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Who is our community? European community foundations discuss migration and inclusion in Messina

Discussions in Messina, an arrival point for many migrants to Europe


“European community foundations can no longer work in happy isolation around global issues such as migration, refugees and asylum seekers” noted Carola Carazzone, Secretary General of Assifero, in the opening session of a recent meeting held in Messina, Italy on the topic. Co-hosted with the GFCF, European Community Foundation Initiative and Fondazione di Comunità di Messina, the convening set out to bring together actors from across Europe (and beyond) to delve into the question: what is the contribution that community philanthropy can play to address the challenges posed by migration where we live, and build the kind of inclusive communities we want? This is a subject which the GFCF, with support from the Open Society Initiative for Europe, has been exploring through a small grants and learning programme.

The GFCF spoke to some of its partners who attended the convening – from Germany, Hungary, Italy and the UK – to hear about the highlights from their time in Messina, and to understand what they will be taking back to their own work and communities across Europe.


GFCF: Do you think that there is a distinct / specific contribution (or role) that European community philanthropy can play to address the challenges posed by migration in our communities?

Vittoria Burton, Fondazione di Comunità del Canavese: Community foundations can rise above the public and private economic interests of the “immigration business” and concentrate on what comes after the more basic, immediate reception needs. We have the freedom to look futher ahead into the future, in order to start building a more cohesive, inclusive and open society. The work we do towards that objective will benefit not only immigrants but all of the more vulnerable citizens in our communities. I believe we also have a role to play in initiating a credible, reliable, authoritative conversation about immigration with the public sector (local councils, social services, schools), other non-profit organizations, businesses and individual citizens. And we are the only ones in that position, as far as I can see.

Helen Wray, Foundation Scotland: Community philanthropy does have a distinct role in helping address the challenges posed by migration in our communities. Those supporting community philanthropy are in a relatively unique position to have the ability to shape responses and apply their resources in ways to test and challenge the issues of integration without the bureaucracy and politics that restrict local and national government responses. Community philanthropy is about more than money and brings local knowledge, people and expertise to the table. It should be courageous in its responses as it is at the frontline of building communities.

Orsolya Polyacsko & Erika Barna, Ferencváros Community Foundation: Community foundations are deeply embedded in their communities and have direct contact with their constituencies, therefore they are in a unique position to: flexibly respond to what is happening in their immediate environment by reading the social climate; thoroughly understand the lived realities of citizens; and, help locally emerging ideas take shape. From this vantage point, community foundations can then create opportunities for people of different backgrounds to meet, and work together around points of common interest. This is the role that the Ferencváros Community Foundation plays in the ninth district of Budapest. We are currently exploring the district’s migration landscape, hoping to make friends with “our new neighbours” in order to help implement the ideas and projects that they value. Ultimately, we’d also like to see these newcomers as our board members, volunteers, and funders.


Varna Community Foundation organizes culinary workshops with newcomers 

GFCF: From discussions with other participants in Messina, did you learn any new or interesting approaches around building inclusive communities?

Tobias Stein, Bürgerstiftung DuisburgWhat struck me was that those organizations that had built the best collaborative networks were those who seemed to be the most successful in realizing their goals. It takes completely new approaches to make change in our societies – and a change is needed if we want to build more inclusive communities. Shifting mind-sets, especially, requires a combination of different organizations working together on, and believing in, the same idea.

Thomas Flynn, London Community Foundation: For me, I’m coming away with a new appreciation for transparency and communication – both of which are absolutely vital when trying to build inclusivity and trust.

Orsolya & Erika: We were very impressed by how the Fondazione di Comunità di Messina has managed to re-invent public spaces throughout the city, transforming them into true community spaces after the region’s complicated history related to the mafia. For us, it is, a symbol of the creative capacity of community foundations, as well as their ability to respond to the most critical social problems.

Helen: What struck me was that there were common approaches across all of the countries present, around the use of music, the arts and food to bring communities together and bring down barriers. I was particularly inspired by the Fondazione di Comunità di Messina, in the way that they make connections between local challenges to identify new solutions (for example, the exodus of local rural populations has resulted in empty housing, which the foundation is now using to integrate refugees into rural communities, helping to make them vibrant and self-sustaining again).


Visit to local municipality, partner of the Fondazione di Comunità di Messina 

GFCF: What differences has the Messina convening made to the way you think about your organization’s work around refugees and migrants? Will you change anything as a result of your participation?  

Tobias: Our team used to consist only of people exclusively from our own region. Now we have agreed to widen this, and to begin working with refugees who have already been living here for a few years. It’s vital to work with people who already have experienced specific situations, and who can better understand the actual circumstances in which people live.

Thomas: More can be done. It has given me more confidence to be able to talk about the challenges faced in London, and in turn to influence others about the need to support such a cause.

Orsolya & Erika: An important point that was discussed in Messina was around collaboration with different stakeholders, specifically local government. Independence is a key policy of our foundation, which is manifested through our fundraising practices: we raise funds from the community and do not accept funding from government or municipal sources. This is an approach we will stick with, but Messina discussions underlined how vital it can be to collaborate with local government. So we are exploring how we can harmonize our policy of independence, with the recognition that collaboration between stakeholders is very important.

Helen: I realized that overall we are reactive in our response and need to be bolder and more informed to allow us to be more proactive. We need to play more of a role in telling the history and the story of refugees and asylum seekers and – more importantly – allowing them the space to do this themselves.

Vittoria: It was encouraging to hear that we are all working on more or less the same issues and in more or less the same way: we can't all be wrong! We will certainly be more outspoken and less apologetic about our work moving forward, and will also increase the efforts we are putting into creating a network of grassroots organizations that take creative action on the topic. I also think it's important to focus on the small numbers and consider them a victory too: if we are able to turn five, ten people who were previously hostile or unconcerned, we should consider that a positive change and take into account the domino effect!


Exploring commonalities and differences (through post-it notes)


GFCF: Are convenings such as this useful / relevant, given the contextual differences that exist between different regions and countries?

Thomas: Convenings like this are hugely important, as a joined up approach is key. Unified organizations supporting each other can enable innovation, empowerment and learning to take place; all of which can strengthen individual approaches to dealing with migration. And understanding differences between our operating contexts allows for new avenues of thought, perhaps overlooked previously.

Vittoria: Very useful. Sometimes you feel inadequate in your own response to the situation, compared to other organizations, sometimes you feel guilty for having it so easy compared to other countries. In the end, though, it's reassuring to have the common ground of working with a community philanthropy model: to #ShiftThePower.

Orsolya & Erika: The sense of being part of a wider network and an international community, as well as the solidarity expressed at the meeting, provides us with great reassurance and “emotional ammunition” as we continue this work in Hungary, where the issue of migration is particularly controversial and critical.

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