The first-ever North American Community Foundations Summit was held in Mexico City on February 5-6 and was co-hosted with Comunalia, Community Foundations of Canada. With over 200 attendees, the Summit focused on achieving the SDGs and included discussions about reducing poverty, building resilient economies, ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion, utilizing new technology platforms to accelerate action on global goals and protecting against climate change and natural disasters. As part of the Summit, we were joined by nine travel scholarship recipients who represented diverse U.S. communities. This compilation of blogs is part of a series where they share their experiences and observations. A very big thank you to the Knight Foundation, International Community Foundation, Resource Foundation, Arizona Community Foundation, and Hispanics in Philanthropy for sponsoring these scholarships.
Vice President, External Relations
Not Lost in Translation
Southwest Florida Community Foundation
Fort Meyers, Florida
Wandering into the Chapultepec Forest seemed a bit mysterious. As I stood at the gates leading into one of the largest parks in the Western Hemisphere, I realized I didn’t have a plan.
I hadn’t expected to find myself in Mexico City. I was able to make the trip due the generosity of a Council on Foundations scholarship that allowed me to attend the inaugural North American Community Foundations Summit. Standing on the brink of the unknown forest seemed to be the most appropriate way to start my journey.
I only had a few hours to spare before the kickoff of the Summit, which was designed to bring together community foundations and partners from Mexico, Canada, and the United States to explore how our passion for helping our communities can have an impact locally and globally, all through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The park proved to be a labyrinth of museums, ancient castles, botanical gardens, music, and families buying giant clouds of cotton candy, freshly sliced mango and trinkets from vendors perched under bright blue umbrellas.
At first, I paid close attention to my path, making sure I could trace my steps back to the gates.
But at some point, I lost focus and was swept up in the sights and sounds of my new and foreign surroundings. When it was time to head back, I realized I was completely lost. I didn’t speak the language and my GPS kept sending me in circles. I was lost in translation.
As I sat on a bench to regain my bearings, I wondered if the conference organizers had similar moments of feeling unsure of their path as they contemplated what it would mean to bring three countries together, at a time in which relations between them had felt the strain of immigration debates and NAFTA reform.
The conference’ theme, “No One Left Behind,” came at a critical time. Many participants had little or no exposure to the SDGs and the conference was designed to push all of us to consider how we can best work together to support our communities.
I made my way out of the park and into the meeting. A new adventure filled with conversations, big ideas, strategies, and the initial framework to create a common language for change through the SDGs.
The summit created a clear direction for us all. No translation needed.
There’s Great Potential to Learn From Others in the Field
Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley
Kudos to all the partners who made the inaugural North American Community Foundations Summit a resounding success! This is the first conference I’ve attended where a framework was provided that was relevant to all participants. No matter the size or location, every foundation can find a way to work towards at least one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Highlights from the two days often centered on real-life examples. On the Table and Vital Signs were just a couple examples of tried and true programs that can be modified and utilized throughout North America.
Leila Janah’s overview of Samasource and her inspiration for creatively tackling old problems in new ways was incredibly inspiring. Her opening plenary set the stage for others to challenge conventional ideas throughout the Summit.
There’s a huge benefit in stepping away from the daily grind. We each get stuck in our own routines and distancing myself physically and mentally from the workplace helped me to challenge my own assumptions. Though our organization is small in size, as well as our community’s population, there’s great potential to learn from others in the field and recognize the strengths and tools already available for us to utilize in our own back yards.
I left the Summit appreciative for the opportunity and pondering these questions as we move forward: Why do we think of ourselves as charities and nonprofits when the unique structure of a community foundation has potential to be so much more? Why not think of ourselves as “community investors?” How can we leverage partnerships within our communities to have the greatest impact?
SDGs Make Dignity Possible
T. Duane Gordon
Formerly of Middletown Community Foundation
First, please allow me to express my sincere appreciation to the Council on Foundations for selecting me for a travel scholarship to the North American Community Foundations Summit and to the sponsors who made the scholarships possible. The experience allowed a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the role of foundations (and the entire nonprofit sector) in tackling the most significant issues facing our planet.
The word that quickly stood out to me from the very first plenary was “dignity.” Carlos Zarco Mera, Program Manager for the USAID/Mexico Local Capacity Development Activity, said, “Dignity is the core of human rights. Poverty attacks dignity.” Leila Janah, Founder & CEO of Samasource, quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
In each subsequent session and plenary, I was struck by how each one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals could be distilled into the preservation, protection, or restoration of human dignity. The elimination of poverty and hunger, access to clean water and sanitation, gender equity, education, work and healthcare, even having an environment that remains able to sustain human life by addressing climate change—all of the goals at their base make dignity possible.
For community foundations that have historically relied on one of the four overarching traditional service models (donor-focused, grant-focused, fiscal agent, or community convener/catalyst), viewing all foundation activities instead through the lens of furthering dignity constitutes a tectonic shift, but the SDGs can serve as an effective and efficient roadmap for achieving this.
The only deficiency I observed from the presentations was the ability to scale down to much smaller communities. Bold action is feasible for medium and larger community foundations located in larger—and usually more progressive—communities. As Kevin McCort expressed, “If you’re not big enough to BE the system, how can you CHANGE the system?” This position was echoed by Emmett Carson who said, “The problems we face will not be solved by a grant.” Encouraging us to research, convene people, advocate, and lobby, he noted, “Public policy is not about money. It’s about courage. It’s about saying ‘This is wrong, and this is what we want you to do about it, local government.’”
However, the biggest impediments I see to a unified sector addressing these issues are the smaller-to-medium community foundations located in smaller—and usually more conservative—communities where the boards are reflective of those communities and the foundations are much more reliant upon a larger percentage of current donors for survival. Consequently, bold action is much more difficult to undertake there. In these areas, including my own community, “United Nations” are bad words, making public alignment with the SDGs much more difficult, if not impossible, relegating alignment to be implemented clandestinely, if at all.