The community foundation model has three components – asset-building, grantmaking, and community leadership. The first two are somewhat self explanatory; however, the topic of community leadership has been debated in the field of community foundations for many years, and according to theory within leadership studies it is not an actual style of leadership – yet.
The phrase “We cannot be all things to all people” comes up a lot in my work with community foundations. Over the years, community foundations have taken on more responsibility or more roles than they are equipped to handle, and this has resulted in some practitioners and scholars questioning whether or not community foundations have been losing the community element of their work.
When considering the inherent power dynamics, community foundations can sometimes be considered institutions of power and privilege. The asset-building model of endowment is only accessible by donors with the means to contribute large sums of money, often $10,000 or more. In addition, donors are likely either creating a donor-advised fund where they essentially have full control over distribution or they are restricting their contribution to a special field of interest (Arts & Culture, Education, etc.).
Community foundations were designed to have unique and reflexive abilities; however, over time many community foundations have received so many restricted gifts that they have to dedicate valuable foundation resources to managing the wishes of donors rather than using those resources to deeply engage in the community.
How we got here is clear, but where we go next is a little more challenging. Community foundations in Indiana have a unique opportunity to consider how they wish to approach community leadership through Lilly Endowment's GIFT VII initiative.
Here are my thoughts on how community foundations can be better community leaders, based on experience and research:
Be a Capacity Builder – Many community foundations across the nation are beginning to include capacity building as a main pillar of their work. Its easy to argue that the stronger the nonprofit sector, the stronger the community. Nonprofits with increased organizational capacity have the ability to deliver stronger programs and raise more funds. Communities with strong nonprofits are able to bring in funding from outside of the community from large national foundations and government entities.
Be a Knowledge Hub – Many large private foundations often have knowledge management teams on staff that investigate the specific issues that the foundation has identified. A strong community foundation can serve as a knowledge hub for the community on a variety of different issues. Dedicating time and resources to tracking community metrics and assisting nonprofits and other entities in the community in making data-informed decisions can help revolutionize communities.
Be a Community Convener – Community foundations often consider themselves to be conveners; however, strong community foundations are true conveners and engaged for the long term. Bringing people together is nice, but being committed for the long-term is ideal. Community organizing is a task that many community foundation could consider taking on to help focus on important issues.
Be an Advocate – I have heard from many of my community foundation clients and colleagues that their community foundation does not want to take a stance on a community issue. Jason Franklin, Kellogg Chair in Community Philanthropy, once shared that when community foundations are remaining neutral, they are in fact taking a stance. In some cases, being neutral can actually be worse than taking a side. Grassroots organizing is great and where most change happens, but when a large philanthropic institution takes a stance it can help push an issue to the next level. Community foundations should care about creating opportunities for excellent education, ensuring everyone in the community feels a sense of belonging, and many other issues. If a community foundation is supposed to be a resource for the community- that should include being an advocate.
I am still working on coming up with a proper framework of community leadership as part of my dissertation for my doctoral degree, so while I can't tell you exactly what it is (yet), I can tell you what it is not. It is not just having a seat at the table. It is not just making grants to causes that matter. It is not about raising funds. It is not about grant agreement forms, grant check presentations, or grant reports. Community leadership is a commitment to standing tall, naming issues in the community, shining a light on what is and point to what could be, and calling for change for the betterment of the community.
So, community foundations everywhere, what are you doing to be a better community leader?
-Colton C. Strawser
Colton Strawser Consulting is dedicated to working with community foundations all across Indiana on their Community Leadership Grants from Lilly Endowment through GIFT VII. Visit our GIFT Initiative website at www.coltonstrawser.com/gift for additional information and to meet our GIFT consulting team for community foundations. Let’s get to work Indiana!