To assist seven small and midsize community foundations in increasing their philanthropic capacities, including enhancing their roles as community leaders and abilities to serve as catalysts for positive change in their communities.
Community foundations play an important role as local philanthropies because they are rooted in communities and focused on grassroots issues and concerns. Community foundations have traditionally served two important functions: 1) encouraging local giving by offering donors a way to realize their charitable goals while also providing desirable tax consequences; and 2) providing an efficient and flexible mechanism for directing charitable resources to areas of greatest community need. An often unrealized strength of community foundations lies in their potential to foster community. Community foundations are well placed to play a leadership role in their respective communities because they have a unique understanding of the historical, cultural, geographical, political and other influences on their community, and they also have established connections and trust with many of its key stakeholders.
Recognizing the unique roles that community foundations can play in stimulating local philanthropy and leadership and in addressing local issues, Irvine developed the Community Foundations Initiative (CFI) in 1995. The initiative was an $11.7 million effort to support and strengthen seven small and midsize community foundations from 1995 to 2003.
CFI was based on the logic that by working on a visible, strategic community project to address a priority community concern, a community foundation would raise awareness of its work and credibility among community leaders and organizations. With greater recognition and enhanced capacities, community foundations would be able to respond more effectively to local issues and concerns, and attract a new and more diverse pool of donors.
For each community foundation, the initiative directed attention and resources to both a strategic community project and the community foundation’s organizational development. Each participating organization received a grant of up to $100,000 annually for one to two years for planning and up to $250,000 a year for five years for implementation.
The initiative sought to achieve the following four outcomes for participating community foundations:
Recognizing that each participating community foundation was at a different stage of development, CFI was designed to accommodate the unique circumstances, goals and resources of each participant. Importantly, the initiative was organized around the model of a learning community to ensure that experiences and lessons learned would regularly inform the work of the initiative and of the participating community foundations. Accordingly, technical assistance, learning opportunities and evaluation were built into the initiative as key resources.
The CFI cohort was chosen based on size (small and midsize community foundations) and geographic diversity. The seven foundations supported were:
A key strategy of CFI was a strong evaluation component. Accordingly, from 1999 to 2003, a team led by researchers at Public Policy Associates worked with the community foundations and documented lessons learned from this initiative. The evaluation was designed to ensure that participating organizations maintained focus, identified what worked and marked their progress. In addition, the evaluation included an overarching assessment of the initiative across the full cohort.
Public Policy Associates conducted a comprehensive set of evaluation activities that produced reports on each community foundation and CFI overall on an annual basis. These activities included:
In addition, Public Policy Associates interviewed Irvine program staff and CFI participants about community foundations becoming partners with Irvine in serving their respective communities.
Two CFI models emerged: One focused on building community philanthropy, and the other used a substantive project to engage the community. Both proved to be helpful mechanisms for the participating foundations to broaden their engagement, knowledge, reputation and ability to support their respective regional communities.
The Community Foundations Initiative helped all the participating foundations to reflect on their role in community engagement and address the new issues and particular needs of their communities. Stakeholder surveys indicated that the community foundations overall were viewed as community-focused and involved, professional and well-managed, associated with their charitable giving and an asset to their communities. Almost all reported higher expectations about the role that community foundations would play on key issues. While some community foundations made more strides than others, they all suggested that Irvine’s support helped to accelerate desired changes.
Out of this work, Irvine published several tools for the field to help identify and document lessons learned and best practices. These publications included: