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How Community Driven Philanthropy Can Enhance Democracy and Increase Philanthropic Impact

Community driven philanthropy can have a much greater impact than just merely distributing funds. Credit: Joel Muniz

As society continues to grapple with how best to apply philanthropy toward solving the many pressing issues of our times, it is important to consider how philanthropy is implemented. The mere act of distributing funds is only one dimension in this equation.  What about populations that are the intended beneficiaries of private giving?  Many are beginning to pose this question, and numerous manifestations of how to include various constituencies in shaping the direction of philanthropy have been surfacing over recent years.  There is a need for greater understanding of this range of approaches and strategies to leverage philanthropy for greater community impact.

The Idea of Community Driven Philanthropy

The framework we call community driven philanthropy aims to appreciate and advance the ways in which philanthropy moves in the direction of sharing decision making with constituents.  This idea is a logical extension of recent developments, such as a growing appreciation for the representation of more diverse communities as well as the particular intended beneficiary populations of philanthropic programs.  We have seen community leaders recruited to foundation Boards, intentional diversity and inclusion staff recruitment efforts, the expansion of trust-based philanthropy, and new models of participatory grantmaking – probably the most well-known practice within this portfolio of ways in which decision-making is more widely disseminated.  Increased attention to racial equity in philanthropy, especially in the last couple of years, has again raised questions about the responsibility of philanthropy to the most underserved communities.

This broad concept is driven by an overarching commitment to equity and democratic engagement.  The issues that philanthropy seeks to address are manifested most starkly at the community level. Therefore, community driven philanthropy includes a place-based dimension.  This form of philanthropy also includes connecting to community residents beyond incorporated nonprofit organizations along with engaging representative community-based organizations.  In under-served communities, there are far too many of the most distressed populations that do not regularly work with the nonprofit organizations that are working on their behalf.

Foundations are increasingly critical to local initiatives of all kinds. While steps have been taken to increase participation of those communities in need and those active in ameliorating social and economic conditions, Foundations have largely chosen representatives from community leadership and Not-for-Profit Organizations to speak on behalf of those in need and to address the problems of those most in the line of fire in the face of a range of social, economic, and environmental injustices. As a result, there is quite a distance between these organizations, their funders, and communities.

The reality is that Foundations are foundations. They embody legal structures and have clear financial responsibilities and legal obligations – all of which make top-down management and decision making the rule of thumb and make democratic participation a steep but necessary hill to climb. We recognize that there is great social good from various and devolved sources of accumulated financial resources which can operate both in local communities and at the national level. However, as Foundations support the push toward equity, inclusion, and the more just distribution of well-being, it is important also to address what is needed to sustain and advance democracy. Not only is it often the case that those directly facing problems have a latent or fully-formed understanding of what might most be needed to solve those problems, but it is also the case that undemocratic solutions would undermine the fabric of our society. Thus, local leadership ideally would be democratic and favor participation of the widest local publics, and Foundations must undertake the imperative to resist and recover ground lost to democratic progress through the narrow control of philanthropic resources by endowed and professionally managed foundations.

Some Foundations have taken exemplary steps to give valued and robust attention to social ills while taking further steps to advance a democratic agenda. Some examples follow:

Manifestations of Community Driven Philanthropy

Lankelly Chase

Lankelly Chase is an independent foundation that builds partnerships across the UK to change the systems that perpetuate severe and multiple disadvantages. The foundation’s work focuses on creating an environment where people have the skills, motivation, and freedom to help create a system that effectively responds to the interconnections between severe disadvantages, such as homelessness, drug misuse, violence and abuse, extreme poverty, and mental illness. At its core, Lankelly Chase is driven by the belief that people are resourceful and have strengths, and that collectively we can find solutions and create a fairer society where we are all able to thrive.

Lankelly Chase has focused much of its efforts on institutional restructuring and a commitment to inclusion. Through its strategic process, the foundation changes the balance of decision-making regarding grantmaking by focusing on learning from communities and considering grantees as partners instead of beneficiaries. Lankelly Chase aims to create networks of organizations and people by emphasizing communities and providing specific assistance to communities to initiate programs. By emphasizing community capacity and solution building, the foundation enables dialogue and cooperation that can display local challenges. Lankelly Chase then works to identify what actions are required to aid the communities.

In this example, a foundation is not only distributing grant making decisions about a program to some local organizations.  This foundation is situating itself within local networks that identify their priorities to inform how the foundation can add value to the circumstances.  Therefore, the strategic priorities before the establishment of a grant program are established via the engagement within local networks.

Nebraska Community Foundation

The Nebraska Community Foundation leverages the donor advised-fund model common to community foundations in order to forge a range of local partnerships.

The Nebraska Community Foundation believes that it’s up to local leaders and residents to take charge, inspire change, and stimulate the economy in their own communities. The center of the foundation’s work involves affiliated funds which form a network represented in over 250 communities across the state. The affiliated fund network teaches members how to help their communities grow using grassroots philanthropy that builds leadership, engages young people, and supports people attraction. These funds are led by community members; they help communities attract and retain talent, build new business opportunities, further existing successes, foster collaboration, and empower fellow Nebraskans. This inclusive system embraces and celebrates both financial and human capital.

Through a growing network, Nebraska Community Foundation uses shared ideas, resources, and experiences to empower local leaders to leverage their own assets and talents, invest in their own resources, and bring about their own positive change. Through philanthropy, the foundation helps communities develop strong local economics, high quality of life, and abundant leadership and volunteer opportunities. The foundation draws on volunteer community leadership, place-based philanthropy, peer-to-peer learning, experienced mentors, and professionals to create greater opportunity for all.


The idea of an entire foundation that is by and for the intended beneficiary populations is demonstrated in the case of TrustAfrica.

TrustAfrica looks to strengthen African initiatives that address the most difficult challenges facing the African continent. The organization’s focus areas include: securing the conditions for democracy; fostering African enterprise and achieving broadly shared prosperity; and cultivating African resources for democracy and development. TrustAfrica, led by Africans and focused on place-based strategies, works mainly through collaboration and partnership with like-minded grassroots leaders, scholars, policy makers, and activists to set priorities and craft strategies. The organization believes in facilitating collaboration among African institutions and building long-term relationships with grantees, as well as maintaining the highest standards of institutional performance, including sound management, accountable and transparent governance, effective communication, and sustainable results.

TrustAfrica promotes discourse about African philanthropy through programmatic support and strategies for building up a constituency of African donors. The organization is an example of new thought leadership, and is shaped by its local context. It operates from a belief that Africans must set the agenda for development and take the lead in implementing it. Programming strategies are built from concrete conditions and realities that communities face. TrustAfrica creates dialogues, awards grants, provides technical assistance, and conducts public advocacy to advance its goals. For example, the organization’s democratic governance program works to secure the conditions for democracy by strengthening the capacity of civil society organizations and by ensuring that citizens are fully engaged in governance processes, both in their respective countries and also at the regional level.

An Evolving Idea

The idea of community driven philanthropy requires further thought and refinement.  If philanthropy is going to be an asset in solving the most pressing matters of our times, it must be more willing to open up and share power with the populations that are most adversely impacted.  The challenging realities of the most distressed communities have been so palpable given the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, a sorely needed racial reckoning, a climate crisis, and others.

Since community-driven philanthropy is not the rule, we should endeavor to expand the number and range of philanthropic efforts that employ democratic principles and tactics.  In order to begin establishing this pathway, it would be useful to draw lessons from examples like Lankelly Chase, the Nebraska Community Foundation, and TrustAfrica to clarify the possibilities.  Many more foundations and donors should be willing to pursue unprecedented community engagement.  Ultimately, this will enhance philanthropy’s impact and relevance.

In order for community-driven philanthropy to grow, foundations must confront a real and significant dilemma. The contradictions inherent in the application of wealth to the solution of social problems are great and call on us to experiment, to risk, and to find new pathways. We offer Community Driven Philanthropy as a perspective to guide us; we propose no model for change, but offer great encouragement to see change pursued in the interest of democratic, equitable communities.


In addition to being a research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, David J. Maurrasse, Ph.D., is the president and founder of Marga Inc., a consulting firm providing advice and research to strengthen philanthropy and innovative cross-sector partnerships to address some of today’s most pressing social concerns. He is the author of Philanthropy and Society and the soon to be published Strategic Community Partnerships, Philanthropy and Nongovernmental Organizations. He is also beginning research toward the production of another book, Community Partnerships Toward Sustainable and Equitable Communities.

Colin Greer, Ph.D. is the President of the New World Foundation.

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