The first community foundation was created 100 years ago in Cleveland. Within five years, additional community foundations sprang up in Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Today, there are more than 700 community foundations in urban and rural communities across the United States. With more than $50 billion in combined assets, they distribute an estimated $4.2 billion each year to worthy nonprofits.
Twenty-seven of these community foundations are located in Colorado.
The community foundation is an American export. Now, more than 900 similar organizations operate in 45 other countries around the world, benefiting millions of people.
What are community foundations?
Community foundations are independent charitable organizations designed to collect and combine donations, conduct research into community needs and make grants within a defined geographic area. They are “place-based” — seeking to pool resources to meet a community’s unique needs. According to David C. Perry and Terry Mazany, editors of “Here for Good: Community Foundations and the Challenges of the 21st Century,”
The mission of a community foundation is the community, not restricted to the interests of an individual donor, not limited to the interests of any grant recipient, not constrained by a particular instrument of philanthropy … and not beholden to the interests of any political party or the allure of any particular initiative.”
Most community foundations accept a wide variety of assets and offer tax advantages for donors. They have deep local roots. Often, staff members are experts in understanding unique local issues. They also serve as educational institutions, teaching the benefits and techniques of giving.
Almost always, community foundations occupy an important place at the table occupied by community leaders — offering a voice for progress, advocating for nonprofits and encouraging philanthropy.
In 2000, seeking to ensure the best and most prudent practices in this sector, the Council on Foundations created the National Standards for U.S. Community Foundations. Now, approximately 60 percent of U.S. community foundations are accredited under the standards — with more making steady progress toward this goal.
Challenges for the next 100 years
As they launch a second century of operations, community foundations are working to address important challenges.
These challenges include an increased demand for human services, equalized access to information due to technology, the redefinition of “place” and “community” in a globalized environment, competition from commercial charitable funds and other organizations, and fundraising competition in the increasingly crowded nonprofit sector.
In addition, according to C. Albert Ruesga of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, many of today’s foundations “straddle two worlds that frequently come into conflict: the world of wealthy trustees, whose power is rooted in the stability of an economic system that creates and sustains their wealth, and the world of grantees, who have little appetite for sustaining the status quo.”
This “conflict” underscores one of the most important roles that community foundations play in our changing world.
Particularly in urban areas, community foundations are well positioned to be both the facilitator and leader of civil discourse — convening diverse audiences across social, racial and economic divides to find shared solutions to the problems that confront the places we call “home.”
Rural areas are often dependent upon extractive and agricultural economies and challenged by shrinking populations and resources.
There, community foundations are uniquely situated to “focus on the intentional development of human capital” to “form the new anchor of prosperity” for the future, according to Paul Major of the Telluride Foundation.
Donors who wish to preserve and improve the places where they live, work and play, or to support other specific locations across our country, should engage with their local community foundations. Find the community foundation nearest you at cof.org/community-foundation-locator.
Step up with your time and treasure to help make your community stronger, healthier, fairer and more sustainable over the next 100 years.
This post originally appeared in the Denver Post, September 14, 2014, and is re-posted here with permission by the author.