Starting small, starting local – thoughts on building community into philanthropy

Originally published for TUSEV’s audience of NGOs interested in developing Turkish civil society here:

There is a small town in Romania where every week 13,000 families give money to their community foundation. Each time they buy groceries and use their ‘Community Card,’ they save money while 1% of the bill goes to the Foundation. Later, when the funds collected exceed a certain amount, NGOs submit project ideas and Card users vote on which projects get a grant.

In Montenegro there is a mobile phone app through which citizens report corruption. When the anti-corruption agency levies a fine based on their report, 50% of the fine goes back to the organization who built the app. Once the funds collected pass a certain amount, users of the app vote on where the money goes.

There is a village in southern Africa where once a year a man collects one goat from each family. The resulting herd is sold and the community votes on where the money goes.

In each case every member of the community, regardless of their wealth, has a voice and can be a philanthropist.

Mechanisms like these are steps along the road to community philanthropy. They don’t lead to huge, sweeping projects. There isn’t enough money for new hospitals or schools. Instead they fund volunteer-led park and clinic renovations, new equipment for children with disabilities, and cultural events – – a series of little things that each citizen can see, feel some connection to, and ownership of.

Unlike much of the community philanthropy work around the world, which often seems to focus on a very small segment of any given town’s wealthy individuals and their companies, these projects are about mass personal engagement and choice. They emphasize the value of every individual and presumptuously include her or him as caring stakeholders in a community’s future.

Creatively building off of local assets (goats) and realities (everyone needs food), projects like these ensure anyone can participate in the full cycle of philanthropy – from investor to grantmaker – often without even bringing up the term ‘philanthropy.’ Much less ‘civil society.’

Importantly, in each case, when it is time to vote individuals (and by extension their families) begin seeing their role and shared responsibility in developing local solutions to local problems. They are challenged to balance their needs with the needs of the community (playground for my kids or support for the disabled?) and a fascinating meta-dialog about the very meaning of community ensues.

These processes challenge families to become stakeholders in civil society – – effectively repositioning local NGOs as facilitators and enablers of community interests through philanthropy. In cultures where giving is primarily through religious organizations or direct charity to people on the streets, this repositioning is essential – should you hope to see more citizens and communities more engaged in civil society.

Each of the programs mentioned above also created a unique sense of pride and led to some interesting outcomes. For instance, one of first projects led by the foundation who developed the Community Card, involved volunteers fixing playgrounds. That’s what people in town said they wanted to work on, so the Foundation facilitated fundraising and volunteers. After a first series of renovations, little groups of youth and old men started going out and fixing public space just for fun. The mayor realized the foundation was on to something and commissioned the foundation to ask the community what they would do with a particular park. The mayor promised to then renovate to the community’s design. They voted but the Mayor did not follow through on his promise. The community, now empowered by their own experiences taking care of things, bluntly informed him he would not get re-elected if he didn’t honor his part of the bargain. Today they enjoy one of the nicest parks in Romania and the mayor kept his job… Everyone in town knows that story and each will proudly tell you how they contributed to building the park in their own small way.

Their sense of pride is understandable. As anyone who has ever given money, and seen the results of a successful project, can tell you – it is a good feeling. Community-driven philanthropy processes harness that good feeling for everyone.

These processes are slow as links are built between personal, family and community values. They require creative programs like the above and tools like challenge grants, employee giving campaigns, SMS giving, etc… Those are just tools however – – it is the commitment to open, participatory processes and decentralized decision-making that encourages mass adoption and makes them effective steps towards a more philanthropic reality.

Arguably, it is in all our interest to engage in creatively building a market for local, truly community-led philanthropy. These processes widen the playing field, bringing additional and targeted resource to bear, as people begin solving their own problems. We as Foundations or CSR will never have enough money, or tools, to solve all the world’s problems. Even if we did perhaps we shouldn’t – it perpetuates dependencies that don’t generate more civil societies. And after all, isn’t it better to teach a man to fish?


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