The following article will appear in a special issue of the National Civic Review titled Philanthropy & Resident Engagement: The Promise for Democracy, available October 2013. It will feature case studies, reports, and essays on the resident engagement experiences of public and private foundations. This article was co-authored by Barry Knight, Director of CENTRIS-UK, and Albert Ruesga, President & CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
It goes by many names: citizen participation; community or resident engagement; “bottom-up” grantmaking; grassroots philanthropy. For some community foundations in the US, it’s a pro-forma exercise; for others, a source of power and pride. For a significant number it’s still little more than a fond dream, something wished for but somehow never attained.
When program officers and other community foundation leaders speak of stakeholder engagement, they often point to the desire to have their grantmaking interventions “informed” or “shaped” by the communities they serve. These philanthropic professionals might go a step further—at least rhetorically—and seek the “meaningful participation” of underserved communities in the design and leadership of grantmaking programs. The expression of these desires is sometimes motivated by a regard for democratic ideals or by a sincere respect for self-determination. It might spring from a deep respect for fairness or an adherence to some form of the Golden Rule. Stakeholder engagement might at times be sought to put a democratic patina on what are essentially elite decisions.
Whatever their source, calls for resident engagement have become normative in the field, as reflected, for example, in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations publication titled Do Nothing About Me Without Me: An Action Guide for Engaging Stakeholders (Bourns, 2010). The primary argument here is one about efficacy: Foundations that engage stakeholders are “part of a growing movement in philanthropy—a movement founded on the belief that grantmakers are more effective to the extent that they meaningfully engage their grantees and other key stakeholders” (Bourns, 2010; 1, emphasis mine).
And yet, when do our efforts to make our grantmaking less “top-down” move from the token to the meaningful? Beyond the norms of professionalism, beyond the demands of our philanthropic technocracy, is there a moral dimension to the requirement that our grantmaking efforts be more citizen-informed and directed?
Fortunately for organized philanthropy, the issue of how to understand and assess resident engagement efforts is not new. In 1969, for example, Sherry Arnstein published a powerful article addressing these key issues (Arnstein, 1969). She proposed a typology, called the “ladder of citizen participation,” that has been widely used. Her typology looked like this:
Ultimately for Arnstein, citizen participation is about citizen power. The ladder reproduced in Figure 1 is designed to highlight the “critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power to affect the outcome of the process.” The higher up the ladder you go, the greater the degree of citizen empowerment. At rung four, for example, we invite citizen opinions but offer no assurance that these views will be heeded. At rung five, we place a token number of the “worthy” poor on advisory committees and the like, but “[i]f they are not accountable to a constituency in the community and if the traditional power elite hold the majority of seats, the have-nots can be easily outvoted and outfoxed” (Arnstein, 1969; 9). And so it goes as we climb or, in many cases, descend the ladder of engagement. For in the world of community foundations, the kind of resident engagement that Ms. Arnstein holds up as the ideal—full citizen control—is rare or perhaps nonexistent, at least in the US context.
In what follows, the authors attempt to answer three primary questions:
- How do we understand the community foundation engagement of residents and other stakeholders and why is it important?
- How well suited is the community foundation to the task of resident engagement?
- What does successful resident engagement look like?
It’s certainly easy for community foundations to claim some form of citizen engagement. But as we shall see, there are reasons why it’s difficult to do well.
What is community engagement and why is it important?
Academic studies of community engagement tend to distinguish between two different but related ideas: “association” and “participation.” Association means people coming together to pursue mutual interests. Participation means using those mutual interests to connect with authorities and influence how these authorities behave.
When they are combined, association and participation form part of what political scientists call “the demand side of governance” (O’Meally, 2013). What citizens do is quite different from what public authorities do—that is “the supply side of governance.”
There is clear evidence that in order to be effective the supply side of governance requires a strong demand side. It is by now well established that top-down resource allocation often fails to trickle down to the people who are supposed to benefit. Large scale centralized government-initiated programs—from schooling to welfare to home lending to irrigation systems—perform badly, while failing to address poverty, and sometimes damage the environment.*
These observations have led to a rethinking about international aid in the developing world. Participatory development, pioneered by Robert Chambers, has demonstrated that people with few so-called “marketable skills” and significant need often play leading roles in successful programs, while external agents do better by simply providing technical advice (Chambers, 1983). At the same time, it is clear that the processes of participation are not magic bullets and evidence on the ground suggests mixed results in part because authorities are reluctant to let go of control.
There is a clear role here for community foundations in pioneering meaningful community engagement. They can set an example for government interventions and for programs designed to aid the developing world. As “borderland institutions” between people with power and those without it, they are ideally placed to bridge the demand and supply sides of governance in a given community.
The very idea of a community foundation
The first community foundation, established in 1914 by Cleveland banker Frederick Goff, was a deliberately top-down affair, designed to put multiple charitable trusts under unified management and tap into the current and future largesse of community leaders (Bernholz, 2005). While Goff clearly took his inspiration from the great private philanthropies of the time, he strove to draw a clear distinction between the private foundations established by the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie, and his own emerging concept of a community foundation:
[T]he Cleveland Foundation would be large-scale, non-sectarian, and have a provision to modify funds established in the foundation as conditions changed. However, being a “community” foundation, rather than a national or international private foundation, meant something else. It would have a board of prominent and knowledgeable local citizens, appointed by persons who held respected offices in the community, to take responsibility for the distribution of grants. The board would not be self-perpetuating, but serve for limited terms without pay, and it would operate in the public eye and be accountable to the community. (Sacks, 2009)
In addition to sharing private philanthropy’s focus on addressing the root causes of our social ills, community foundations would, just like their larger counterparts, have boards of trustees controlled by elites. For most community foundations, this preponderance of elite control would remain to the present day.
Over the years, a number of community foundations in the United States have sought to democratize their governance and grantmaking, and, to a lesser extent, their fundraising practices. Some boards of trustees have elected prominent people of color to their ranks and/or invited nonprofit and other community leaders to serve. Community foundation staffs have become more diverse. The great civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s raised public consciousness about marginalized communities and their desire for self-determination, prompting some community foundation leaders to seek input or direction from the populations they serve. These efforts have taken many forms.
And yet the degree to which contemporary community foundations do with rather than to remains an open question. Despite good intentions, how many resident engagement programs manage to climb past the “tokenism” rungs of the Ladder of Citizen Participation, described above? Where is the real locus of power in these community engagement efforts?
There’s a tension inherent in the work of community foundations. These institutions are funded largely by elites who have a stake in preserving the social, economic, and other structures from which they draw their personal wealth and power. The communities served by these institutions tend to have a more jaundiced view of the status quo. While this kind of tension can have destructive consequences, it can also be a source of transformation for a community. In these cases, the community foundation can act, if it so chooses, as a “borderland institution,” one in which the well-to-do and the marginalized engage in lively give-and-take conversations across barriers of race, class, and other differences. Ideally, a community foundation can play an important role in helping rich and poor work together to decide how best to use scarce resources to address pressing community needs.
Some telling examples
Community engagement is not only normal practice in the developing world, it is often the only strategy available. In East Africa, for example, the Kenya Community Development Foundation has given grants to community associations in the Makutano area over a fifteen-year period to enable residents to recapture semi-arid land. It would have been very difficult for the government to do this given that the area is cut off, located 23 kilometers down a dirt road. The only way to build the necessary wells was for local people to use their own money, time and labor (Mahomed, 2011). To take another example from the developing world, in Nepal, local people were fed up with the consequences of being aid-dependent, something that tended to favor “projects” with professional jobs for outsiders. They formed their own association, using donations from 3,000 people and made 300 grants to local grassroots organizations from money raised locally. They are modeling lateral relationships, avoiding a hierarchical view of the world in order to relate to all kinds of people as equals.
Such approaches to community engagement are also found in the United States. For example, in November 2002, in Selma Alabama, one hundred people came together to build a community foundation from the bottom up. They envisaged that the Black Belt Community Foundation would develop a mechanism for all residents contribute to healthy communities and build a vibrant regional economy where everyone shares the benefits.
The big issue in the Black Belt of the southern United States is race. Despite being the cradle of the civil rights movement, there is still de facto segregation. The community foundation sees itself as a bridge builder between different parts of the community, working both with establishment elites and poor communities. Racial equality runs through the organization at board and staff level, and is found in all aspects of its programming. Central to the strategy are “community associates,” around one hundred local volunteers who connect the foundation to different neighborhoods as its “eyes and ears.” Rather than focus on “deficits,” the foundation takes an asset-based approach to its work and its motto is “using what we have to build what we need.” The biggest asset is not money; it is the people.
Even in this last example we have not yet climbed to the very top of Arnstein’s “ladder of citizen participation,” nor is it clear that doing so would necessarily best serve the needs of the Selma community. The Black Belt Community Foundation’s board of trustees is not entirely controlled by citizens, if we interpret this to mean control by those who are most directly targeted by the Foundation’s programs. And yet there is a sharing of power and expertise that’s rare for many foundations. There’s a dynamic give-and-take at work that can serve as a model for other foundations that have tried top-down approaches to addressing social problems and failed.
The work of community foundations lends itself naturally to meaningful interactions between a society’s haves and have-nots. They are a locus for important cross-group negotiations about how best to deploy a community’s limited resources. They bring together the lived experience of those in poverty with elite knowledge of how best to shift the political will of a given community. They can be a powerful force for change. Yet in spite of their front-line status, they’ve had only limited success in addressing issues such as concentrated poverty and environmental degradation. There are resource constraints and failures of imagination at work here, to be sure; and there is often an uneasy relationship between philanthropy and other fields that might help it advance. But we suspect that beyond these constraints there’s the loss of an important resource—resident knowledge, skills, and activism—that can help communities reach a tipping point in their development. The field’s own aspirations for more meaningful community input, and hard lessons from international development, suggest that citizen engagement can help reduce the failure rate for philanthropic efforts. Beyond the need for greater effectiveness, there’s a moral imperative at work as well. Seeing families and communities as ends not just as means requires that those who have power share it with those who do not; through this lens, we understand why individuals might resist interventions that compromise their sense of agency or personhood.
The view from the heights of Arnstein’s ladder of participation is rare for community foundations. It should become less so as the field continues to reinvent itself in the years ahead.
* The evidence for this is reviewed in Chris Wright, A Community Manifesto; Earthscan: London,
Arnstein, S. R. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” In Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35:4, July 1969, pp. 216 - 224. Page numbers in the text refer to the version of this article available for download at http://lithgow-schmidt.dk/sherry-arnstein/ladder-of-citizen-participation.html.
Bernholz, L., Fulton, K., and Kasper, G. On the Brink of New Promise: The Future of U.S. Community Foundations. Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. and Monitor Company Group, LLP, 2005. Available for download at http://www.monitorinstitute.com/downloads/what-we-think/new-promise/On_the_Brink_of_New_Promise.pdf.
Bourns, J. C. Do Nothing About Me Without Me: An Action Guide for Engaging Stakeholders. Washington, DC: Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, 2010.
Chambers, R. Rural Development: Putting The Last First. Essex, England: Longmans Scientific and Technical Publishers, 1983.
Mahomed, H. and Peters, B. The Story Behind the Well: A Case Study in Successful Community Development in Makutano, Kenya. Coady International Institute and Global Fund for Community Foundations, 2011. Available for download at www.coady.stfx.ca/tinroom/assets/file/StoryBehindTheWell.pdf.
O'Meally, S. “Is It Time for a New Paradigm for ‘Citizen Engagement’? The Role of Context and What the Evidence Tells Us.” 2013. Available at http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/it-time-new-paradigm-citizen-engagement-role-context-and-what-evidence-tells-us.
Ruesga, G. A. “The Community Foundation as Borderland Institution” in The Second Century Project: Community Foundations as Foundations of Community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming.
Ruesga, G. A. “Philanthropy’s Uneasy Relationship With the Social Sciences.” White Courtesy Telephone blog, 2013. Available at http://postcards.typepad.com/white_telephone/2013/05/philanthropys-uneasy-relationship-with-the-social-sciences.html.
Sacks, E. “Frederick Harris Goff, Rockefeller Philanthropy and the Early History of U.S. Community Foundations.” 2009. Available for download from the Rockefeller Archive Center website at http://www.rockarch.org/publications/resrep/sacks.pdf.
Wright, C. A Community Manifesto. Earthscan: London, 2001.