Research Project: The Evolution of Community-based Philanthropy

Par Leigha McCarroll , Ph.D. candidate, Carleton University
Par Dr. Megan Conway , PhiLab member, Post-doctoral Fellow
Par Dr. Susan Phillips , PhiLab member
Par Dr. Alexandra Williamson , PhiLab member, Post-doctoral Fellow
13 June 2021

The Evolution of Community-based Philanthropy: Initial Insights into a Comparison of Community Foundation Peak Organizations

Research team: Leigha McCarroll, Ph.D. Candidate (Carleton University), Dr. Megan Conway, Post-doctoral Fellow (Carleton University), Dr. Susan Phillips, Faculty (Carleton University) Dr. Alexandra Williamson, Post-doctoral Fellow (Queensland University of Technology)

Keywords: Community Foundations; Community-Based Philanthropy; Organizational Strategy; Canada; Australia

Community-based Philanthropy

Photo by Rebecca Siegel on Flickr


The past year has brought into sharp relief the ways in which global trends, phenomena, and crises play out in local spaces. For community foundations, like many civil society groups, this spotlight on the local has had a significant impact on the way they operate and relate to their stakeholders.

Who we are

We are a small team of researchers situated in Canada and Australia with an interest in intentionally exploring the ways that community foundations are pivoting to address rapid change locally, nationally, and at a global level.

What we have done

Through the support of an initial grant from PhiLab, we identified and scoped a series of preliminary research questions, conducted a literature review and began consultation with representatives from the two peak bodies representing community foundations in Canada and Australia: Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) and Australian Community Philanthropy (ACP).

What we are asking

Through this research, we are asking how community foundations build resources and exercise leadership locally, while proactively and scaling to build philanthropic capacity and address complex challenges that reach beyond their traditional geographic communities.

What we have found so far

Hyper-local focus and self-organization

New forms of community organising are emerging, particularly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Seow, 2021; Cortis and Blaxland, 2020). Many of these organizations take the form of networks with hyper-local knowledge of their communities, demonstrating agility in their lack of formal structures.

Systems change at a global scale

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forth the concept of universality, which views sustainable development as all-encompassing and interconnected and implicating all countries and people. Many community foundations are working and reporting against the SDGs, which allow them to contextualize global issues at a local scale (Böllhoff et al, 2020; Community Foundations of Canada, 2019; Ross, 2018).

Funding streams

Among their numerous roles, community foundations may serve as distribution channels for government and/or private funding from other philanthropic or corporate bodies (Mott, 2008).

Other philanthropies in the space

Alongside community foundations, numerous private and public foundations have turned their attention and efforts to place-based change (Guo and Acar, 2005). Commercial gift funds or donor advised funds distributed by other organizations can lead to a competition for resources, which, during times of crisis, can be especially acute. Some point to this increase in competition as a disruption to the community foundation model (Murphy, 2016).

Initial Findings and Next Steps

Our discussions with representatives of CFC and ACP revealed common key themes related to managing change, including: embracing trust-based philanthropy, intentional support of systems change and diversity – including looking to younger donors and to recent transports to urban communities – and building community knowledge.

What’s next?

As part of this ongoing research effort, next steps will comprise an in-depth content analysis of various publicly-available documentation from CFC and ACP, including publications, annual reports, and social media feeds.

The Evolution of Community-based Philanthropy is a PhiLab-funded research project. For more information on PhiLab’s research projects underway, consult our Research Page.