Tending to the Roots: Why the biggest difference you can make may be on your doorstep

Who do we give to and why? In practice, giving is driven by emotions as much as any cost-benefit analysis. Consequently, the groups that usually benefit are those making headlines, those people have personal affiliations to or sadly, those which already have the biggest marketing budgets. The inevitable result is that, while some groups receive more than adequate funding, others with equally pressing causes and vulnerable clients are left struggling to survive.

This summer, I co-authored a report for Localgiving looking into the sustainability of the UK’s local voluntary sector. We found a sector stretched to its capacity. Eighty-one per cent of local charities were facing an increase in demand for services; just 15 per cent felt they had the resources to cope with this escalation. Worryingly, only 47 per cent of local groups were confident about surviving the next five years. Moreover, many of these groups were not only lacking in resources but in the specialist skills required to improve their situation. These conditions are not unique to the UK. So how can the philanthropic community help these small, local groups to obtain the resources and skills required to thrive?

Our report made a number of recommendations about how best to bring investment into the local voluntary sector. Ultimately, in order to secure the survival and sustainability of these groups, community stakeholders (politicians, business people, philanthropists, etc), will need to work together to explore practical solutions, suitable to their communities. However, to bring these stakeholders around the table they first need to understand A) the critical nature of the situation B) the unique value of grassroots groups and C) the impact that they can make as individuals.

We need to begin by recognizing the value of grassroots groups. Their main strength lies in the very fact that they are embedded in communities. These roots enable them to build robust, trusting relationships, understand nuanced local dynamics and identify and access hard to reach sections of the community. Though hard to quantify, these services are even harder to replicate.

Grassroots groups everywhere need recognition and resources. But where should these come from? Just as the strength of local groups lies in their local ties and local knowledge, so does that of philanthropists. Theoretically, a community project in London could be funded by philanthropists in Lagos or vice versa. Indeed, given the uneven geographic spread of philanthropists, it is crucial that some invest in regions distant from their own.

However, there are significant advantages to giving locally – particularly when we see the value of philanthropy beyond monetary terms. Philanthropists are often highly-skilled, well connected people. For practical reasons, these attributes are often best deployed close to home:

  • Though information technology means that in principle, groups can benefit from the skills of philanthropists anywhere in the world, physical distance still limits the extent to which these skills can be fully utilized.
  • This is even more true when it comes to ‘connections’. Philanthropists frequently have strong relationships in core areas such as politics and business which can help them influence decisions and agendas to the benefit of the groups they work with. However, this influence is usually geographically restricted and is at its strongest on the philanthropist’s home ‘turf’.

A philanthropist’s decision about where to give will always come down to his or her conscience or calculations. It is essential, however, that at the centre of this decision is the question ‘where can I make the greatest impact?’ For many the answer may just be ‘on your doorstep’.