“The power dynamics are shifting,” noted Rebecca Masisak, CEO of Tech Soup Global, speaking of momentum for community-led development. So while community philanthropy may not be a new idea, there is renewed interest – and new opportunities for it as a vehicle for development. That was the message in Washington, DC at an event entitled “Fresh Approaches to Building Assets, Capacity and Trust: Community Philanthropy in International Development,” which took place at the Society for International Development (SID), organized by Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A., the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The community philanthropy approach works to strengthen civil society by focusing on local assets – financial and otherwise – and by building capacity and trust locally for addressing community-identified needs and priorities. Moderator John Harvey, Director of Global Philanthropy for the Council on Foundations, used that framework to guide the discussion.

Masisak, CEO of Tech Soup Global, offered examples of local assets based on Tech Soup’s experience in 50 countries. In Romania, for example, a community foundation working with Roma and other minority communities grew local assets with a loyalty card program for points, and then used crowd voting to determine which projects to support. Technology helped groups build those relationships. Masisak emphasized that community assets aren’t just financial – they include knowledge and skills.
Matt Reeves, Global Director of Capacity Development for PACT, spoke on growing capacity of civil society organizations. He likened capacity development to an individual’s pursuit of lifelong learning, calling it “the ability and agency of a human system to achieve its goals and contribute to positive social change.” Reeves noted that in PACT’s research to improve its own performance in supporting hundreds of civil society organizations toward sustainability, PACT learned that they (and others committed to building capacity) need to better target their efforts on growing social capital and learning, not just on donor-identified goals like efficiency.

Dayna Brown, Director of Listening Programs, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects & co-author of Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Assistance, talked about building trust. She noted that donor-driven “processes sometimes undermine the goals” of development. The Listening Programs document how “people often don’t feel heard” in international development. Even using terms like beneficiary perpetuates a sense that people at the community level are not guiding the process. Community philanthropy can shift that, in part through paying attention to local voices and priorities.

“We build trust by listening,” Brown observed. “Listening skills matter.” Listening can help shift the paradigm to focus on what is already working at the community level, and how to support it.

That is also increasingly the interest of major donor agencies, affirmed David Yang, Director of Democracy and Governance Center of Excellence for the U.S. Agency for International Development(USAID). “Civil society is at the heart of governance across the board,” he noted.

Community philanthropy has become an important focus for the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A., which together with the Mott Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and USAID, is working to strengthen the approach, in recognition of its potential for sustainability of international development. This year, these organizations have worked together to develop a Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy. Together, they will soon establish a global secretariat that will serve as a hub for learning about the practice of community philanthropy. The Alliance will be formally launched in late 2013.

The group released a new publication jointly entitled The Case for Community Philanthropy: How the Practice Builds Local Assets, Capacity, and Trust – and Why It Matters which makes the case that increasing local ownership and local accountability leads to stronger communities and should be a main focus of development aid practitioners. The case statement crystallizes an understanding stemming from a report released in 2012 that explored how community philanthropy has worked around the world to help build local capacity. The new publication synthesizes trends (for example, one form of community philanthropy – community foundations – grew by a remarkable 86 percent from 2000 to 2010), the rationale, and views from experts.

Neal Hegarty, Vice President and Associate Director of Programs for the C.S. Mott Foundation, noted Mott’s deep roots with community foundations, adding that in addition to community of place, the foundation also respected the wider scope, for example with communities of identity and communities of interest. “[Community philanthropy] is not just about dollars,” he said.

Betsy Campbell, Vice President for Programs with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, shared their enthusiasm for the new alliance. We shouldn’t expect community philanthropy to be a panacea for improving international development, she noted, “but community philanthropy can play a big role. Assets, capacity and trust cut across all of our work.” Dr. Mirza Jahani, CEO of AKF USA, also expressed enthusiastic commitment to the potential of this new alliance over the next decade.

In the coming days please visit the SID website for more photos and information. The case statement is free for downloading at the link above, and you can learn more about the alliance here.