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The Future of 'Community' for Community Foundations

June 09, 2015

Headshot_emmett_carson_hi-resCommunity foundations have existed for more than a hundred years by adhering to a simple proposition: they exist to serve their local communities. Today, this proposition is being challenged by an increasingly global, twenty-first century mindset and amazing new technologies that strengthen connections even as they weaken the importance of place. As a result, the definition of "community" is changing, and community foundations must ask themselves: Will we change with it?

More and more, Americans see themselves as global citizens – both influencing and being influenced by international events. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones and social media apps means that almost everyone is only a click away from staying in touch with any person they've ever met or from learning about a new development affecting any cause they've ever cared about. At the same time, Americans are more willing than ever to relocate to different communities in pursuit of a job or a different lifestyle.

The fact is, we are all part of multiple communities based on professional and personal interests that do not necessarily stem from or exist within a defined geography. Some of these communities exist only in cyberspace. And yet people have – and will always have – a direct connection to the place where they currently live. This presents a significant challenge – and a huge opportunity – for community foundations, which increasingly must figure out how to respond to locally based donors who support causes and organizations outside a foundation's stated geographical boundaries.

Put simply, community foundations that can address both the local and global philanthropic interests of their donors are the ones most likely to grow over the coming decades. At Silicon Valley Community Foundation, we are committed to embracing this responsibility and believe that community foundations that cannot or choose not to do so will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage over time. 

Providing grants to nonprofit organizations outside of a community foundation's stated geography is not a new idea. Community foundations regularly review and approve grant recommendations from donors to their out-of-state alma maters.  What is new is the growing interest among donors nationwide in causes based in other places, along with their desire to partner with an organization that can provide them with a turnkey philanthropic solution to make that happen.  For example, Silicon Valley Community Foundation is partnering with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to raise money to Tackle Ebola and with Glamour's The Girl Project to provide education to girls in developing countries.

The picture is more complicated than that, of course. Community foundations now find themselves having to compete in a marketplace of options with other types of donor-advised fund providers – commercial gift funds, United Ways, universities, women and ethnic funds, and so on – as well as with a growing number of other community foundations. Today, potential donors routinely choose among different donor-advised fund providers based on the scope and quality of their services, pricing, reputation, and brand. Indeed, this new reality is upending any historical belief that community foundations can continue to operate as if they are protected geography-based franchises with non-compete agreements. 

Not all donor-advised fund providers are alike. They differ, not least, in terms of their mission, purpose, and how they operate. But unlike other donor-advised fund providers, community foundations almost uniquely have the capacity to inform and engage disparate segments of the communities in which they are based. What's more, they often play a distinctive leadership role that bridges sectors – government, business, and nonprofit – as well as race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, income, and political affiliation within their communities. By providing leadership and serving the varying philanthropic interests of donors within and outside of their local community, community foundations play an important role in helping the public, media, and others to distinguish their value proposition from that of other donor-advised fund providers. 

America is confronted by significant challenges – widening income inequality, growing educational disparities, global competition for jobs, and national protests over police misconduct involving African Americans, to name a few. Community foundations, situated as they are in communities that are urban and rural, small and large, and located in every region of the country, are ideally positioned to provide vital leadership on these issues by informing and educating community members, developing cross-sector solutions that involve diverse stakeholders, and harnessing philanthropic capital to make a lasting difference.

In the years to come, community foundations will need to experiment with different business models that can respond to donors having local, national, and global philanthropic interests as well as connections to communities all over the country and the globe. Staff, donors, and communities will need to be thoughtful about how to capitalize on this opportunity, just as hospitals, institutions of higher learning, and the banking industry have done. In the coming years we will likely see new models for community foundations ranging from the hyper-local to global in scope. And while many will serve different and/or overlapping geographies, the most successful community foundations will continue to share a common DNA that drives them to partner with and engage a diverse range of supporters, stakeholders, and sectors in addressing the most critical and persistent challenges of our time.

Emmett D. Carson, Ph.D., is CEO and president of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. He expands on this topic more in his new paper, On 21st Century Community Foundations and the Question of Geography and Identity, which was recently published by GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center. Read more and connect to discuss with others at http://www.grantcraft.org/guides/21st-century-community-foundations.

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Community for community: An interesting topic

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