Rarely do monumental things happen in an elevator ride. Most rides are short and quiet, a moment to collect your thoughts for the next meeting or clear your head. Yet, one chance meeting in an elevator resulted in a partnership dedicated to strengthening communities around the world through place-based philanthropy.

Attending the Global Philanthropy Forum in 2010, Dr. Mirza Jahani, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A., an agency of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), knew finding solutions to issues of global poverty would be at the heart of nearly every discussion at the annual conference. Yet he could not have known that a brief elevator ride and talk with Nick Deychakiwsky from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation would lead to a new relationship for both foundations, one that would grow over the years.

“A few weeks before attending the forum, I reached out to the Mott Foundation about potentially working together to support community philanthropy, an underdeveloped yet potent way of addressing global poverty. So, I was pleasantly surprised to be standing face to face with Nick,” Dr. Jahani recalled of that chance meeting.

Nick Deychakiwsky was also astonished by bumping into Dr. Jahani on that elevator ride. His former Mott colleague had virtually introduced Dr. Jahani, but the AKDN representative remained a faceless name until “I noticed the name on the conference tag of the man next to me in the elevator,” Nick said. “Thank goodness for conference name tags!”

The two foundations form an unusual partnership because of the different approaches each has in supporting community philanthropy. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has been a supporter of community foundations for decades, investing more than $140 million into their development since the 1970s. The foundation sees advocating community philanthropy as a means to foster resilient methods for people’s participation, on the local level, in decision-making to improve the quality of their lives. Recently, the Mott Foundation has supported a global infrastructure, mainly though the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

The Aga Khan Development Network implements programs where community philanthropy is embedded throughout its work. Diasporas in the US give to communities in AKDN partner countries; local communities contribute to AKDN projects; and AKDN has a long history of supporting local civil society. For example, AKDN works alongside the Kenya Community Development Fund, which supports communities to drive their own development priorities by linking them to resources and information, to aid early childhood development programs in East Africa. AKDN helped establish in 1998 and continues to support the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy, which works to enhance the growth and effectiveness of indigenous philanthropy for social development in Pakistan. AKDN is looking to advance community philanthropy as a means for greater financial sustainability and grassroots engagement, essentially looking to make communities own their initiatives.

Over the past few years, the two organizations have seen their unusual relationship grow into a natural fit. Two years since that initial elevator connection, AKDN and the Mott Foundation are spreading the message that community philanthropy can be a powerful vehicle for strengthening civil society and enhancing aid effectiveness. The two partners have hosted roundtables in Washington, DC, Johannesburg and Dhaka with those who study and work in this field. Each of these roundtables produced lively discussions on how to stimulate and develop community philanthropy as a means of contributing to the sustainability of civil society and supporting the effectiveness of development aid.

Riding the wave of energy from these discussions, a new report The Value of Community Philanthropy: Results of a Consultation compiles outcomes from these roundtables to make the case that increasing local ownership and accountability leads to stronger communities and should be a main focus of development aid practitioners. The report is authored by Barry Knight, CENTRIS Consultant and Facilitator, and jointly released by Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. and the Mott Foundation.

Reflecting on working together with the Mott Foundation for community philanthropy, Dr. Jahani says “AKF USA and the Mott Foundation have a shared desire to see community philanthropy grow and aid local organizations that build permanent funds to benefit their communities. By working together and with those on the ground, we are bringing this shared vision closer to reality.”

For AKDN and the Mott Foundation, sometimes historic moments and partnerships that have the potential to improve the lives of the world’s poor can come out of a chance meeting in an elevator.