Local Philanthropy: Humboldt County, California-Style

Original Article

“[I]f you do not build on what you have as a community, outside experts and outside resources are unlikely to make any practical difference. When the bedrock experience, cultural orientation, and skills needed to confront a barrier emerges from an engaged community, the odds of philanthropic support making a dynamic difference increase dramatically.”

So says a recent report from the Kettering Foundation entitled “Philanthropy and the Regeneration of Community Democracy.” Peter Pennekamp, who for 19 years led the Humboldt Area Foundation in northern California and served for a time as vice president of National Public Radio, is the author of the report along with philanthropic consultant Anne Focke. Pennekamp and Focke take on the tendency of foundations to come into communities and set up programs as if the community was a kind of project. In contrast, they argue that philanthropic investment in communities is best done in deference to local wisdom, institutions, and people. Foundations should get involved in communities, rather than trying to get communities involved in foundation initiatives.

The countless failures of foundation programs in community after community over time offer good reason for a “growing interest in something beyond traditional approaches.” Pennekamp and Focke say that the alternatives have been “variously described as community or civic capacity building, community-based problem solving, democratic institution building, comprehensive community change, and so on.” They argue that such approaches are full of possibilities.

In the 1990s, Pennekamp confronted his region’s economic decline that accompanied the Timber Wars and took ambitious steps toward economic recovery through direct community engagement. Rather than siding with interest groups on one side or the other of the conflict, the Humboldt Area Foundation made the community’s interest its first concern. Pennekamp and Focke list three assumptions that the Foundation made in its work with the community:

  • The tension generated by community disagreement or crisis—the Timber Wars is just one example—can be the source of energy and opportunity to construct solutions; and
  • The “right” or “successful” corrective course of action has to make sense to motivated community members who take responsibility for making it happen; expert opinions and data, while absolutely essential, are secondary. Therefore:
  • Lasting solutions come from neighborhood and community residents who come together in ways that honor the authentic tension between different aspects of the disagreement, who are motivated more by ending damage to the community than by their differences, and who take responsibility for creative and inclusive solutions.

The wisdom of these assumptions was proven with time, and they became the pillars of “an ever-evolving philanthropic practice based on neighborhood and community democracy.” Outside help is necessary but not sufficient to solving a community’s problems; most important of all are the existing assets of a community.

Communities are replete with latent assets. It can be hard to perceive the value of assets close at hand—perception is often blurred by proximity and familiarity. Uncovering such assets requires intention, creativity, and the enhanced vision that comes from everyone’s knowledge, from dynamic differences.

Philanthropy is at its best when it leverages local resources. If local resources are diverted to leverage philanthropy, they can distract from the main mission of a local institution. For example, the Humboldt Area Foundation turned down a generous grant from the Ford Foundation in 1998 because of the strings attached. The Foundation worked instead to facilitate discussions among sectors, and between environmental and logging interests. This convening role—as opposed to a fundraising role—paid off. “By supporting community democracy rather than directing our energy to the growth of the foundation’s assets, a much larger fund was realized far more efficiently than had we shifted our attention to the Ford match.”

Essential to effective civic innovation are what Pennekamp and Focke call “community commons,” or real opportunities for people to come together, share ideas, build relationships, and solve problems. The Humboldt Area Foundation and regional higher education partners brought in the Aspen Institute to facilitate Redwood Coast for Rural Action retreats for local leaders and activists between 2004 and 2007. These gatherings addressed issues like broadband access, forestry, and economic development.

Pennekamp and Focke note that timeframes for community change are not always the same as philanthropic expectations. They urge patience:

The dynamics of learning, disagreement, and decision making within a large foundation (and many smaller ones) are fundamentally different from the dynamics in a community. The disconnect between a foundation’s expectations for results (both what and when) and what a community process might deliver can be extreme.

Indeed, the ways of a community take time to know. The best and most sustainable community transformations require patience, familiarity, and respect for local culture. Pennekamp’s work in Humboldt County is evidence that real “community democracy” can succeed.

Pennekamp and Focke provide helpful guidance for a truly local philanthropic movement.


Hans Zeiger leads the Center for Civic Leadership program at Discovery Institute.

Hans Zeiger

Director, Chapman Center for Civic Leadership
Hans Zeiger served as the director of the Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership, leading the Chapman Fellows program. He serves in the Washington State Senate, representing the 25th Legislative District, covering central Pierce County. Hans was elected to the State House of Representatives in 2010 and reelected in 2012 and 2014, representing the 25th Legislative District. Hans was recognized as the co-recipient of the Gabrielle Giffords Award for Civility, he serves in the Washington Air National Guard, sits on the boards of the Washington State Historical Society, the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, and the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, and was a 2017 Leadership Fellow of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and a 2018 Rodel Fellow of the Aspen Institute. Hans graduated from Puyallup High School and holds a bachelor’s degree from Hillsdale College and a Masters degree in Public Policy from Pepperdine University.