story of giving

A story of giving

On June 12, 2013, The Listening Program participated in a discussion as a Thought Partner for the emerging initiative known as the Global Partnership for Community Philanthropy. During the discussion, Mirza Jahani, CEO of the Aga Foundation USA, spoke of a childhood when he was made to collect shoes for the local madrassa (school). It was the most natural gesture in the world on the part of his family – a homespun strand in the fabric of community life. The spirit behind that gesture was part of why he entered the business of development.

The towering development industry today has its foundations in something quite simple – what Dayna Brown called the “human impulse to give.” That was why the first few years of development aid were characterized by unstructured transfers, broadly flowing towards the fulfillment of basic human needs. Then, of course, came the impulse to regulate – it was a question of money. And slowly, over the years, the words “efficiency”, “effectiveness” and “sustainability” entered the discourse, as both scholarly and practical minds grappled with the idea of achieving results. In the process of constructing mechanisms for “good development”, however, the original idea seems to have been somewhat subverted.

How, then, is one to institutionalize the human impulse to give – and what the Mott Foundation terms “the voluntary impulse”? How to provide operational guidelines for collective action as well as impact – without quashing the original spirit? And, perhaps most importantly, how to convince economists that the endeavor is worth the investment?

The GACP approach to supporting community philanthropy is based on an evaluation of three basic building blocks: assets, capacities and trust. Each one of these was dealt with separately during the lunchtime discussion at the Society For International Development. Rebecca Masisak of TechSoup Global spoke about her experience in mobilizing local assets, which extend beyond physical resources to include technical expertise, as well as pools of willing volunteers.

Matt Reeves from PACT helped add weight to the intangible idea of capacity, defining it as the “ability and agency of a human system to contribute towards positive social change.” He also pulled up an interesting diagram that applies to most efforts to build organizational capacity – which are disproportionately skewed towards increasing efficiency.

It then fell to Dayna, as representative of the Listening Program, to address the idea of trust. Drawing from the voices in Time to Listen, she spoke about the relationships – and, what was sometimes the disconnect – between donors and communities.

“Often, what they (communities) care most about is very hard to get funded,” she said.

In many ways, various forms of trust will determine how the development community will be able to support community philanthropy – trust from the side of people, that development organizations present credible channels for their energy and resources; and trust from the donor side, in communities, their traditions and their instincts regarding what could be good for them. As explained in the “Case for Community Philanthropy”, the trust components of credibility, accountability and ownership will eventually lead to the support of an active civil society, buttressing development processes.

We know that this is possible – that, if an active slice of society is identified and mobilized, wonderful things can happen. There is reason to invest in the process of proving the hypothesis that “Community philanthropy leads to better outcomes.” For the purposes of convincing the economist, the hard part is, as always, to find ways of gathering credible data and to trace demonstrable links to impact.

There will also be challenges when adding structure to ad hoc community-based processes, and ensuring that interventions “do no harm”. But as we move forward, it’s important to bear in mind the roots of development – which began, after all, as a story of giving—and to listen to those who have and are acting on the impulse to give within their own communities.


By Guest Blogger Madeeha Ansari, Graduate Student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Madeeha Ansari is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, working with the Listening Program over the summer. Prior to this, she has worked on capacity building and community-based education initiatives in Pakistan.