The Power of Sharing

By Mary Fifield

International community development practitioners in South Africa

International community development practitioners in South Africa

On Thanksgiving Day I was flying to South Africa for an international gathering organized by the Global Fund for Community Foundations. It was my first trip to Africa and my first chance to meet some of the esteemed colleagues that make up the cohort of determined, dedicated, highly experienced, and creative people who lead community foundations and support community-driven development around the world.

Some of the participants are directors of large, successful community foundations. Others run small organizations with one or two staff members. Hailing from various countries in the Middle East, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, the participants represented an incredible diversity of grassroots organizations from a wide swath of the globe, all of whom have different models but all of whom share some core beliefs.

All believe in the power of small grants and building equal partnerships with communities, and all believe that communities should drive their own development.

Working at the grassroots with a grassroots organization, especially in the Global South, can conjure the “every man (woman) is an island” feeling. Yet when we start exchanging stories, we rediscover our common experiences.

With the support of the Community Foundation for South Sinai (mo’assessa) Bedouin women and young people found the courage to challenge cultural norms during the Egyptian revolution and organize community meetings to educate each other about democratic participation. In Vietnam, the LIN Center for Community Development provided funding for women with hearing impairments to protect themselves against domestic violence and for local groups to organize a soccer tournament for low-income children.

The stories remind us why we’ve chosen to work on the small scale, at the personal level, in the time frame that works for communities, not the global economy or the international funding machine. We’ve made this choice because we see that getting to know community partners and allowing them to know us teaches us how to make our support as effective as possible. It also enriches us because maintaining a relationship with the people we work with keeps us in the human sphere, not the systemic, bureaucratic sphere where it’s so much easier to lose sight of what change means in people’s lives.

Yet, for as rewarding and effective as the work is, we all know the pitfalls and dangers: too little visibility among large development players who impose an agenda that often works against communities; too much work for too few people with too small budgets; lack of tools that can help us communicate with those outside the field about what’s working and why.

In our work with communities in Ecuador, Amazon Partnerships Foundation experienced both the rewards and the pitfalls. The long plane ride from South Africa to the U.S. gave me the chance to reflect on how grateful I am that we are a part of this outstanding cohort. I thought about how many thousands of other APF’s there are out there, scrappy but dedicated, succeeding and failing but making a difference.

They want to connect to others, partly to break out of the myopia that inevitably occurs when you have too many fires to fight, and partly to raise the collective voice so that “development work” is not relegated to a wonky corner of public conversation but becomes an exploration of the human experience, regardless of who you are or where you live.

The gathering with our colleagues was a fitting transition into Amazon Partnerships’ next phase: the launch of our new blog and online resources for people to share and contribute to globally. We know first hand how important it is to support small community-based organizations and community foundations–those groups that truly represent the communities in which they work and who are challenging the dominant paradigm of top-down development.

And that brings me back to gratitude. As I witnessed in South Africa, sharing information and stories with the goal of continuing to understand what does and doesn’t work is powerful. We’ve benefitted enormously from these kinds of exchanges and now we want to help pay it forward.

So let’s keep the conversation going. If you are a community development practitioner, a volunteer, an aid worker, a funder, or just someone who cares about the human experience, visit our blog, submit a post, comment, or share a link.

The more we share and explore, the more we can help build a sense of unity and common purpose among people who care not just about what is being done to improve the well-being of people and the planet, but how.

Mary Fifield