Community foundation = community leaders at home and abroad

Following the lead of the original community foundation, which was established in Cleveland in 1914, community foundations have served as place-based fundraising and grantmaking institutions, collecting local resources to meet local needs.

That model flourished in the U.S., eventually generating national standards as a way to unify and professionalize the field. It also was embraced internationally starting in the late 1980s, although adapted for cultural differences.

Now, just two years shy of its centennial celebration, the field is undergoing dramatic change.

Emmett D. Carson“Our field, as a whole, is experiencing radical change. It’s a field not big on change, but we must change to survive.”

— Emmett D. Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation

For starters, the term “community” is no longer defined by geographical boundaries alone, says Emmett D. Carson, CEO and president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) in Mountain View, Calif.

He says instant connectedness via the Internet, cell phones and other social media technologies has opened the door for funding communities to be created based on areas of interest, such as health, gender, age, religion and country of origin, among others.

While the Mott Foundation recognizes there are communities of identity and communities of interest, the Foundation has historically viewed “community” through the lens of place, says Shannon Lawder, program director for the institution’s Civil Society program — from which most of Mott’s community foundation grants are made. The program aims to strengthen philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as vital vehicles for increasing civic engagement and improving communities and societies.

In her current role since 2008, and working within the Civil Society program since joining the foundation in 1995, Lawder sees community foundations of the future differing from those of the past. She is not alone.

How a donor-advised fund works“Our field, as a whole, is experiencing radical change,” said Carson of SVCF. “It’s a field not big on change, but we must change to survive.”

His institution provides an example. With $2 billion in assets, SVCF is the largest single funder in California’s San Francisco Bay region. But who would have expected it to be among the country’s Top 15 international funders in 2010 (the most recent data available)?

Silicon Valley residents use SVCF to provide support to organizations operating in global communities — covering 25 nations — representing countries of their birth, alma maters, travel destinations and places dear to the heart.

The way community foundation donor funds are managed also has changed, says Carson, citing the Greater Horizons (GH) brand, which is administered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation (GKCCF).

With assets of $168 million, or about 14 percent of GKCCF’s total $1.16 billion, the GH option allows individuals from anywhere in the U.S. to establish a donor-advised fund that is managed by one of the 10 largest community foundations in the country, says Debbie Wilkerson, GKCCF’s president and CEO.

She says GH also provides a way for natives of the region, who are living elsewhere, to reconnect and support initiatives in their hometown. Still, the bulk of GH’s assets, Wilkerson says, come from other community foundations’ donor-advised funds. Often times, she says, it is easier and less costly for smaller to medium-size community foundations to contract with GH to provide back-end administrative and management services for donor-advised funds than for those community foundations to do it themselves.

While some might wonder if this practice keeps smaller community foundations from growing, it has proven to do just the opposite. By handling others’ donor-advised funds, Wilkerson says, it frees up those community foundation to focus fully on what they do best: serve as leadership organizations that provide expertise about their place-based communities.

Kevin K. Murphy, president of the Berks County Community Foundation (BCCF) in Reading, Pa., says that just as the understanding of “community” has evolved, so has the role of community foundation leaders.

When Murphy was hired in 1994, his sole duties were to grow the community foundation’s assets and be its spokesman. Back then, he says, community foundations were called “neutral conveners.” Their leaders were cautioned not to take stands on issues — especially controversial ones — for fear of antagonizing would-be donors.

While some community foundations still operate that way, Murphy says, others have evolved. These institutions encourage and engage residents’ participation in addressing local issues. As a result, they are recognized as out-front leaders working for positive societal change.

“We try to be even-handed on important issues,” Murphy said. “But I say: ‘Forget neutral. A car in neutral doesn’t go anywhere.’”

BCCF and its equivalents worldwide are helping develop partnerships among individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and sometimes governments — at home and abroad — so they can address pressing community problems together in a non-partisan way.

Murphy, who also is chairman of the Council on Foundations’ board and a consultant to the Togliatti Community Foundation in Russia, helped create an innovative language program in Berks County. In partnership with Hanban — a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education — BCCF is bringing courses in Chinese to local schools in order to prepare students for the global marketplace.

Since the late 1970s, the Mott Foundation has provided more than $147 million in grants to help grow, develop and strengthen the community foundation field worldwide. Initially, grants were made to community foundations in Mott’s home state of Michigan and throughout the U.S. Next, Mott funded the field’s growth in targeted regions and countries, and ultimately globally. The Foundation currently makes grants to community foundation support organizations and research efforts worldwide.
Among other things, Mott has funded:

  • challenge grants during endowment-building campaigns;
  • technical assistance;
  • conferences and events for the field;
  • education and training materials development;
  • peer-to-peer learning experiences;
  • field research;
  • the growth and development of YouthBanks *; and
  • fellowships.

Mott’s community foundation grantmaking is funded primarily through its Civil Society program as a way to promote and support citizen participation and democratic processes. These strategies can lead to empowered and improved local communities and society overall. But Mott has not done this work alone. Fellow major funders have included: the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Charities Aid Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the King Baudouin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and others.

* YouthBanks are community foundation programs comprised of young people who jointly decide what issues they will address in their communities and how their grantmaking funds will be divided.

“The world is 1 percent French-speaking and 33 percent Chinese-speaking. What language should we be teaching?” Murphy asked.

“We hope to be the first county in the nation where Chinese is taught in all our schools.”

He has a question for community foundations that are standing on the sidelines instead of on the cutting edge as local leaders.

“Who speaks for the community if not those who hold the community’s assets?” Murphy asked.

“An endowment is supposed to give us the freedom to take the long view. If we don’t use our endowments to plan thoughtfully for the future, they should be taken away from us.”

Community foundations in the U.S. are increasingly recognizing their roles as community leaders, he says, adding that the same is true globally, especially in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Jenny Hodgson, executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) of Johannesburg, South Africa, agrees.

However, these newer institutions typically don’t have endowments the size of those well-established community foundations in the Western world, she says. Still, they are adept at tapping into other community assets, including the skills, talents and experiences of volunteers, and the influence of service clubs, cultural and religious organizations, and business associations.

For decades, there were more community foundations within the U.S. than all other countries combined, but no more. Today, about 740 of the approximate 1,700 community foundations worldwide are in the U.S.; the remainder can be found in nations from A to Z — from Australia to Zimbabwe.

The Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), for example, provides grants to strengthen the capacity of local NGOs, so they can better meet local needs. Additionally, with its Girl Child Fund (emphasizing health and education) and its Food Security Fund, Hodgson says, KCDF addresses entrenched problems with solutions that are more than short-term.

KCDF, created in 1997, is Kenya’s only community foundation and it is also the oldest indigenous funder of its kind in East Africa.

“The unique value of community foundations comes from being seen as long-term institutions — located in the communities — that are qualitatively more effective in dealing with local issues than international organizations,” Hodgson said.

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