Community Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Community Foundation
Community/Social Capital
Financial Resources
Community philanthropy involves community members working together and leveraging community resources to better address challenges or to improve the quality of life in a community. This collaborative method of development emphasizes building internal assets, capacities, and trust through participation and shared power in decision-making for the common good.

Written by Dana R. H. Doan



Community philanthropy is the process of gaining the support of community members, leveraging community resources, and determining the use of external resources in that community to better address challenges or to improve the quality of life in a community. It is an approach to development that emphasizes the building of internal assets, capacities, and trust through participation, collaboration, and shared power in decision-making.

Support from within a community could come in any one or more of the following forms:

  • Thoughts, ideas, and plans for the community;

  • Time devoted to community needs and improvement;

  • Knowledge and experience of members;

  • Pro bono services of community institutions and individuals;

  • Cash contributions (any size);

  • In-kind contributions (e.g., meeting venues, food & beverages, tools, equipment, etc.)

External resources are sometimes used to complement community philanthropy efforts. Nevertheless, a key feature of community philanthropy, compared with other types of philanthropy, is that community members control what happens in their community. It is premised on the belief that community members often know better what is going to be good for their community compared with outsiders, and that community members are more likely to commit to a project on a long-term basis if it was their project from the start. While community philanthropy does not require that all resources needed to solve a problem come from within that community, it does advocate for community leadership and control over the resources that are employed.

Community philanthropy contrasts with philanthropy driven by outsiders - meaning individuals and organizations who are not a member of that community - and is distinct from philanthropic projects and decisions that are made only by one or a handful of community members.


Historic Roots

Community philanthropy has its origins in long-held practices, which appear in society in different forms and different names such as community protection, self-help, mutual aid, and collective action around the world. In the United States, Native American tribes practiced community philanthropy, pooling and reinvesting resources to protect and strengthen their communities. It was a strategy that was employed by migrants to the United States of America, to build capacity, to realize common objectives, and to overcome difficulties. When power or wealth concentrated people into groups, they found ways to pool their resources while building trust to realize a desired change, and also found a strategy to ensure their voices were heard, such as in the cases of: Benjamin Franklin’s Juntos, the Boston Merchants, and the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison;

Writing about his visit to the United States in the first half of the 19th Century, noted French diplomat and politician, Alexis de Tocqueville, argued: “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” Thus, community philanthropy, a collectivist, community-oriented approach to combatting local challenges, or working to realize a shared community vision, is often viewed as an essential characteristic of a functioning democracy.

Community philanthropy was re-envisioned in the form of community foundations during the Progressive Movement, which began in the USA in the late 19th Century, as people sought new approaches to address complex challenges resulting from industrialization and urbanization. Frederick Harris Goff - a businessman, established the first community foundation in Cleveland, OH, in 1914. The Cleveland Foundation was designed as an organized platform for local people to pool their resources and prioritize current and future needs in their own community.

Since the Progressive Era, community philanthropy initiatives have cropped up in a variety of different forms in the USA and around the globe. For example, community philanthropy initiatives have presented themselves as: identity-based funds, giving circles, community foundations, Jewish Federations, Youth Banks, volunteer groups, and informal crowdfunding platforms. It is important to note however, that initiatives taking one of the aforementioned forms are not necessarily examples of community philanthropy. For example, when an initiative is led by one community to serve another or when donors’ demands are prioritized over the needs of groups receiving their grants or services, these are not instances of community philanthropy. It is important therefore, to evaluate any initiative by its approach rather than its name.  



Much of the data that exists on community philanthropy is focused on community foundations, which represent the largest segment of known community philanthropy initiatives. For example, between 2000 and 2014, the number of community foundations worldwide more than doubled. As of 2016, there were more than 1,800 community foundations (Community Foundation Atlas 2017). And the number is growing. Since 2000, on average, 70 new community foundations were established each year (The Foundation Review 2017) and different forms of community philanthropy are being recorded in every region of the world.

In regard to foreign assistance, the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 states that foreign aid should be designed to support, rather than replace self-help efforts. Nevertheless, USAID, and many other bilateral and transnational donors, consistently find that the programs they support close soon after their funding flows are stopped. Meanwhile, many countries are raising barriers to foreign funding while governments are also under domestic pressure to reduce their foreign aid budgets. Such challenges have sparked renewed attention towards stimulating or supporting community philanthropy initiatives overseas.

Evidence has shown that community philanthropy initiatives, by building assets, capacities, and trust within a community, are better able to sustain and adapt to changing needs, even when receiving external support. In a 2014 WINGS report, the Civil Society Program Director at the C.S. Mott Foundation reported: “From our experience, the work does continue when you’ve supported community philanthropy. It works.” This rings true not only for place-based initiatives but also for identity-based philanthropy, which is a strategy to empower marginalized groups.

Despite a long history and continued growth, community philanthropy organizations are not well-understood and have not yet achieved widespread support among policy-makers and donors; however, for many, community philanthropy continues to be seen a critical ingredient to international development and social change efforts worldwide.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The concepts of civic engagement, accountability, sustainable development, international aid, and civil society space are all connected to community philanthropy.

A common goal of philanthropic organizations, both donors and donees, is the empowerment of individuals and groups to raise their voices and to become active players in efforts to solve problems within their own communities. Community philanthropy actively facilitates an increase in both bridging capital and bonding capital by encouraging broader civic engagement and participation.  Community engagement and participation in the identification and solving of problems, meanwhile, simultaneously fosters accountability of the individuals and actors engaged in implementation of solutions, as their “nearness” makes it easier to oversee or learn about the work taking place.

One frequently cited concern of philanthropic actors is the sustainability of their efforts and community philanthropy organizations often view themselves as taking a long-term approach by monitoring community needs and adjusting programs and services to meet evolving needs within their community. If challenges persist, community philanthropy organizations will continue to provide support or enhance their support. And, as new challenges arise, these organizations can shift their resources, or attract new resources, to address changing community priorities. This approach, by community philanthropy organizations, is relevant to international aid and development projects, which are intended to be in a country for a finite period and, as such, would generally seek to facilitate the building of local assets, capacity, and trust so that community members are able to solve their own problems in the future. Unfortunately, in many cases, international development workers do the opposite, creating dependency rather than self-reliance.

Finally, the philanthropic sector is connected to community philanthropy in their shared concern for the protection of civil society space and the freedom to associate. The ability of private individuals and organizations to gather and respond to community needs, particularly the needs of marginalized communities, is a central objective of community philanthropy and many nonprofit sector initiatives. Philanthropic organizations, such as the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Charities Aid Foundation, the Bertelsmann Foundation, and, more recently, the Lilly Endowment, are among the more well-known organizations actively engaged in supporting community philanthropy initiatives in the U.S. and around the world.


Key Related Ideas

  • Community foundation Grantmaking public charities, which receive funds from diverse sources and typically serve a defined geographic area. Since the first community foundation was established in Cleveland, OH, in 1914, nearly two thousand community foundations now operate worldwide.
  • Community-driven (or community-led) development – Initiatives that emphasize community control and participation in all stages, from design and implementation of solutions, to monitoring and evaluation. This concept goes beyond a recognition of the need for beneficiary participation towards a rights-based approach, where the “beneficiaries” are shaping their own development.  
  • Identity-based philanthropy – The organization and activation of philanthropy within and among identity groups (e.g., women’s funds, Diaspora giving, donors of color, Muslim waqfs, Jewish federations). These identify based groups promote the democratization of philanthropy from the grassroots while providing an opportunity for members of marginalized communities to consolidate and target their support towards issues of importance to that community.
  • Giving circles (or donor circles) – A group of individuals who come together to pool their resources and deliberate together over where to give these resources away. The process typically involves group meetings and/or events, which are simultaneously intended to inform members about community issues and provide opportunities for voluntary engagement.
  • Youth Banks – A model of youth engagement whereby young people are given control to decide on the allocation of grant funds towards projects that are led by young people or to projects that address the concerns of young people. As of 2014, there were 216 Youth Banks in 23 countries.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Frederick H. Goff (1858-1923) - a banker, attorney, and philanthropist who conceived the concept of the community foundation by setting up The Cleveland Foundation, in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914.   
  • Jenny Hodgson – A current thought leader on global community philanthropy in her role as executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations, which is secretariat for the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy (GACP). GACP is a multi-donor and multi-stakeholder collaborative engaged in research and learning activities aimed at advancing the practice of community philanthropy and promoting community philanthropy’s role in achieving more lasting development outcomes.
  • Ambassador James Josephs (born 1935) - Emeritus Professor of the Practice of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He served in senior executive or advisory positions for four U.S. Presidents, including as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa under President William Clinton. He frequently speaks to academic, civic, and religious audiences about community philanthropy and community foundations.
  • Barry Knight – a social scientist, executive director of CENTRIS, adviser of the Global Fund for Community Foundations, and thought leader on community philanthropy. Dr. Knight is regularly engaged to undertake evaluations of global community philanthropy programs and served as Chief Data Analyst for development of the Community Foundation Atlas. He has written books on poverty, economic development, inner cities, the voluntary sector, and more.


Related Global Nonprofit Organizations

  • Community Foundation Atlas ( An online map of the individual identities, locations, assets, roles, and achievements of place-based and other community philanthropies around the world. Representative entries include: Community Foundations of Canada (; Dalia Association in Palestine (; TEWA in Nepal (
  • Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy ( A multi-donor and multi-stakeholder collaborative aimed at advancing the practice of community philanthropy and influencing international development actors to better understand, support and promote community philanthropy’s role in achieving more lasting development outcomes. The Global Fund for Community Foundations ( serves as its secretariat.

Related U.S. Nonprofit Organizations

  • Cleveland Foundation ( Conceived in 1914 by banker, attorney and philanthropist Frederick H. Goff in Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Foundation was the first community foundation in the world.  
  • Some US community foundations practicing community philanthropy, include: Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque in North Dakota (; Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo in New York (; and Humboldt Area Foundation in California (
  • Social Venture Partners Seattle (


Reflection Question - How does gathering resources from within a community leverage its ability to make decisions affecting their community?    



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This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning to Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.