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Since the late 90s, the phrase “think globally, act locally” has been used in a range of contexts from environmental activism, to education, to ambitious business strategies for some of the most recognized brands. More recently, the idea seems to have undergone a rebranding, and “localization” is now the phrase of the day and, just as before, it has wide-ranging appeal. Including in the philanthropy sector.
Localization is being used by more and more organizations as a way for citizens around the world to respond to the growing climate crisis. It is also being adapted by many smaller philanthropies, where a “we live here, we give here” motto is used to encapsulate a philosophy of place-based giving at a hyper-local level. This idea of localization has also been used in some cases to push back against more traditional humanitarian approaches, arguing that traditional aid models create an influx of outside assistance that disempowers those most affected.
But is an ethos of localization truly the right direction for philanthropy?
It leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Questions such as: How local is local? What of those of us whose places of origin are distinct from the places we now call home? What of our connections to diasporas? And what is our responsibility as citizens of industrialized countries who have so clearly enjoyed the benefits of economic globalization? Could it be, perhaps, that the local-global proposition represents a false dichotomy – one that is no longer relevant to the world we live in?
If so, then what is a relevant framework?
As responsible and thoughtful donors who are looking to make a difference – wherever in the world that may be – I offer a different set of considerations.
Find your connection
We all have different reasons for giving at different times. Often it is a connection to a place or to people (your community, your diaspora, or another identity you feel connected with). Sometimes it’s both. At other times, the connection may be more distant – an empathic relationality for a given situation that manifests as a desire to help.
Finding your connection is an important grounding exercise. And, it can help shift your support from a place of charity (built on the idea of “us” and “them”), to one of solidarity (built on a relational understanding that we are all connected), which is a fundamental of most systems change work.
Proximity matters when it comes to creating change. This is relevant across all stages of philanthropic support from determining needs, to shaping solutions, to evaluating impact.
Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, argues that there is a moral and rational imperative for centering the voice of those most impacted, but that change is yet to be made. “Despite good intentions, the … system is still set up to give people in need what … donors think is best, and what we have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need.”
Local actors, like community leaders and local organizations, must also play a central role in shaping solutions. These groups don’t just have knowledge of what works and doesn’t, but often have invaluable lived experience. Local leaders and knowledge brokers are best positioned to deliver impact because they are deeply rooted in the communities they serve and can collaborate with other local actors to design creative and cost-effective interventions.
Strengthen Civil Society
At a time when civil society spaces are shrinking across many countries and democratic practices are increasingly under attack, the role that local NGOs and community-based organizations play in strengthening civil society cannot be underestimated. A robust civil society is essential for a functioning democracy, and by consciously investing a greater share of resources directly into local civil society, we help to build resilience and our ability to deal with some of the most critical issues facing humanity.
Investing in civil society incorporates the local actors mentioned in the previous point, but it also includes finding ways to support a more localized philanthropy. The Lift Up Philanthropy Guide is a useful resource to better understand and support philanthropy’s development in specific countries.
In addition to providing financial resources, donors should also be aware of using non-financial resources (such as networks and platforms) that help to build credibility for local efforts.
As donors, there are many ways to give that are aligned with these three concepts. One option is to use a direct philanthropy approach. Another is to look for organizations that embrace trust-based giving principles, and are clear about letting local leaders lead. This is often apparent through an organization’s website and/or their Theory of Change.
Whatever method you decide, one thing is certain. Whether it's in a neighboring suburb, neighboring county, or a neighboring country, taking the time to reflect on these ideas will help you to make better, faster decisions when compelled to give and, ultimately, have a greater impact on the issues that concern you most.
Corrina Grace is an award-winning cofounder, author, social entrepreneur, engineer, sustainability leader and bilingual facilitator with 15+ years building and strengthening social impact organizations. More than a decade living and working with marginalized communities solidified a personal commitment to ensuring justice and equality for People + Planet. She currently works as an independent consultant providing strategic and operational support and coaching to social sector leaders and entrepreneurs to help them transform and scale impact.