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Essential services must not be reliant on ‘generosity’

Social investing: Myra Virgil, centre, with grant recipients Donna Daniels, right, representing Adult Education School and the My Future Bermuda initiative, and Claudette Fleming, representing Age Concern and the Senior Home Accreditation initiative (Photograph supplied)

Within the past few weeks, the Bermuda Community Foundation released close to $500,000 in grants to more than 40 non-profit organisations.

It was a boost to the work of the civil sector, without doubt. And we accomplished it while, for the most part, remaining true to the practice of philanthropy. That may sound like a statement of the obvious — we’re a philanthropic organisation, after all. But it was a surprisingly tough task in an environment of pressing social needs.

In recent months, as a community we’ve heard from Project Action, looking for an immediate $10,000 injection to enable them to remain in the para-transit business. They will need a good deal more, too, if they are to sustain their work with an approximate annual operating budget of $100,000. Chewstick’s new, developing and reportedly uninsured cultural hub went up in a blaze this past summer. Their future is uncertain, too. It’s scary and precarious to be reliant on charitable giving as a primary revenue source.

Philanthropy Ireland has defined philanthropy as a particular kind of charitable giving. It is focused on the root causes of problems and making a sustainable improvement, as distinct from contributing to immediate relief. Philanthropy need not be the exclusive preserve of very wealthy people. What distinguishes philanthropic giving from more spontaneous, one-off charitable donations is that the money is given with a degree of reflection and a clear purpose. The practice of philanthropy is essentially the practice of social investing. Philanthropic funds are supposed to pioneer new ideas, fill in programming gaps or provide access to programme opportunities that would otherwise not exist. Philanthropists also fund the advancement of human rights, and research and policy development. Some of this type of funding can have far-reaching outcomes that parallel and even surpass the benefits of direct services and programmes.

The point is that money spent dealing with the root causes of poverty may ultimately be as effective and more impactful than feeding the poor, day in and day out, for ever. Of course, there will always be immediate needs to attend to, but it would be wise to ensure that we keep an eye on diversifying giving to tackle problems in the short and the long term.

What philanthropy should not be doing is forever subsidising basic and essential public and social services. Certain services, at a reasonable standard, should be available to all regardless of their income. Among these would be transportation and para-transit, good public education and schools, healthcare, public housing and social services. Philanthropic dollars are typically and best used to pilot models for, say, para-transit services, by which we mean transportation for seniors who have mobility challenges and people with disabilities offered by groups such as Project Action. Donated dollars can help non-profits such as these work out the kinks and then hand over or share the core-service provision and funding responsibilities to government bodies.

Relegating the responsibility to the philanthropic sector for sustaining what arguably should be a public service works only to the extent that levels of private generosity are sufficient and everlasting. As we are experiencing in Bermuda, while extraordinary generosity has been the rule, philanthropic dollars are finite.

At the BCF, we will continue to make grants that help in the short and medium term. But we will also continue to advise donors that the greatest need in our community is for the establishment of an enduring source of funds for the non-profit sector so that the essential work of groups such as Project Action and Chewstick does not go up in flames when precarious sources of funding dry up. In fact, this is our mission.

•November 15, 2016 marks National Philanthropy Day, which celebrates the work that everyone does to create impact in their communities. Myra Virgil, PhD is the managing director of the Bermuda Community Foundation and former head of grantmaking for The Atlantic Philanthropies in Bermuda. A list of their 2016 grants will soon be available at www.bcf.bm