The Value of Community Philanthropy

Community is not merely a geographical place, it is the bonds, shared values, history, and sense of belonging that allows us to make meaning with each other. It’s a commitment to our neighbors and a shared aspiration that the next generation succeed. In the Pacific Northwest, our casual attire, our avid recycling, and our favorite sports teams build community — as does our bedrock commitment to inclusion, equity, and innovation.

With a pioneering spirit, the people of Washington have always looked to the future with a sense of possibility. At the same time, we recognize that economic and social progress have not benefited everyone equally — we must reckon with a history of discriminatory laws, beliefs, and actions that excluded certain groups.

The path to a stronger, morally grounded future must embrace and incorporate diverse perspectives that have historically been excluded, because it is equity and inclusion that make this state so great.

It is more evident than ever that when solutions are developed by the community and for the community, rooted in authentic relationships with the people most affected, they are more likely to be successful and sustainable. The most profound responsibility of our work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is to help build community capacity to solve tough problems.

Building Community Philanthropy

That sense of responsibility to the community propels our Building Community Philanthropy (BCP) partnership with Philanthropy Northwest, launched in 2012, which empowers a network of local philanthropy organizations across Washington State — all working together to address local, pressing needs. These city and regional community foundations, United Ways, and identity-based foundations are in the best position to create deep relationships within their communities — because they’ve been doing it for years.

Philanthropy Northwest oversees the coordination and convening of this network, which collectively reaches 90 percent of high-poverty areas in our state. Over the years of working together, we’ve learned how to better listen and engage with nonprofit grantees, and tap into the experience and wisdom of the communities they serve. We are that much closer to sharing common values, beliefs, and goals of inclusion that are rooted in a sober understanding of the historic legacy — both good and bad — that still shapes us today.

Here are some of the most significant lessons we’ve picked up along the way.

Value of authentic relationships

When serving communities, there is no substitute for authentic relationships and open communication.

The United Way of Benton & Franklin Counties has done incredible work to increase high school graduation rates, but to do so, they needed data from high school principals to track progress and ensure that any changes would be grounded in evaluation of what works. When some schools were reluctant to share this information, they shifted their approach to create a space for more honest dialogue. Instead of asking schools to reveal specific data points or the return on investment from their efforts, the United Way invited them to discuss pain points and progress with their peers. It was a simple shift in how they brought people into the conversation, but it was one that had a profound impact. These robust discussions helped build a sense of trust that allowed more depth in uncovering the issues principals were facing.

Spirit of joint learning

When it comes to complex issues like poverty and access to opportunity, no single organization holds the keys to success.

We have so much to learn from each other and BCP, by design, is a space that is both challenging and safe for exchanging different points of view. Most people would agree that engaging diverse perspectives and lived experiences, and unique areas of expertise generates better ideas and solutions. But true collaboration is inherently messy and time-consuming, and joint decision-making is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been impressed by the respectful and open-minded culture that the BCP network is cultivating.

For example, the Pride Foundation partners with many community foundations across the state to help them better connect with LGBTQ residents. Similarly, the Potlatch Fund and the Latino Community Foundation leverage BCP connections to better serve Native and Latinx people across the state.

Importance of representation

Addressing equity requires acknowledging the history and institutionalization of underlying injustices in our society.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and with our BCP colleagues, we know that this is a learning opportunity for us, and that we have to get better internally in order to tackle inequities in the communities we serve. Within our own organizations, we are making intentional efforts to ensure that staff, leadership, and grant investments more accurately represent the breadth and diversity of our communities.

For example, the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound is participating in a group of nonprofit organizations working to address barriers to racial equity. They learn from each other as they go, and are providing scholarships so other smaller organizations can participate as well.

BCP members are also combining forces to ensure accurate representation in the upcoming Census 2020. Stakes are very high, so communities are working to bust barriers that might discourage participation in the Census, barriers which could create a critical gap in information and representation. Census results affect federal and state resources — each person not counted means a loss of funding — primarily in education and healthcare. Building Community Philanthropy members are working together to build outreach plans, reassure people of the safety of participating, and ensure that every person counts.

Truly engaged community efforts create a ripple effect of inspiration and empowerment — a cycle of prosperity that benefits us all. That’s a community legacy that makes me proud to be a Washingtonian.

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