This article is part of the #StoriesOfResilience series, coordinated by CIVICUS to feature groups and activists on their journey to promote better resourcing practices for civil society and to mobilise meaningful resources to sustain their work.
In Latin America there is a strong tradition of generosity and solidarity among neighbors, communities and people who do not hesitate to join efforts and resources to help an individual or solve collective problems. What we now call community philanthropy has always existed in many places, although informally. But in the last decades, community philanthropy has been formalised with the establishment of community foundations that have become a pillar for civil society and development.
Mexico is the country in the region that has more community foundations. The majority is consolidated and leads community philanthropy efforts, strategic social investment, development work and even humanitarian action. For example, after the devastating earthquakes in 2017, many foundations were key to addressing the emergencies and rebuilding affected areas. Their work is widely recognised, they enjoy strong legitimacy amongst communities and have the trust of national and international donors.
Comunalia is an alliance made up of 14 community foundations from 13 states of Mexico, which has been supporting and strengthening their work for nine years. We talked with Mariana Sandoval, Communalia’s executive director, and Ixanar Uriza, former vice president*, about the importance of these foundations and community philanthropy for Mexican civil society.
What are the characteristics of a community foundation that differentiate it from other philanthropic foundations?
Uriza: These are community-led foundations that mobilise both local and external resources to invest them for local benefit through loca civil society organisations (CSOs) and members of the communities. They are characterised by covering one specific geographical area; having expert knowledge about the characteristics and needs of their community; being leaders and defenders of those interests and priorities and being able to establish alliances with other actors to promote the common good.
There is great interest around the world in expanding community philanthropy. How have these foundations in Mexico managed to position themselves as a solid and legitimate channel to mobilise resources for local civil society?
Sandoval: Their reputation and legitimacy have been built after many years of work. Some members of Comunalia have been operating for more than 20 years. The key is that these foundations are more than a fund intermediary – they are an expert source of knowledge about the social context, needs and priorities of the communities. This builds trust: the communities know that the foundations are truly looking after their agenda and that we guide external donors on these priorities. On the donor side, they see community foundations as the best advisor to help them recognise the most relevant areas for social investment and to establish alliances with local CSOs.
CSOs in Latin America are facing numerous attacks and restrictions. How can community foundations help them address these challenges besides the financial ones?
Sandoval: Apart from being advisors, filters and liaison points between donors and local organisations, community foundations play a key strengthening role. Many foundations work with civil society groups that are not formally established and provide them with technical assistance while they consolidate. Established organisations also consider community foundations a foothold where they can get help for different challenges, becoming strategic allies. In addition, since the foundations are dedicated to mobilising resources, CSOs can focus on doing their field work, improve it and multiply their impact. However, our current challenge is offering more and better support in influencing public policies to improve the environment for CSOs in Mexico.
Could one say that community foundations have empowered civil society in Mexico?
Uriza: These foundations have not only strengthened civil society, somehow, they have also enabled it to grow. For example, the Malinalco Community Foundation started supporting projects ten years ago when there were no CSOs in this municipality, and now there are 23. The presence of the foundation helped to awaken civil society there.
Are community foundations ahead of the “shift the power” to communities’ trend that has gained ground in the last few years?
Uriza: Community philanthropy has always existed in Latin America; it is a pre-Hispanic practice. The idea of shifting the power to communities has become a trend recently, but for community foundations it has always been our working methodology – we have never conceived the idea of mobilising and granting a fund without first listening to the community and prioritising their needs and interests.
What new goals do community foundations have for Comunalia?
Sandoval: As mentioned before, we must strengthen the support in advocacy and influencing public policies provided by the foundations to the CSOs, something that is more relevant in the face of increasing threats to the civic space. Most of the foundations are already doing great work mobilising and managing resources, but we know that it is not enough in this context, especially for organisations working on social justice. Some foundations are advanced in this advocacy role in their territories, but many still need to develop it further.
* Ixanar Uriza was Comunalia’s vice president at the time of the interview.