Hans Zeiger

100 years of community foundations

For the 100th anniversary of America’s community foundations, David C. Perry of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust have edited a volume of essays by community foundation leaders entitled Here for Good: Community Foundations and the Challenges of the 21st Century. It covers topics like the role of community foundations in facilitating collaboration among local stakeholders, rural philanthropy, and whether, as Douglas Kridler of the Columbus Foundation writes, “we go the way of newspapers, symphony orchestras, and other signs of community vitality that were under so much financial strain at the time of the writing of this book.”

The Cleveland Foundation was the first community foundation, founded in 1914 by lawyer and banker Frederick Harris Goff. Ronald Richard, present-day president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, writes in Here for Good that Goff’s model was “a permanently enduring organization flexible enough to address the needs and seize the opportunities of any era.” Today there are 700 such foundations in America with almost $50 billion in assets. In 2011, community foundations made grants of around $4.2 billion, more than 10 percent of the country’s total foundation grant making.

Emmett D. Carson of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation argues that the success of twenty-first-century community foundations “will not be determined by how much they resemble private foundations by building endowment assets but how they engage people and institutions within their communities to take leadership positions.” This is a very different role from simple grant making. “We are no longer just a charitable check writer,” write Kelly Ryan and Judith Millesen of the Incourage Community Foundation.

Most of the writers in Here for Good seem to agree with Carson’s idea of a community foundation. In addition to grant maker, community foundations assume several other roles, including convening of community stakeholders, advocacy in the public policy arena, and promotion of collaboration among organizations, leaders, and funders. “We can help individuals multiply their effectiveness by providing incentives to more people to work together on the same problems,” writes Carleen Rhodes of the Saint Paul Foundation and Minnesota Community Foundation.

As professionals in the work of “community development,” community foundation executives must reach out beyond traditional bases of civic leadership, according to Alicia Philipp and Tene Traylor of The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta. “[C]ommunity foundation staff need to be in living rooms as much as board rooms.” Here, they say, foundation staff can learn the real needs of communities, not just what is represented in grant applications. Phillip and Traylor argue that community development is about getting local organizations and grassroots individuals to take the lead in addressing a problem.

Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation suggests why the search for local leaders is more important than it was in the past, when corporate executives were more likely to fill critical civic roles. He posits that the Great Recession followed other financial events that resulted in decreased investment of company time and resources in civic leadership. Other philanthropic and nonprofit stakeholders cannot fill this void of civic leadership. While the United Way plays a valuable role in the network of civic influence, it is “not nearly as well positioned to connect the dots across all sectors and with the broad range of community stakeholders as are community foundations.” As for the leadership role of nonprofits themselves, the sector “is mostly focused on individual programmatic areas and does not have the mission, the relationships, nor the resources to look outside its own field of interest and connect the dots across sectors in new and innovative ways.”

The decline of corporate leadership in civic affairs is not the only void facing community foundations. There is also a changing role for the public sector—government can no longer afford to do all of the things it once did. Some writers point to the growing demand for foundation resources resulting from cutbacks in the public sector. “Lacking sufficient resources . . . local governments are ever more likely to appeal to foundations to bridge the gap,” writes Ronald Richard.

Perry and Mazany add that “the community foundation is increasingly asked to provide leadership to address matters of civic importance that have simply disappeared because government no longer has the resources to tend to them.” Furthermore, “place matters, and when the community needs service and either the state or the privatized market fails to deliver, the role of place-based entities such as community foundations becomes all the more necessary.”

While foundation leaders see an opportunity to fill roles once occupied by government, some are emphatic about the need for advocacy in the public policy arena. Richard references “current theories that foundations can achieve greater impact by focusing limited resources on influencing public policy.” Even if advocacy is an appropriate role for community foundations, one might ask whether this role conflicts with that of the trusted, neutral convener.

Here for Good offers useful insights into the minds of today’s community foundation leaders. Community foundations are finding new ways to do their work. Yet read one way, the title Here for Good may seem a bit presumptuous. Time will tell. The next generation of philanthropists will determine whether community foundations are still worthy of their dollars, or whether to find other means of giving.

© Capital Research Center 2014

One Response to “100 years of community foundations”

  1. […] State Representative (and Discovery’s director for the Chapman Fellows in Civic Leadership) writes in Philanthropy Daily about the 100th Anniversary of community […]

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