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Community Foundations – Building Civil Society and Democratic Practice from the Ground Up

Earlier this year, I spent three inspiring weeks visiting community foundations and community development organizations in Kenya and South Africa.  For several years I’ve been learning about the work of many of these organizations, most of whom receive financial and training support from the Global Fund for Community Foundations. 

Jeff Yosts visits KCDF partners in Kenya

As a community developer, I believe deeply in the power of community-led, asset-based development.  I’m privileged to work with the Nebraska Community Foundation, a statewide community development organization using philanthropy as a tool to build our hometowns from the bottom-up, focusing on mobilizing local assets to shape a more prosperous future.  During the past fifteen years I’ve had the opportunity to visit and work with many community foundations throughout the United States and internationally.  It’s not unusual to discover that community foundations, especially U.S.-based community foundations, are focused on donor development and assets under management to the detriment of community building and sustainability, and therefore aren’t achieving the community change they espouse. 

I witnessed something quite different during my time in Africa. 

Following are two stories of the extraordinary work I had the opportunity to experience:

South Africa is a fascinating experiment in building a representative and constitutional democracy.  Apartheid was officially abolished in the 1990s and with this change came a new government, constitution and bill of rights pledging equal rights for every South African citizen.  Of course, a constitutional guarantee does not assure that rights will be protected immediately, if ever.  Therefore, building democratic practice among citizens, with an emphasis on youth and young adults, is a focus area of the Community Development Foundation–Western Cape (CDFWC) based in Cape Town. The leaders of CDFWC have used a program called PhotoSpeak, whereby they provide digital cameras to young people and ask them to document what they see and experience – the good, the bad, the opportunities, the heartbreaks.  Next, they are helping these young people to craft stories, building their confidence and advocacy skills to communicate issues to peers, parents, local leaders and government officials.  CDFWC also provides the young people with financial resources to make grants, through a program called Youth Banks, and create leverage to fix problems and pursue opportunities. 

 One of the images from CDF WC's PhotoSpeak project

In the past two years the PhotoSpeak project has taken an interesting turn.  CDFWC leadership discovered that disenfranchised young people were having trouble relating to four specific provisions in the Bill of Rights: (1) Everyone has the right to life; (2) Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion; (3) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and association; and (4) No citizen may be deprived of citizenship.  They have evolved their PhotoSpeak project to encourage young people to focus on documenting how citizens exercise these rights on daily basis.  They’re building democratic practice and accountability one citizen at a time.

In Kenya, I spent time with the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF).  KCDF works nationwide and is involved in nearly every type of community development activity you can imagine, ranging from clean water to small business and cooperative enterprise development and from agricultural productivity to interracial and intertribal relations.  Most importantly, KCDF leadership uses their trusting relationships and their political and financial capital to build community capacity at the local level – they’re helping local leaders who are focused on doing the right things to do the right things. 

This guest blog is by Jeff Yost, President and CEO, Nebraska Community Foundation, United States



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Reader Comments (1)

This Nebraska-farm-girl-turned-aid-worker was so glad to read this article - thanks for sharing your experience Jeff. Here's a recent one I wrote that also helps explain the power of community:

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Lentfer

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