to the world’s most progressive funders.


Aisha Mansour, Executive Director of the Dalia Association

As Aisha explains in this short video, Palestine received an enormous influx of foreign aid after the Oslo Peace Agreement. The result was an agenda driven by external actors, and a weakening of the once-strong Palestinian civil society.


As Aisha describes it, the international aid system “comes with pre-established projects, and you have to go with the flow.” In this top-down model of development, aid does not go to grassroots groups. Dalia is about “reminding our people that we are not a poor country. Every person has something to give, whether material resources, skills, knowledge, volunteer time. We're saying that we have shared values but need to develop a system where resources are available to everyone. People should be at the table equally.”


Dalia avoids the pitfalls of imposition by working with community-determined priorities. Once these are determined, Dalia can put in place plans to monitor and evaluate the work, rather than impose a Theory of Change and logframe ex ante and expect them to magically materialise.


There is both support for and scepticism of Dalia’s work. “Donors like what we do, but they don't want to fund us because we don't know what the projects will end up being. Some donors support us because they like this approach.” At the same time, Aisha notes that it’s “not about the grant. It's just a tool. More about local resources that we can mobilise.” So Dalia does accept donor money, but only if it respects the rights of the community to develop its own priorities.


In a context as challenging as that of the Israeli occupation, it couldn’t be more high-stakes to reject the external aid paradigm. But according to Aisha, nothing could be more vital: “Aid is creating a band-aid effect, while things continue to get worse. Money will not stop, because international governments want the status quo to continue. Stopping the money would change the status quo and challenge the neo-liberal capitalistic economy.”


Lessons learned?


What strikes me most about the community philanthropy approach, epitomised by Dalia’s work in Palestine, is just how fundamentally it inverts the traditional, top-down development model. Programmes are not put out to tender and designed by international organisations with no input from those who are meant to benefit – they are born and raised in and by communities themselves.


What’s sad is how radical this feels when it should be common sense.


We talk ad nauseam about sustainability in development – but the hard truth is that Northern donors have short attention spans and are constantly distracted by domestic pressures to spend foreign aid in their own national interest. The future of development depends on truly addressing power imbalances that result in Southern communities being at the whim of Northern priorities.


New year resolutions are par for the course this time of year. I commit to reading about and learning from community philanthropy in my own efforts to understand how its principles can be applied to work across the development sectors. How about you?


Before you go, a funding opportunity plug : if you’re interested in shifting power through generating evidence on community philanthropy, apply now for a GFCF grant of around USD $5,000. Deadline is 31 January 2019. Click here for more details.

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©2018 by Alex Martins.