US-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership

The border between the US and Mexico spans 2,000 miles and is home to more than 10 million people. Border communities struggle with a multitude of social and economic issues -- inadequate social services and infrastructure, low wages, high unemployment and environmental crises. Cities on the Mexican side are overwhelmed by demands for basic health, housing and public services. Counties in the US have some of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The US-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership (BPP -- was born in 2001, seeded with $3 million in funds from the Ford Foundation. At its core was a dream -- to create a partnership of funders who shared a commitment to supporting community philanthropy along the border.

Synergos was involved in the process from the onset, conducting the feasibility study that helped to identify foundations on both sides of the border that were playing or had the capacity to play critical roles in community development. These foundations -- 14 US and seven Mexican -- were to become partners with nine founding foundations in a governing system where each partner had an equal voice, working together to create a program that met the needs of diverse border communities.

The 21 BPP community foundations span two countries, numerous states (four in the US and six in Mexico), rural and urban constituencies and organizations with different levels of financial assets -- some with rich endowments (as much as $450 million) and others with no financial assets at all. Today the BPP comprises 22 border community foundations and 12 regional, national or international foundations.

During Phase I, Synergos worked with its funding partners, encouraging new and established community foundations to grow and pursue new avenues of development. Its involvement in the BPP is characteristic of the organization's involvement in systemic foundation-building that strengthens bridging organizations -- organizations that build connections among different parts of society.

"The process has had its challenges," says Shari Turitz, Director of Synergos' Strengthening Bridging Organizations program. "But the partnership has seen some remarkable results in just a three-year period."

First Phase Successes

The original concept was to create an individualized approach for each community foundation. How could Partnership members improve and enhance their border involvement? For established programs, the goal was to increase activities and impact. For new organizations, BPP needed to start from scratch.

In the course of this work, thirteen established foundations increased their programmatic and administrative capacities. Six start-up border community foundations progressed beyond the "idea" stage, coached by Synergos staff, who helped them to put into action what they learned at workshops. BPP partners have diversified their leadership to represent the communities they serve, taken on issues beyond their original agendas and mobilized a broader range of community assets.

New programs were launched in community health, housing, environmental justice and poverty alleviation through family asset building. In Mexico, where institutionalized community philanthropy is a new concept, foundations made significant progress.

Achievements include:

  • Mobilizing local resources through creation of donor-advised pass-through funds
  • Educating donors about the benefits of the philanthropy and the importance of giving as key to the nonprofit sector
  • Determining community assets -- an important first step in moving grantmaking from donor-driven to community-driven
  • Helping develop the nonprofit sector by identifying and connecting nonprofit organizations and local donors, as well as providing capacity-building services and seminars.

There were financial successes as well. The international, national and regional founding funders have mobilized $15 million for the BPP and its community foundations. At the same time, participating foundations raised an estimated $3 million in local funds.

The partners grew together, creating a funder/community foundation governance system that has gone beyond the planning stage into actual operation. Partners learned from each other through BPP cross-border "Learning Communities" and peer exchanges.

The Dream Becomes a Reality

The Arizona Community Foundation (ACF) has been the leader in a campaign to increase family wealth through savings -- family asset building. In conjunction with The Annie E. Casey Foundation's National Tax Assistance for Working Family Campaign to have the Earned Income Tax Credit benefit low-income families, ACF set up tax assistance offices in Yuma, Douglas, Nogales and South Tucson. Twenty-eight volunteers spent more than 1,000 hours working with 289 families and individuals preparing their taxes. This generated $173,042 in earned income tax credits and $291,532 in income tax refunds.

The next step was to educate families in fiscal management, trying to get people who do not have bank accounts into the system. An ACF affiliate, the Yuma Community Foundation (YCF), encouraged tax refund recipients to deposit at least a portion of their refund into an IDA -- individual development account. YCF and its partner, Catholic Community Service of Arizona, have IDAs that focus on affordable housing. Any money invested into the IDA is matched one-to-one (or more). At the same time, account owners must save $20/month as a sign of good faith.

YCF is working with Fannie Mae to make home purchase more affordable. The Catholic Community Service program counted 67 new IDAs in 2004.

As already established foundations, ACF and its Yuma and Douglas affiliates were operational when the BPP was created. Yet, staffing and board makeup were not truly reflective of the communities they served. Linetta Gilbert, Ford Foundation Program Officer, recommended that the issue be faced head on. ACF hired community members as fellows -- Maria Quezada in Yuma and Del Cabarga in Douglas. Gilbert applauds this move. "They're known in the community," she says, "and are much more involved with the people being served. They can network easier because they already have relationships -- providing a better sense of what the community wants."

Maria Quezada became the Yuma fellow in 2003. "I feel I've helped contribute a link to the community," she says. "It was hard for community members to accept an Anglo coming in and telling them what to do. They were more accepting of a Latina, who spoke their language and could relate to them. They feel the foundation is reaching out to them." Maria has attended training in resource development in San Diego and a facilitator-training workshop in Douglas. Currently studying for her masters, she says, "I have grown personally and professionally and developed skills in both areas. I learned to care for my community."

Yuma also reevaluated its board. None of its 12 board members were Hispanic. YCF undertook a board assessment. By 2005 the board had expanded to 16 seats with eight diverse members, of which seven are Latino. "YCF's board has been a catalyst for frank community discussion on diversity," says Gilbert.

The Douglas Community Foundation also connected with the community, which is 86% Hispanic. ACF funded an intergenerational survey to determine issues of importance to local residents. Those surveyed included youth, adults and seniors. The survey report, published in October 2004, identified four major issue areas: connectivity and resources, volunteers and mentoring, jobs and community development and lifelong learning. During the survey, 14 young people, under the tutelage of a filmmaker, filmed the interviews with seniors, as well as footage of the community. Their final product is available on DVD.

In Tijuana: Changing the Culture of Giving; Promoting Institutional Philanthropy

The culture of giving is very different in Mexico than it is in the US. "Mexicans are very generous," says Antonieta Beguerisse de Beltrán, Director General of Fundación Internacional de la Comunidad (FIC). "But they are not organized to give. They give based on what they think others need rather than asking what they do need. There's no process."

FIC's mission has been to build organized philanthropy and an endowment for the organization. Part of its work is educational -- informing donors and businessmen about the benefits of giving in an organized way through a fund organized by FIC. Board president José Galicot, a businessman committed to changing Tijuana's image, has opened an individual fund at FIC. FIC is also trying to build a group of volunteers, teaching them about community responsibility and commitment.

Marcy G. Kelley, Deputy Vice President/Programs of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) agrees. IAF is a BPP funder. "The challenge is how you're perceived," she says. "How do you define and empower a community that hasn't had a voice? It's also important not to just give people money, but encourage them to invest something of themselves."

IAF provided FIC with technical assistance in developing ways to review sub-grantees, especially programs. "FIC is funding informal community groups, giving money to organizations that don't have bank accounts," says Kelley.

Three projects reflected this approach:

  • Mixtec Indians migrate to the border from the south, living in makeshift housing without electricity. They needed a tuba for their traditional band, so they could perform around Tijuana and earn money to support themselves. FIC paid for the tuba.
  • A rural municipality wanted playground equipment for a local park. Residents went in and cleaned the park up, then asked for the playground equipment, which FIC funded.
  • When social workers were canvassing women about potential projects, they were approached by a youth about 13 or 14. He told them he wanted to do a project to prevent family violence, which FIC funded. Today, young people are helping other kids be safe in their homes.

"IAF was impressed with FIC's ability to capture community-based granting and systematize," said Kelley. "As a result, we will be funding travel grants for three other community foundations to go to Tijuana for two days in April 2005 to learn how it's done."

FIC has also improved its internal operations. Its first board of directors had 22 members, many of whom never came to meetings. Through board development, there were 15 active members in 2005, meeting bi-monthly. Each received action assignments and, every week, a small group meets with Galicot and Beguerisse to assess progress.

The Next Phase

Phase I of the Border Philanthropy Project ended in 2005. Most of the original funders, as well as JPMorgan Chase and Pfizer have agreed to continue their support in Phase II, which will run until 2008.

This second phase will take the project to the next level, building on the substantial base created during the project's first phase. BPP will continue to follow the tailor-made approach to community foundation development and consolidation. Organizations in the start up and growth stages will work on organization development, focusing on Board and fund development. Established foundations (and some that are in the growth stage) will hone in on issues key to improving quality of life for low-income border families. Special emphasis will be put on corporate outreach and advocacy (creating a tool kit for best practices), health, youth and family asset building.

"We're very excited about the future," says Synergos' Turitz. "We've seen incredible accomplishments but still have work to do. Community foundation building is a long-term project. There's still plenty of work to be done."

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