Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Philanthropic Act
A look at the definition of community and how it has changed over the past century. What began as a homogeneous groups of people--typcially family groups--is now a diverse groups of individuals brought together by geography. The paper also examines the impact on the nonprofit sector.

Authored by: Krisztina Tury 


“A community is a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision-making, and who share certain practice that both define the community and nurtured by it” (Bellah 1985, 333). To understand the significance of community to the philanthropic sector, three qualities of it are especially important. First, “a community is self-identifying” which means that people belong to it if they elect to consider themselves as members of that community. Second, communities are sustained by voluntary action. Third, communities are where people express their most important values.

Communities can have two different aspects – a moral and a legal one - although it is not necessary that they have both. The moral community refers to shared values and concerns while the legal community defines “the rules of governance and participation for the organization” (Ott and Dicke 2016).

Historic roots:

In colonial times, families relied on their immediate community for survival. There was no government to provide assistance therefore people turned to each other whenever they could not do something on their own. Poverty was not considered a problem since neighbors were expected to help their fellows in need. Next in line were relatives, however, if no one was available to assist, the poor had “a claim on the community for aid”. Communities had designated “overseers who found the necessities and temporary placements – most often with local families - for people in need (Ott and Dicke 2016, 60).

As the American society developed throughout the centuries and particularly with the start of the industrial revolution, more and more people left their original communities to find a living in large urban areas. Cities did not make it easy to build strong communal connections. People worked in large, impersonal factories, often far from their families. The needy were most often taken care of by the state in almshouses and institutions rather than by local families (Trattner 1999). However, civic clubs, mutual aid societies and all sorts of voluntary associations that started to gain popularity in the 18th century quickly spread as well.

The 20th century further deteriorated rural communities, however associational life remained a key element of American culture. Except for the “civic drought” during the Great Depression, community groups “shot up year after year, cultivated by assiduous civic gardeners and watered by increasing affluence and education” (Ott and Dicke 2016, 238). However, civic engagement started to lose its momentum in the last third of the century. In 1999, several surveys showed that two-thirds of Americans believed that “civic life has weakened in recent years”, and that “our society was focused more on the individual than the community” (Ott and Dicke 2016, 243). However, as Robert Putnam, a well-known researcher of social capital and civic engagement, points out “younger generation today is no less engaged than their predecessors, but engaged in new ways” (Ott and Dicke 2016, 243). This is a question that needs further investigation.                 


Families, neighborhoods, churches and voluntary associations are all different forms of community. They give individuals a sense of belonging and togetherness. Communities are crucial for human life because it is where “people engage with other people in common enterprises of the highest salience” (Ott and Dicke 2016, 204). Communities allow individuals to express their dearest values through formal or informal organizations and they lead to activities – such as establishment of churches, radio stations, book clubs - that contribute to the well-being of its members. They also foster social capital – a sense of trust and mutuality – that is the glue of the larger society.

Ties to the philanthropic sector:

If members of a community want to “signify more than general feelings about common concerns”, they engage in activities that express their common values. Often, these activities lead to the incorporation of nonprofit organizations which are then “communities made manifest” (Ott and Dicke 2016, 205). These organizations also provide important links between the government and citizenry.

One way to demonstrate that nonprofits are “manifestations of community” is to list the roles individuals take in nonprofit organizations. First, all nonprofits have boards of directors who are usually recruited from the prominent members of the community. Second, all nonprofits rely on volunteers – many of them to a large extent. Third, nonprofits often raise a bulk of their budget from people who want to support community institutions and initiatives.

Some theorists see nonprofits as “mediating structures” which means that these smaller organizations are able to connect individuals in their private lives and large institutions -  such as government – of public life. Mediating institutions are “people-sized” and without them, the political order would be “detached from the values and realities of individual life” (Ott and Dicke 2016, 192). Nonprofits are not the only mediating structures however, family, civic clubs, religious groups and all sorts of associations that contribute to community engagement and promote social values are “mediating institutions” as well.

Voluntary associations are also important for their role in social integration (Ott and Dicke 2016). Since they are able to attract volunteers from diverse backgrounds, they provide a space where individuals with opposing political, religious or cultural perspectives can participate in common activities.  Beyond linking people from different walks of life together, nonprofits have a role in empowering those who would otherwise have less opportunities to shape the direction of the community.


Key related ideas:

Civil society: according to a common definition, “the term civil society refers to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations” (World Bank).

Community foundation: is a type of foundation that builds its endowment (core funds) from the donations of individuals from the community. It supports charitable initiatives that benefit the residents of the geographic area - therefore it is an important pool of resources for nonprofits in the community (Community Foundations National Standards Board). The first community foundation – the Cleveland Foundation - was created in 1914 to gather donations from people in the community and to distribute it to solve local problems. Today, 1800 place-based foundations exist and the idea is gaining popularity abroad as well (Community Foundation Atlas).

Social capital: see the briefing paper on Voluntarism

Theory of the commons: emphasizes the “shared language, culture, values and resources” that hold communities together. Originally, the term “commons” meant the common space near a village that everyone could use. Today, the commons refers to resources that people in a community all benefit from (Ott and Dicke 2016, 60). These could include artistic contributions, scientific research or a community school.


Important people related to the topic:

Jane Addams: see the related briefing paper

John W. Gardner: was an American statesman in the 20th century, a distinguished participant in America's educational, philanthropic, and political life. He was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. He played an important role in launching Medicare, enacting the Civil Rights Act and the White House Fellows program. He was the founder of two influential philanthropic institutions, the Common Cause (an advocacy organization for more transparency in political institutions) and the Independent Sector (a research institute on philanthropy). He was a great advocate for community-building.

Robert Putnam:  is a political scientist and the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Two of his fourteen books, Bowling Alone and Making Democracy Work, are among the most cited publications in the social sciences in the last half century. In the former work, he examines the decline of social capital in the US and shows “how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline” (Robert D. Putnam). However, he also argues that “America has civicly reinvented itself before” and it can do so again.


Related Nonprofit Organizations:

Community Foundation Atlas: the world’s first community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation celebrated its centennial in 2014 by making a contribution to the community foundation movement. The foundation teamed up with leading experts and gathered data about place-based philanthropies around the world. With the launch of Community Foundation Atlas online this dataset has been made available online (

Community Foundation National Standards Board: is a supporting organization of the Council on Foundations. They create standards for community foundations and help them to achieve these (

Silicon Valley Community Foundation: is a comprehensive center of philanthropy which partners with donors to pursue the common good locally and throughout the world. It is different from most community foundations as its grantmaking activities are not restricted to the San Francisco area (


Reflection question:

What communities do you belong to? What do you give and receive in these communities?



  • Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, Willam M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart. Berkeley ad Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Community Foundation Atlas.
  • Community Foundations National Standards Board. National Standard 1.
  • John W. Gardner Center. About John W. Gardner.
  • Ott, Seven J., Lisa A. Dicke. The Nature of the Nonprofit Sector. Boulder: Westview Press, 2016.
  • Robert D. Putnam.
  • Trattner, Walter I. From Poor Law to Welfare State. New York: The Free Press, 1999.
  • World Bank. Defining Civil Society.  


This paper was developed by a PhD student at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.  It is offered by Learning To Give and Indiana University at Indianapolis.