A Creature of Its Environment: View from a Community Foundation

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The truth about community foundations is that if you know one, you know one. It’s no secret that all community foundations are quite distinct. But what we share is that we are all place-based funders. Our knowledge and expertise are built in a core geographic area. Certainly, we can and do give grants beyond our local communities. But the intensity of our focus is on our chosen geography. We give where we live.

Community foundations are similar in their building blocks: donors, nonprofits, and our positions in the community that enables us to convene individuals and institutions across all lines—cultural, geographical, ideological, issue, industry, etc. How community foundations assemble and arrange these blocks depends greatly on the ever-changing capacity and assets of their communities. And that is where you begin to see how diverse community foundations are in shape, size, and structure. Just look at The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. After 36 years here, I have seen it evolve.

Today, more than 75 percent of our assets are donor-advised funds and supporting organizations. Why? Much of the wealth in our Greater Atlanta region is first-generation, and these donors want to be actively involved in their philanthropy. At The Community Foundation, we welcome this. Along with these dollars comes the talent and energy of one or two generations of a family who want to be connected with, and woven into, the philanthropic fabric of our community. To create a strong community, we need a variety of leadership pipelines, and this one is critical. It is also why we offer an unusually robust program of services and support to engage and meet the needs of these unique donors.

Since 2008, The Community Foundation has focused our competitive grantmaking on general operating support, rather than program grants or issue areas. Why? We know our dollars are limited and we must be strategic about what will produce the greatest return. We also know the “food chain” of philanthropy in our region: adequate capital dollars with a large focus on program support. But, perhaps most importantly, we made our decision to switch to general operating support after listening to our stakeholders. For six months, we suspended grantmaking and set out to hear and learn from grantee and other nonprofits, donors and various community leaders. We asked them how we could make a greater impact in the region—and they told us.

In addition to general operating support, we developed a suite of resources to strengthen nonprofits “beyond the grant”: scholarships for nonprofit training and development, management consulting to solve key organizational challenges, a nonprofit loan fund, and dollars for strategic restructuring and nonprofit partnerships. For many years, The Community Foundation had been the funder of nonprofit start-ups, and we saw the successful development of some significant organizations. Today, in reassessing the landscape, we recognize there is great value and impact to be made in strengthening the management and operations of strong, established nonprofits as they work to operate more effectively.

Over the last 20 years, The Community Foundation has focused grantmaking and support efforts on various niche stakeholders: community organizations (non 501(c)(3)) serving low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, small and medium-sized arts organizations, and HIV/AIDS-serving organizations. Each of these areas represents a need for an organized, ongoing, and deliberative response that will change and evolve over time. Through our community initiatives, we have done just that, engaging a diverse cross section of volunteers to help guide us in these efforts.

Today we continue to look for and nurture ways to strengthen our community. We have brought together four leaders of diverse faiths through the Higher Ground Group as a way for the community to hear and respond to civil discourse that is faith-based but not faith-biased. In addition, we are currently developing a worker-owned business, Atlanta Lettuce Works, that represents a new way of thinking about wealth-building for the economically challenged while also bringing our anchor institutions into the solution.

So what are the national implications for community foundations? Because we are place-based, our attention and resources are devoted primarily to our local community. That is why donors choose us. Still, this makes a national movement for community foundations very difficult. Because we look and act so differently in response to our communities, finding the ties that bind us can be hard. We are not all focused on education or engaging donors or neighborhoods, nor should we be. However, we each possess “on the ground” knowledge of our communities like no other. It is this knowledge that can significantly inform the agendas and strategies of national funders that want to invest in a particular community.

I continue to be amazed by how poorly researched and planned the investments made by national funders in Atlanta often are. Perhaps that results from a lack of awareness and/or appreciation of the value of community foundations. Who else is more interested in seeing local communities improve than community foundations? Imagine the possibilities that could come from a day of reconnaissance between national organizations and community foundations where we discuss the key players and context of the work funders are looking to accomplish. After all, that is our very work – determining how to combine philanthropic dollars with local assets to solve community problems.

Community foundations are as different as the local communities we serve. What is important is that we honor the differences among community foundations who are truly integrated into their communities and that we recognize the incredible value they add to the philanthropic mix. I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say that we don’t have all the answers. In reality, it is our willingness to admit our limitations that allows us to bring together the right leaders and partners to discuss how we can address the pressing issues. We welcome national funders to this table. It will take a collaborative effort, at almost every level, to approach and respond to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.


 

Alicia Philipp is president of The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Named as one of the “100 Most Influential Atlantans” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle and one of 175 “Emory History Makers” by Emory University, Philipp has led the Foundation’s grantmaking, fundraising and collaboration with donors, nonprofits and community leaders for more than 30 years.