JFF Interview: James Magowan of the European Community Foundation Initiative on community foundations and journalism

[Cross-posted from JFF.]

We’re thrilled to bring the JFF community into conversation with the community foundation sector, a key part of the philanthropic landscape. Dr James Magowan of the European Community Foundation Initiative helped us understand better what community foundations are, what role they play, what the European sector looks like, and how and why community foundations support journalism.


Sameer Padania (SP): I have an ulterior motive in interviewing you – we know that community foundations have got involved in funding local journalism in the US, but the picture’s not so clear in Europe, and we’d love you to shed some light for us… But before we talk about the relationship between community foundations and journalism, can you please explain what a community foundation is?

James Magowan (JM): The first thing I would say about community foundations: Once you’ve seen one community foundation, you’ve seen one community foundation. There is no single definition of a community foundation – it is critical to highlight the diversity of the community foundation field – just as across Europe there’s not even a definition of a foundation, nor a particular legal entity that is common across Europe.

But community foundations differ again – not only in form, across Europe, but they also differ hugely in function, and both depend a lot on the context within which they were established – both the legal framework, and also the socio-economic and political environment in that country, and how that has evolved over time.

SP: Can you give us an example of what that means practically?

JM: So, if you take the most mature part of the field, which is clearly the UK – which has a movement of 46 community foundations that cover almost the entire geography of the UK and that’s been around since the mid-70s – it’s really well-established, has a good structure of organizations, a very good support organization, they have a combination of endowed, flow-through, unrestricted and donor-advised funds, and they now can do strategic initiatives. They are important in their localities, they are seen as part of the infrastructure within towns and cities or counties, or in the case of Scotland, Northern Ireland, at national level. And they have the resources to be able to act.

On the other hand, where you have newly-emerging community foundations – like in Central and Eastern Europe – the function of a community foundation is quite different. The rationale for its creation is more around community engagement, participation, involvement of citizens in self-determination, rather than being a grant maker or a conduit of funds from donors.

So you’ve got that degree of variety across a scale from those that are really about some form of participative democracy – as in Central and Eastern Europe – through to those that are seriously in the philanthropy field as financial intermediaries – as in the UK. And they lie along that spectrum in various ways and with different mixes of functions.

SP: Do the ones that are principally financial intermediaries still have a wider role?

JM: We are very keen on emphasizing the value of a community foundation as an institution that’s built over time, rather than general community philanthropy – which could be anything from funding a local women’s group, through to even forms of crowdfunding. This is important – they are not merely financial intermediaries or sources of finance, but they also play a critically important role that embraces convening, so they can be an independent, hopefully credible place to go and discuss, to identify priorities, to address issues that are falling between the gaps of the public and private sector – and [as institutions,] they are a bridge between those and the community sector.

That institution is very significant because it builds knowledge, which is important as it enables them to then build the social capital that follows from that. They’ve got to have knowledge of their community, of the issues and how to address them, and then to prove that they can do through their actions – and that builds over time. So community foundations are there for the long haul. They’re not created overnight, and they will not just go away – they are a slow burn over time and they build the various forms of capital over time – notably financial capital, physical assets, but also, critically, intellectual and social capital.

As well as the convening and financing roles, they are important independent connectors. This is a role that is, again, only seen over time. Because of their place within the community, they have fairly diverse boards in the sense that they come from private, volunteer and community, and public sectors – they are connecting within the organization, and also they’re able to connect with corporates, with municipalities, with the voluntary and community sector, in ways that exploits the synergies that are possible.

SP: You mention that some are working at the national level. It’s perhaps counter-intuitive to think of a community foundation as working at that scale….

JM: Well, the other thing that is very different across Europe is the scale. So you have some at the national level – like the Community Foundation for Ireland, a single entity that works to fund across Ireland. But in Germany there’s a proliferation of community foundations, over 400 – the largest number in Europe. But many of these are at a very small scale, at the village level, and those sorts of community foundations are very different – they’re volunteer-run, they don’t have a significant asset base, they’re not building an endowment.

I’m just trying to give a flavour – as I said, there is no single definition of a community foundation, the field is extremely diverse in form and function and in stage of development – but it’s a dynamic and growing field.

SP: So what is it that unites community foundations and makes them a distinct field?

JM: It’s – whether it sounds cheesy or not – the ‘Power of Place’. It’s ‘place’ as the common denominator and that is the single defining factor of a community foundation. It’s not a community of interest, it’s a community of place.

This is where we run into some linguistic issues – for example, the term “Community Foundation” does not translate well into French at all and it causes all sorts of confusion. Communautaire
mean something completely different to territoire. So they are foundations of territoire – they’re of a locality. In Northern Ireland we obviously had community identity issues – Protestant, Catholic, loyalists or nationalist – whereas we meant ‘community of place’ and that’s what I suppose got over those issues – by having one [community] that was bigger than most of the mosaic community identities. So that is the one absolutely overriding common characteristic – that it is defined by a geographic area, but that can be hugely different in size.

But alongside that, we’re not being absolutely prescriptive. They are clearly like foundations – they’re independent, they’re generalists, so they don’t focus on single issues, they tend to take all of the locality in their perspective, and try to be strategic in that. Within that there are initiatives that might address health, education, young people, older people and so on.

SP: Why is so important to have a category of foundations that are focused on ‘place’ as an organising principle? And presumably if you’re focused on ‘place’, you’re also interested in how information flows in that place?

The ‘Power of Place’ is something that we’ve all rediscovered through this last [2 years], and people are being made very much more conscious of their immediate locality. For health reasons, for all sorts of other informational reasons, people are wanting quality information where they are. The basic tenet is that community foundations want to discover things about what affects people locally and tell them about it.

Now, where’s the connection between community foundations and the interests of the Journalism Funders Forum and its members? Well, communication with their constituency, with their locality is really important for them, because they see themselves as part of civil society. They also see themselves as connectors into the private sector because they can translate private wealth into public good for that locality. And they – some more than others – see themselves also as catalysts for change by bringing issues that are important to the locality to the fore, and being able to address them.

And recognizing that they don’t have the resources and they have to get the resources by liaising with public bodies – it might be municipalities, for example, or health agencies or education authorities and so on. And that in itself, then presents different challenges in different contexts: not easy in countries characterized by illiberal democracies where there is ‘closing space for civil society’, but fine in others where the work of civil society is valued and encouraged.

We [at ECFI] have talked with different people about community foundations and the role that they could and do play in local information ecosystems – because they’re often really in the heart of those discussions and debates, and they’re rooted in the communities and participants from the community. We do talk about broader things to do with public interest information and community information, [but] the most relevant thing for us is journalism. Connecting with independent journalism is important to be able to get the message across of what community foundations do. And so many of them do have those sorts of relationships with journalists, and in particular local media.

SP: It benefits the foundation and the community to tell the story of what the community foundation is doing – but at the local level, local media are facing a huge economic crisis. Are community foundations supporting journalism financially?

JM: Well, that relationship that can lead to and in some cases has led to some form of funding and support for the activities of journalists. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland was probably one of the first funders of The Detail and this is often [the stage at which a CF would fund] because they don’t have huge resources. So they would have been there right at the start, along with some other funders, [being part of] that sort of risk-taking. I know more recently it funded View Digital to produce and publish journalism on deaf inequalities.

Another slightly different example in the middle would be in Belgium, in Kortrijk, where the Streekfonds or Community Foundation for West Flanders has a very strong relationship with the media and co-funds projects of interest to the media, like a local TV channel that engages young people. In that way they’re not just funding journalism as such, but they are funding media activity that is addressing issues that the Community Foundation has addressed, so it’s a symbiotic relationship and there is resource provision associated with it.

At the other end, very often they have people from the media – more as you move towards Central and Eastern Europe – who are interested in the objectives of the Community Foundation in terms of the community participation and engagement role that they play.

SP: You talked about diversity of sectors within the foundations – there are a lot of different interpretations of diversity, depending on the context – how does that work in the different scales and forms you mention?

JM: Just as the form and function are diverse, the aspiration is that there will be diverse boards. And again it depends on the structure. In Germany there’s a very formal board structure but in the UK, less so and it’s not regulated in any way – but they are scrutinized by their constituencies who are effectively the ones that regulate the governance of the organization. If it’s not right, then that’s where the criticism will come from, and the community foundation will lose its credibility – so it’s in their interest to ensure that they do get their governance right.

There has been criticism of the lack of diversity across the UK in the governance of community foundations, and of foundations generally, and their representative bodies are very well aware of this. In the past, community foundations tended to have the great and the good of the day, including in England people like the Lord Lieutenant, because they have the contacts, the address book, and can get the donors – and that’s well-meaning, well understood. But they now are realizing “in order for us to be credible as organizations we need to involve people that also have lived experience of the issues that we’re trying to address.” The gender balance isn’t so much of an issue any longer, but ethnicity definitely is and age too, so many CFs are trying to get young people involved. It might be in the form of organizational governance or it could be in other ways.

Youth Banks are a classic example of an initiative involving young people – it originated in Northern Ireland as a cross-community Catholic and Protestant thing and once you break down that initial barrier, young people soon find that they’ve got so much more in common than their different religious identities. A youth bank is essentially a way of involving people in determining their own priorities, and using resources towards their own end.

Interestingly, if you look at the profile of Community Foundations in Central and Eastern Europe, you will see a completely different type of operation, driven by young people, activists, from the community. Really diverse, really engaged compared to the traditional older form of board structure in the West.

SP: Are those different models of how community foundations work in dialogue?

JM: When you say ‘in dialogue’, that is part of ECFI’s role. We’re not the umbrella body as such, we are an initiative of the Bundesverband Deutscher Stiftungen (German Association of Foundations) – and in a nutshell, our role is to build and strengthen the community foundation field. In doing so, we support a lot of the national organizations – UKCF in the UK, the Bündnis in Germany, and Assifero in Italy – because their connection to the foundations has to be through their own language, related to the national context and so on. We operate at a supranational level, to encourage learning across borders, like Dafne [or, Philea] does with foundations, and with national associations, but also engage directly with community foundations through activities and social media.

Generally, Central Eastern Europe think that they’re going to learn a lot from the experience of [community foundations in] the West, and yes, people have trodden the path before. But it’s amazing – someone not too long ago from Leeds Community Foundation participated in a study visit to Latvia. And they went home completely refreshed and re-energized around what community foundations should be like in engaging with their communities, because they become so institutionalized, so stuck in their ways of being grantmakers, of their donor servicing orientation that they’d lost a bit of that [freshness and energy] and it was refreshing for them to experience that. And so we facilitate a lot of international exchange that can provide for learning, in different scenarios.

[In respect of how CFs support journalism, we’re asking] what does this actually look like, how widespread is it? [Do we need] to help them think about how to do it, to understand what skills or resources they might need – is there anything at the level of infrastructure organizations that might be provided?

SP: What are the places to watch? Where do you see the most energy and potential in the community foundation sector right now? Where might a closer relationship between community foundations and media work well?

JM: I suppose those where you see the greatest potential and energy will be countries where media is perhaps suppressed or there’s a lack of independence. And then that makes the support for that from community foundations, really, really challenging, because on the one hand they will want to offer support, but on the other hand they do want to put themselves, ultimately, at risk by doing that? Looking at countries where civil society is not trusted and where media is controlled: if a community foundation were to start that, that would be the end of them – they would be closed probably the next day.

The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland was always prepared to be a risk taker and did so through the Peace program by funding, extraordinary projects with ex-prisoners, with former combatants and with victims – things others would not touch. But media then is difficult. In Northern Ireland that could work because, being of regional scale, then something like The Detail could be a valuable product. Most community foundations operate at a scale that is probably below where there is media interest – if it’s a single town or municipality or, in Germany’s case, village, it’s too localized a level to be able to have the capacity then to invest in journalism. But in West Flanders, it’s a big enough regional interest to then build a relationship, whether it’s a funding relationship or a symbiotic relationship with the media.

Where is the vibrancy? A country like Romania is a brilliant example where the community foundation movement is really vibrant, and has grown well. It just had a particular approach to its development that worked well in Romania – whereas it didn’t for example in Bulgaria – and that was down to the structures that were behind it, the investment that went in and the particular people involved. [As a result] you see a dynamic young movement that is really really progressive, and it’s exciting for countries like Spain and Italy, who are also quite new to the field, to learn from that experience in Eastern Europe.

I think Italy is an interesting example. It has had a development of a field, a second wave which occurred more in southern Italy rather than the Northern Italian ones, following an initiative of the Cariplo Foundation. Whenever they move towards this sort of more indigenous development and community interest, there have been extraordinary examples. Messina Community Foundation in Sicily is amazing and Val di Noto near Siracusa too – I think they really have the potential to be able, whether it’s through direct funding or not, I’m not sure – to engage effectively with media.

What’s interesting about the dynamic in Sicily, is that there is still this lack of trust in public institutions, and on the other hand, you’ve got the mafia and the role that they play within society there, and the community foundations are filling and building credibility in this space as a trusted organization. If they can build sufficient resource around that, then there definitely is a story to tell about that, and whether to tell that story journalists need resources from the community foundations is another thing.

SP: Is there a sense in which the key factor for CFs is that story-telling about their work, helping them to build their institutional trust and credibility, and that supporting independent journalism is more of a by-product?

JM: From an ECFI perspective it’s definitely not a by-product – and [it was the same where] I used to work at the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. I think it’s fundamental and it’s recognized as being fundamental. But as I say the community foundation has to get to a critical mass itself to be able to convene or be able to engage with media.

It is not just about 1) ensuring that there is an appropriate independent media, encouraging that, which is clearly of interest to the locality, and 2) using that to tell the story of the community foundation. It is much more fundamental than that – I think it is around generating or encouraging and promoting this sense of place, and identity associated with place, that can – and this is critical – transcend the other differences that exist in terms of economic and social status, and wellbeing and the diversity that exists within that place. There are examples where media and journalism itself became an integral part of what the Community Foundation was trying to do, and absolutely not a by-product.

So from that perspective – and this is where the example in Belgium is good – that they have recognized this fact. The TV company is on the board of Streekfonds, which has projects that are driven by media, because they see the value of people involved in the media as being a way in which they can actually implement activities, projects and so on, that serve to help people understand each other within that community – particularly young people. Integration of young people from diverse backgrounds, involvement of refugees and migrants, asylum seekers is key, and [Streekfonds understand] they can use the media as being a form of convening, so it actually can deliver an outcome for them.

SP: What about consensus around truth and facts at the community level? How do community foundations relate to misinformation and disinformation?

JM: The only way that Community Foundations can deal with this is they can’t claim to be the owners of truth. In the same way as we deal with something that is absolutely global like the Sustainable Development Goals, or even Covid-19, you see something that is way out there, totally global. But the important thing – and this is the connection between community foundations and local journalism – is that it affects individuals and it affects them in their place. Lockdown really made us have this sense of place because we were very much locked into place, and there was all this mutual aid going on and, so people started to re-engage a bit more with their communities.

The point about disinformation, ultimately, is ‘the truth will come out’ and, and if community foundations don’t work – and work appropriately with journalists – to identify, and in some cases uncover, the truth, they will be found out, and they will lose their credibility – and in a post-conflict environment in Northern Ireland we’ve got a lot of issues around Truth and Reconciliation obviously. So it’s part of that trust-building process to base that trust on at least the endeavour to find the truth, but not to say you are necessarily the owner of the truth.

So, the issue of identifying what is truth… The important thing is what is relevant in how does this affect my life, and what can I do about that? How does this impact on my locality, on me and my life. I can have the externalities of the views of anti vaxxers, or the views of government on policy around Coronavirus but I’ve got to ultimately decide do I feel comfortable wearing a mask, do I feel comfortable going from here to there, how do I live my life in my locality? and that’s where community foundations have to take that stance of encouraging and supporting people to better understand the locality and the environment within which they live and act.

SP: It’s that idea of trust, spanning the whole community in that place in all its variety?

JM: It links to the idea of trust that is based around the relationships that exist in that locality. Then we come back to the issue of scale – so if you take a community foundation at a regional scale like Northern Ireland, it’s hard to build trust at that level, it’s hard to get a common sense of identity. But when you go down to village level, yes, you can have that very tight-knit community. So, it also depends on the scale as to the degree of trust that can work within it.

That’s where I think community foundations are really important because they address this intersectionality as it affects people’s lives in their locality. If I talk to a community foundation about the SDGs and they say “this is not for us… if they can’t even do it at COP 26, what chance have we?” I try to help them look at it from the other way around. I ask them “Well, what do you do?” They might say: “We address health and wellbeing, equality, social inclusion, sustainable cities and so on.” And I can say to them “Yes, you are addressing every single aspect of the SDGs, just from your perspective, and that’s the way those SDGs impact on people’s lives.”

It will not be just education, or inequality, or employment prospects – they are all completely connected and community foundations get that and that’s what they do.


If you’d like to read or hear more about community foundations, take a look at ECFI’s Knowledge Centre, listen to this interview with James on the Giving Thought podcast, and here’s ECFI’s latest State of the Field report (the 2022 edition is coming out soon, and we’ll update this post with the link).

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