Is This Community Philanthropy’s Moment?

The second Shift The Power Summit once again gave voice to the community philanthropy movement. Will donors listen?

June 2024
March 2024
June 17, 2024
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Magic Cabinet

Last December, as political leaders, billionaires and development professionals attended the COP 28 conference in Dubai, a very different kind of convening was drawing a crowd in Bogotá.

The Shift The Power Summit, like COP 28, was focused on convening and mobilizing problem-solvers in government and civil society, to figure out how to address some of the biggest challenges of our time. But the audience and tone were very different.

The summit, organized by the Global Fund for Community Foundations, was a meeting of the minds for nearly 700 leaders in the global “community philanthropy” movement. Many of the attendees, like the advisory committee that wrote the agenda, represented small, hyperlocal community foundations, based in the Global South, that practice radical democracy and participatory funding, like Comuá Network from Brazil, Fondo Emerger from Colombia or Rawa Fund from Palestine. 

The summit in December marked the second global convening since the #ShiftThePower hashtag first generated tens of millions of views during the upheavals of 2016, with a call for more local agency and community control over philanthropy and development dollars.

Over the next several years, the community philanthropy movement gained some momentum – from USAID’s localization commitments to increasing dollars flowing to Global South foundations. But for many in Bogotá, it was clear there was no more time to wait.

Throughout the conference center, there was a palpable awareness of the context in which the summit was happening. Local philanthropy leaders flew in from Palestine amid the ongoing Israeli assault; from Ukraine amid an ongoing war; from Latin America amid droughts and floods.

As Nana Afadzinu, Executive Director at West Africa Civil Society, put it in remarks on the conference stage: “This is not just for the Global South, but for our global survival.”

Community Philanthropy: History of a Movement

In a powerful speech to kick off the conference, Jenny Hodgson, Executive Director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations, took us down the history of the #ShiftThePower movement, and community philanthropy more broadly.

Community philanthropy is a name for a type of locally-driven global development that strengthens community capacity and voice, and, most importantly, builds on local resources. The term was popularized around the turn of the 21st century, as new locally-led community foundations like the Kenya Community Development Foundation were built up, often from existing grassroots infrastructure, to serve as local partners for development agencies, and grantmakers in their own right.

“Community philanthropy is an essential part of the architecture for locally-owned development,” reads the GFCF website, “Because it builds on assets that already exist within communities rather than depending only on what comes from outside.”

For years, these locally-led community foundations languished in the margins of global development. The main reason: they represented (and still represent) a tiny percentage of the money and power out there.

A key moment came in 2016, when the Global Fund for Community Foundations generated a hashtag that summed up the thinking of many people: #ShiftThePower. The hashtag came amid what is now largely considered a “moment of reckoning” for philanthropy and development, and was used more than 37 million times, driving conversations about philanthropy and development to the front page.

For GFCF, it was a turning point. In late 2016, they held their first major conference, the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg. “It became clear that movements making the most impact fighting the world's crises were not receiving the resources supposedly available,” Hodgson remembered.

That 2016 summit drew more than 400 participants from 60 countries, and featured speakers reflecting on the value of community philanthropy and “durable development”. In 2019, GFCF helped organize a second event, the Pathways to Power Symposium in London, which advertised itself as “A Symposium for People-Led Development”.

In 2023, GFCF decided it was time to do it again.

Magda Pocheć of FemFund spoke on stage in Bogotá

Bogotá 2023: A Long Way from Dubai

The 2023 Shift the Power Summit represented a grassroots alternative to COP 28, happening around the same time 8,000 miles away. Indeed, the content of the “unconference” could not have looked more different – with an agenda created largely by Global South leaders, the spotlight was directed not toward financial commitments from large donors, but instead at the work being done on the ground by community foundations.

Each morning, the conference kicked off with plenary speakers, with remarks translated from English into Spanish, Portuguese and French. In one plenary conversation, Soheir Assad from Rawa Fund shared a stage with opening keynote speaker Marta Ruiz for a talk on Decolonization, Demilitarization and Philanthropy. Assad spoke about how Western aid to Palestine has undermined the self determination of Palestianians, and lifted up community-led models as an alternative.

Another plenary speaker was Magda Pocheć of FemFund, a feminist fund and community foundation based in Poland. Referencing Audre Lord, she shared five rules for philanthropy, including the idea that local communities are the experts of their own realities, and should be the decision makers of how resources are allocated.

Beyond the plenary, the days were full of open, self-organized conversations. I spent much of my time sitting and talking in “clusters” of people, discussing topics that ranged from concrete ways to reform development – donor collaboratives and participatory grantmaking were brought up – to learnings and reflections from locally-led work.

“We want you to find your people,” said Eshban Kwesiga, who works for GFCF and served as a Community Weaver for the summit, “and begin conversations around the issues you care about.”

For Yakeline Pantoja, from local community foundation Putumayo Florece, this structure was preferable to a traditional conference. Pantoja shared with me the importance of having these spaces for their small foundation. Located in a remote rural community that borders Brazil and Peru from Colombia, they are located in a war-ridden land scarred from the US war on drugs. The foundation focuses on local peacebuilding, land conservation, and providing services and programs for their small population. 

Pantoja told me that the summit provided them an opportunity to meet other community philanthropy leaders from around the world, and learn from their frameworks. It also provided a space to showcase their work, like during a poster session where for two hours we went through posters designed by some of the attendees. 

A Space for Funders

That said, the summit was also designed for donors from Global North institutions. Kwesiga shared that twelve percent of attendees at the 2023 summit worked at international NGOs, a significant increase from 2016, when that number hovered around one percent. Big development organizations like USAID and Comic Relief sat on the advisory committee, and many of the speakers directed comments specifically at donors.

Patrick Steiner-Hirth is a Senior Project Manager at Bosch Foundation, which gave a sizable core donation to make the event a reality. He told me that the intention behind creating this space was for funders to participate on equal footing to activists, organizations and collectives present in the space. 

Patrick told us that he felt Shift the Power was a “safe space” for funders to participate, bring questions and engage in shifting their own agendas. “Although funders didn’t drive the agenda, my general experience was that they were there to learn from the movements they support. In other words, to deeply listen.”

For Barbara Nöst, CEO of the Zambian Governance Foundation, the summit was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with the Shift the Power community. She attended the first gathering in 2016, and she said that space opened her eyes up to new ways of working.

"The 2016 [summit] was my entry into this new world of organisations that I have not come across working in the traditional aid sector," she said. "For the past seven years, I utilised the connections I made during and after the 2016 conference to delve into this new world."

This year, she played a role in the leadup to the conference, co-creating a session on climate change with partners in Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Kenya, and Uganda. Coming out of Bogotá, that group organized a joint statement, A Call to COP28, signed by dozens of conference participants. She said she continued to learn this year.

"I found the session by Magda Pocheć [of FemFund] very inspiring," she said. "I have been asking myself if the movement approach could eventually be applied to the work we do at the Zambian Governance Foundation and what it would take to go that route. Her intervention made me reflect on the depth of understanding activists have of the people and the dynamics of their movement. It also confirmed that passion and empathy can effectively change how resources are distributed."

Weaving the Future

Coming out of the conference, I asked Jenny Hodgson what was next for the Shift the Power movement. She took a deep pause and said “We are still digesting and taking our time to see what emerges.” She made it clear that “we are not in the business of organizing events or big fancy conferences.”

Certainly, the intention remains to ignite conversations across the sector in a way which empowers each member of the community to take the lead and eventually “pass the baton to another organization who wants to take on this leadership.”

Shift the Power at times felt more like a movement gathering than a traditional conference. It is a shapeless and non hierarchical community where the pulls come from those who are part of the movement.

Kwesiga told me that the organizing team put value on healing justice and regenerative practices. Throughout the conference center there were “rest rooms” with sleep pods available, acknowledging the many attendees traveling from a long distance. There were also sessions focused on well-being, where people could let go and just be present, as a recognition of the difficult and, at times, traumatic effects working in development can have, especially right now.

For some, the summit was a way of modeling what a new kind of development could look like. As one attendee reflected: “[Our normal] obsession for moving quickly gave way to another priority: taking care of ourselves and other people in order to witness the changes we’ve worked so hard for.”

As a community of progressives within philanthropy and international aid, it can often feel daunting to look at the polycrises. But when conferences like Shift the Power take place, there’s a unique opportunity to move forward with like-minded people from all over the world.  What matters at events like these is that we take the time to meet each other, strip ourselves of the agendas we represent and come together to reimagine aid and philanthropy. 

On stage, Pochec powerfully reminded us that we need to come together not only to think and work, but also to care for one another. To grieve. To heal. To rest. So that we can remind ourselves we need to dance, we need to laugh, we need to feel joy in this work. 

As Kwesiga told me: “It’s like what Arundhati Roy says – another world is possible, you just have to hear her. This is the place where we can hear her.”

Images for this article are provided courtesy of the Global Fund for Community Foundations

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