Developing a better understanding of Community Foundations in the UK

With a greater emphasis on localism currently being seen in public policy discourse, this paper examines the role played by Community Foundations  in furthering the tenets of community leadership and philanthropy. The paper then challenges the 'single model' view of UK Community Foundations.

The interaction between Localism and philanthropy has become a central tenet of public policy discourse across the United Kingdom. This presents significant opportunities for community foundations. These are geographically embedded philanthropic organisations capable of combining grant-making with resource generation, donor services and community leadership. With their inherent focus on place, community foundations seem destined to play a central role in localism and have been posited as central to rebalancing the relationship between state and civil society.

On the surface, community foundations across the UK appear to recognise the opportunities of localism. Under the auspices of their UK membership and practice-quality accrediting body, the Community Foundation Network (CFN), they position themselves as both local drivers of innovation and pan-UK leaders of community philanthropy. Similarly, within UK policy debates, community foundations are perceived as keepers of grant-making management expertise, potential magnets for money, and a valuable tool for achieving the vision of localism. How far such rhetoric about community foundations play out in practice is generally unclear; from within the UK, evidence is very limited. The sole published academic study of UK community foundations indicates that they have displayed only isolated examples of community leadership, concentrating instead on donor development and future sustainability. There is a clear need for a strengthened and nuanced understanding of community foundations, their roles and characteristics.

In this paper we start to explore and conceptualise how community foundations conceive of the role of community leadership in the policy discourses on localism within the constituent parts of the UK. In the first section of the paper, the community foundation concept and some of its inherent tensions and challenges are outlined. Drawing on political geography, we then examine two central tenets of community foundations, ‘place’ and ‘place leadership’. Considering the different expressions of localism across the UK and community foundations’ leadership roles therein, we argue the need for a more differentiated understanding of the community foundation idea, its leadership roles and potential. We conclude that the portrayal and perception of community foundations as a singular, pan-UK collective for community philanthropy leadership needs to be seriously challenged.

The complete draft research paper is available for download below. The  final paper has been accepted for Policy & Politics, pending final proofing.


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