As I have been meeting with community and private foundations in New York and Canada to learn and share about contemporary philanthropic practice, I have been impressed by the importance all the foundations have placed on their 'convening' role.

While this terminology means something within organised philanthropy, it might be useful to explain why convening is a central part of the DNA of many foundations, especially at a time when we need to take an evidence based, long-term view of some of the challenges many cities across the world are facing.

So first, the dictionary meaning of 'convening' is 'to come or bring together for a meeting or activity'. Why is this part of the work of philanthropic foundations? Foundations are independent from government or commercial interests. Their purpose is simply advancing and supporting the public good. Foundations operate outside political or commercial time frames and pressures, and can create a safe place for diverse organisations to come together to discuss, test and even solve challenges. Philanthropic foundations can be the glue that keeps a network or initiative together. Through convening and sometimes funding networks and/or follow on projects, foundations play a very important role in problem solving in today's civil society.

The best way to explain a foundation's convening role is to bring it to life through examples.
 


New York Community Trust (NYCT) is working on collaborations focused on public education, immigration, workforce development and foster care. They provide the convening role for these collaborations and bring not-for-profit organisations and other players, such as the city government, together in what they call 'learning collaboratives'. In the immigration collaborative, participants have worked together to identify the many facets of this problem requiring attention. NYCT is now funding programs relating to becoming a more welcoming city, ensuring immigration law is fairly accessed, providing legal services, building the capacity of immigration support organisations. They have also created a collaborative fund, the Fund for New Citizens.
 

 


United Nations Foundation (UNF) was established by a gift from Ted Turner to support the United Nation's big initiatives. UNF is currently focused on food security, the global alliance for clean cook stoves and global health initiatives, including antimicrobial resistance. UNF's role in the clean cook stoves alliance inspired me. Alongside grants to many organisations in Sub Saharan Africa and India, UNF is helping build a sustainable market for cook stoves powered by solar power. This work has health, education and environmental impacts: reduced carbon emissions, reduced incidence of pneumonia, and a higher attendance by girls at school as they are no longer spending many hours collecting wood.

Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) are founders and funders of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. This brings best practice climate mitigation strategies and projects to cities around the world. RBF is using its convening power to bring key staff together to build local and global networks of practitioners focused on sustainable cities. RBF goes even further and has a physical base at the Pocantico Centre (which is part of the Rockefeller family estate) to support some of their convening work related to their work. Many groups, including grantees, meet together at the Centre throughout the year.
 

 

 

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors is convening a funder collaboration with 30 foundations about the future of organised philanthropy. This will build a framework for foundations to help them allocate resources and think about their organisational structures and capability. The collaboration is asking (my words): in a complex world where collaboration is critical to systems change, what skills and organisational models will be needed? I am looking forward to seeing the report on this work.
 


Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) convenes many collaborations across sectors. I saw this in action when I was a guest at a wonderful lunch with partner organisations. Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) is a convenor of both the network of Canadian community foundations but also some special initiatives. A new convening project is incubating a community foundation for the Arctic regions. CFC also acts as a hub, hosting Impact Hub, Match International Women's Fund and a few other like-minded organisations.

In our own work, one example of our own convening work is the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and, last year, a senior women's enterprise working group.

This amazing diversity of examples of foundations putting their convening power to work makes me ask myself: Where else could we play a convening role, that provides a safe space for new conversations about current challenges to take place?

Catherine Brown
Chief Executive Officer

 

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