Community philanthropy is about invisibility

“You do not have to sit here waiting for someone to ask. You need to go out there and create the networks”, says Maria Amália Souza in Johannesburg. Interview. Português Español

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases Maria Amália Souza
19 January 2017

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Portuguese: "The fight on the forest starts in the streets", during a protest in Brasilia, Brazil. Eraldo Peres AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

This interview is part of a series done in Johannesburg at the World Summit of Community Philanthropy (1-2 December 2016).

Francesc Badia: Do you see Latin America evolving towards a more community-engaging funding model or do you see it rather in the tradition of giving to charities and not to major organizations?

Maria Amália Souza: There is an interesting phenomenon happening, I think. We started up as a group of environmentalists - or, as we call ourselves, socio-environmentalists - because we do not believe in removing people and fencing away forests: we as humans are part of nature, and we need to be engaged in protecting our life support systems on this planet. We very quickly came to realize that the ones who are doing the hardest work are the people who belong in these fragile ecosystems: the indigenous groups, the river communities, the people on lands directly affected by the extractive industries. They have learned how to live in that structure, how to live off Earth’s living body, and they are taking care of the most important services that these ecosystems offer to keep us all alive.

So, we looked at why resources were not reaching these communities, which do not even know that philanthropy exists. I mean, they are there, trying to defend their territories, they stand in front of bulldozers, they get killed because of it, they denounce illegal logging, they make human barriers across rivers to stop the building of dams. They do whatever it takes - with their own lives, and without any financial resources.

So, we said: “we need to figure out how to be a part of that movement. Some of us were closer to the grassroots, others were coming from elsewhere. I myself went to college in the US and witnessed the birth of the big international NGOs for the protection of the rainforests and the rivers, and I kept thinking that we needed to work together, to channel resources to where they were needed. But we never really thought that we had to set up a community foundation. We just thought that we should to get the money there and that, to this end, we needed to be there – for we work basically on rights protection with a solution-based approach, and so we often have to act swiftly. So, we needed to figure out how to get the money there, find out where the money was, and set up something that could do the trick. Then, we started learning about philanthropy.

We have seen that in the last 20 years – in Brazil, but I am sure it is much the same in the whole of Latin America -, the wealthy and the corporations were pushed into social investment on the basis of the reasoning that they needed to give back to society some of the wealth they were taking from it. So, they started setting up corporate, or family foundations. However, at least in Brazil, most of them – about 80% - focus only on education. This is a highly protected approach, which does not put them in any vulnerable position. Also, they manage their own funds: most of them do not actually give money to the communities, they manage it themselves on behalf of the communities.  

So, it is not easy for us – the socio-environmental, social-justice based new funds which started operating in the last 10-15 years – to convince them that communities are trustworthy, that they are the ones who actually find solutions for both them and us, that it is safe to actually hand over the money to them, because they will not run away with it; that they are actually capable of doing so much more with the little money that we can put in their hands. The turnover is just incredible. We have been funding over 1,500 projects in 10 countries in Latin America in the last 10 years. And we have always given money to groups which most of them had never received any grants before. We are 100% certain that they do really good work with the money, and this owns them the necessary trust to get more support.

So, to go back to your question: we have these foundations doing social investment – not philanthropy - and then, more recently, we have been talking more about community foundation. That is: a community sets up a local fund, draws resources from the community, and then gives them back – in manifold ways - to the community. This model, I must say, is not very well understood, or known, in Latin America. There are only three community foundations in Brazil, for example – it is a very incipient process. But we have actually found out from our 15.000 grantees that there are in fact quite a few groups that are drawing resources from and investing them back in the community, but that they are actually unaware of the concept of community foundation. For example, we are funding many communities that carry out women savings schemes. They act as a savings bank for the women in the community, they then lend money to one family to improve their house, they get their loan back, then they lend it to some other family… they are managing rotating funds. We give them a small grant – $ 5,000 -, and they use it as a rotating fund for a small business in the community, to reforest a region, to run Quilombos - community banks. They are all community foundations, but they just do not know it. They are not familiar with the concept.

FB: We have seen how aggressive extractivism can be. It has crushed communities, it has even killed - with impunity - some activists in the front line. How do you see this evolving? Do you think that the bigger and more visible the opposition to extractivism is, the likelier it is to stop these attacks on communities (even though, as we have seen in cases like that of Berta Cáceres recently, the fact that she was well-known did not stop her killers)?

MAS: We think a lot about this, obviously. We are working precisely with the most threatened, vulnerable people: the environmental defenders, the land rights advocates. We have come to devise a couple of approaches. First – and this is the message that we keep conveying to the international community of funders –, make the funding as invisible as possible. The more we are in the back, not claiming that we are giving them the money, the more protected these people are. Second, funding legal support is very efficient in Latin America. That is, underwriting all the mechanisms the communities need in terms of lawyers’ support – mainly pro-bono lawyers – and footing the bill of certain legal actions. This gives them another level of protection. But nobody needs to know. It is important to keep as inconspicuous as possible. I believe that funding, in fact, is quite the opposite of what funders usually do, which is proclaiming it to the world - but being nowhere to be found when it comes to the crunch...

I was actually working with the rubber tappers in the indigenous communities when Chico Mendes was killed. Right after his assassination, the leaders decided that they were not going to make any one person that visible from then on, that they were going to share the leadership. And nobody has been killed since. That was in 1988, almost 30 years ago. So, when you have friends who are in that situation – and we are funding people who are in very vulnerable situations indeed -, the thing is not to draw attention to yourself. We are not important, they are important. So, we must do whatever it takes to protect them – offering them protection in terms of legal support; in terms of actually taking them as witnesses to some of the UN Human Rights commissions, or to the Organization of American States (OAS), or any international forum; in terms of making use of international conventions on their behalf.

FB: From your experience in Latin America, do you think that in Brazil – which has experienced significant economic growth in the past 15 years - there are more donors, more people who are engaged in this kind of action?

MAS: I think that one of the biggest mistakes of international philanthropy is the misreading of the situation. There is a lot of concentrated wealth in Brazil, a country that got a lot of money and used its national banks to fund the big construction companies – not just to create these mega projects which threaten everybody’s lives in the country, but in all of South America and in Africa. So, Brazil has financed absurd, huge, mega projects that are now threatening many communities, because it has the money to do it and does not have to borrow it from anybody.

And then, what happened? International philanthropy, which was funding a rights-based approach, fled from Latin America. Everybody left. Except very few: the Ford Foundation is still here, Open Society is coming back, Avina too…

Each one has its own approach, but there is very little money to go around – even less so for the grassroots activists. That is actually one of the reasons why we got started. We are part of the Brazil Social Justice Philanthropy Network, together with the Women’s Fund, the Racial Equity Fund, the Brazil Human Rights Fund, and some community foundations. We came together and said: “We need to explain to society that we are, actually, a very efficient mechanism to put resources where nobody does, because the big funders do not fund small grants, they have their own approach”.

Actually, we are the only fund created and run in South America that funds South America. Nobody other than us does it. We figured out a way – a legal way, mind you: we are audited by top auditors - to get the money out of Brazil, because it is so very important for us to get the money flowing to the whole ecosystem. The Amazon includes nine countries: you cannot just put money in Brazil and forget the rest. If we are working together, the money needs to get to everyone. So, we are reinventing ourselves every day, and I think that this is the way philanthropy will need to go in the future. You need to be flexible, to have less small boxes, not to sit here waiting for somebody to ask. You have to go out there and create the networks – there are eight people in our organization, making 200 grants a year, and relying on our networks, which link thousands of activists and groups working in the regions. These people are telling us “this is what to fund” and then they tell us how they are doing. And they are always doing better than we expected. So, we do not need to spend money on our central structure, we do not have an office, we work from home, we spend as little as possible on our small group, and we get the money out there.

So, I think that the one thing that needs to be done is to be top administrators of the financial resources that we receive – to be perfect administrators. Eventually, one of the three national banks in Brazil, Caixa Econômica Federal, was looking for ways to get resources to the communities, but their processes were too complicated. They did some research and came to us saying: “Can we do a benchmark meeting on how do you do this?” We met and talked, and they said: “Why don’t you just take the money and do it for us?” So, we doubled, and we are currently tripling our ability to make grants in Brazil. This has put us in a whole new position within Brazilian philanthropy. Suddenly, people were saying: “How did you get all this money? Look at what you are doing!” This is the work that needs to be done: the more you demonstrate that you do things well, that you actually do with the money what you say you are going to do, that you are accountable and can prove it, the more you might be able to influence this other world where the money is… There is a lot of money around.

There are very few individual donors in Brazil. It is a similar situation in Mexico. Still, there is quite a lot of wealth in Latin America. So, now, because we are worried that it is hard for us to get funding across borders, and because we are not philanthropists and did not go out to set up a fund, what we are doing is going to our partners in other Latin American countries and say: “We are environmentalists, we developed a mechanism, it works really well, and we have learned how to manage it. So, why don’t you just set up something like it yourselves? We will coach you, give you guidance, we will tell you about all the mistakes we have made, so that you do not have to go through them again. We will do whatever we can to support the multiplication of this structure. And the minute I sent the e-mail to our partners, everybody answered: “yes, yes, yes, yes!” We are now in the process of talking to groups in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, possibly Chile, helping them to set up their own local grassroots grant structures. And we are talking to some donors that have already shown interest – this is the role that we can play. Instead of trying to fight the Brazilian Government to let us send the money over there, let us raise the money in the different countries. It is even quicker. And it protects these people even more, if you do not have international transactions into their bank accounts.

I am excited about this, it is a very good moment.

FB: You are shifting from the model of the big NGOs, the UN, their excessive bureaucracy...

MAS: Money for social and environmental issues is still very concentrated, it is still in the hands of the big international NGOs. If we have many of these funds, we can come together to access larger resources. Alone, we are too small to go to these big structures. But together we can. So, we do a lot of networking with other funders. One of them is the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGCA). Another is the Central American Women Fund, which is leading a programme for all the Global South. Together, we are funding together women funds, environmental funds, NGOs and grassroots organizations in over 30 countries. It is a really interesting partnership. I think it is the first of its kind.

FB: It is important to make these developments hit the news, to raise awareness of the fact that this happening...

MAS: The more alliances we make, the better.

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