December 20, 2016, Alliance Magazine

You may have missed the hashtag #ShiftThePower, the title given to the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this month. Jenny Hodgson and Barry Knight at the Global Fund for Community Foundations wrote thoughtful assessments of the summit in two parts, here and here, for Alliance Magazine. The summit brought together more than 300 people from 50 countries, including private and public funders. The gathering had to do with a global movement among NGOs and community foundations in particular to move philanthropy and international aid toward a more equitable and collective framework. This “people-led” initiative is informed by “8 Pillars of Good Development.”

When NPQ wrote about community philanthropy in 2012, we referenced a report by consultant Barry Knight. Writing of a Nepali community foundation called Tewa, Knight said:

Giving is ultimately connected with identity, and a powerful means of bridging different interests and communities, while offering more or less the only hope of sustainable interventions that would transform communities away from aid dependency.


[A] weakness of many NGOs is that their donors own them. In contrast, what distinguishes Tewa from traditional NGOs is that local people using their own money confers legitimacy in a way that no amount of external funding could ever do.

No matter how marvelous our technology, how productive our methodologies, how exquisitely presumptuous the latest pronouncement from today’s billionaire philanthropist, the whole process can be brought to a standstill by its failure to recognize the priceless value of the people who make up our communities. Too often, philanthropic expediency pushes aside moral restraints, but in the end, supporting every societal success are the people who underwrite these advancements with their lives and without any fanfare.

We have the Giving Pledge. We regularly see lists of eight- and nine-figure gifts being made to universities and other large institutions. We have many studies on philanthropy’s rising tide made ever greater by rising levels of economic inequality. What does all that have to do with the impoverished Roma community in Varna, Bulgaria? For them, the relatively small Varna Community Foundation is their philanthropic source of hope and help. The Summit showcased many more expressions of exemplary community philanthropy.

Hodgson and Knight are committed to the idea that community philanthropy is the best model for meeting real need at the local level.

It is now clear that the idea of project-based sustainability is an illusion, merely fostering an elite of skilled proposal-writers and supporting an NGO sector that has been hard-wired to exist on a hand-to-mouth basis, with organizations crossing their fingers that the next grant will come in and always at the ready to adapt their work towards the latest donor interest. This has produced an NGO sector whose orientation is upwards and outwards towards their external donors, leaving them with weak local constituencies. In the meantime, local people who are marginalized stay marginalized. The result is 50 years of failed development projects.

A break exists between the order of big philanthropy, in which its leaders earnestly strive to achieve elusive “success,” and the civic order, which has its own laws—the first of which is based on the value of the individual, no matter how obscure or poor. This break was revealed when indigenous nations, not big philanthropy, gathered at Standing Rock to stop (at least temporarily) a seemingly unstoppable force. Their courage gave witness to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s only hope for the world:

The experience of recent generations convinces me that only the unbending human spirit taking its stand on the front line against the violence that threatens it, ready to sacrifice itself and to die proclaiming: not one step further—only this inflexibility of the spirit can be the real defender of personal peace, universal peace, and all humanity.

Hodgson and Knight conclude their assessment of the Summit and the aspiration of the attendees this way:

Our starting point for the summit is that six years ago, community philanthropy was the proverbial tree that fell in the forest: invisible, unheard because big development was not there to hear it. Now, community philanthropy is turning into an oak with ambitions, to borrow a phrase from the civil rights movement, to “stand tall.”

—James Schaffer