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Monday
Jul182016

Connecting community philanthropy and research - and why this matters 

One of the pleasures of a conference, I always think, is the element of surprise – the way the audience can take a session down paths quite different to its planned title. This year’s International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR) conference in Stockholm brought together several hundred participants from 61 countries, so opportunities naturally arose to turn down unexpected byways.  This certainly happened in our GFCF-sponsored roundtable discussion on the relationship between research and practice in community philanthropy. Our panellists had rich international experience of community philanthropy. We had all used research to analyze context or to inform and evaluate practice in North America, Russia, Turkey and Egypt. But our audience, it turned out – all researchers themselves – were less interested in our research than in community philanthropy itself: what defines it, how it works, what a community foundation actually is. For those of us working in and around the field it was a sobering reminder that the issues which preoccupy our lives have yet to reach the radar of most third sector researchers.

Hilary Gilbert (L) discusses community philanthropy at ISTR, June 2016

Why does that matter? Because we need research! In a world with ever-more donors demanding evidence of effectiveness, we need to demonstrate the power of community philanthropy organizations as agents of real change in multiple different contexts. Just as governments have tended to ignore the role of philanthropy in development aid, so Big Philanthropy barely condescends to acknowledge its small scale grassroots cousins. Yet evidence suggests that the local embeddedness, appropriate interventions and relationship focus of grassroots philanthropy provide the best prospects of achieving real change.  One of the most fruitful sessions I attended in Stockholm explored what practitioners need from researchers: clearer language we can relate to, came the answer. Research questions focussed on practical matters, such as how organizations can improve their performance and resilience. More clarity about relationships between governments and funding bodies – cited by a human rights NGO whose controversial report was suppressed by its funder. A request for scholarship to engage better with grassroots initiatives. And above all a plea from a researcher for better communication from the field.  

Most practitioners don’t have the luxury of doing research. Most researchers don’t have the luxury of long-term community engagement. Just as the GFCF has partnered with the Johnson Center on Philanthropy Grand Valley State University, so perhaps we should all think of fostering academic collaborations to bring the two together.  Could community philanthropy disprove James Ferguson’s dictum that development is “anthropology’s evil twin?”  

Hilary Gilbert, South Sinai Community Foundation

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