Capturing the Vision of the Community Through Local Conversations

Capturing the Vision of the Community Through Local Conversations
Photo by Lisa Schalla

As Fundación Territorial Paisano established a new community foundation in Bogota, Colombia, staff members went from neighborhood to neighborhood, listening to the stories and dreams of local leaders. The following are excerpts of an interview between Lisa Schalla, CCA Project Director and Kelly Mejía, Executive Director of Fundación Territorial Paisano in Bogota, Colombia.

Lisa Schalla: Can you tell us who you are and how you got to the position you are in now?

Kelly Mejía: I am a social worker by profession and have been in this area of work for over 20 years. From a very early age, when I was about 15, I began to work in my neighborhood and get connected to the nonprofit sector. From this time on, I’ve never left. When the pandemic arrived in 2020, a group of us started volunteering and these were the same people who, 2 years later, created the community foundation. We are from here. We grew up here. So, we feel that a community foundation is something made up of people that identify with a certain area and want to care for it.

So why did you begin this mapping of local leaders? What was your intention?

Well, we started as volunteers, supporting cultural, artistic and sports community projects in in a few places around Bogota. But for a city of 8 million people, these six projects weren’t at all representative of the population. They didn’t represent the voice of the territory, and we wanted to find out what that voice of local organizations and leaders was, the ones who are leading and transforming things in the territory. So, we decided to dig in and map it by going out and getting to know them personally.

How did you identify local nonprofit and grassroots leaders, and how did you gather information that would then serve to develop the community foundation’s programming?

Bogota is divided into 20 localities, so we wanted to connect with one or two leaders in each place. We followed recommendations from those we already knew and that way we would have a better idea of what was happening in each area. Then, we visited each person to learn about their story, ask what was going well and what motivated them in the work they were doing. We also asked about their abilities, resources, and challenges they were having. We asked them about their dreams. So, our questions were about the past, present and future of their work, really trying to understand it deeply. The people we interviewed told us they had never been asked these things before. They had never been asked (from funders) how they felt or anything like that – only requested to send technical information about their projects.

So, this was our methodology – to go to their houses and talk. We feel like this way of mapping the landscape gave meaning to the foundation. Without it, I think we would be a bit lost. Since then, it’s become clear what we need to do, how we need to do it and with whom. Really, we feel that the mapping of community leaders is essential for a community foundation.

What were the most important points that came out of this process?

Well really, this mapping of local initiatives is what led us to create our strategic plan in a way that would cultivate community philanthropy and help it to grow. Following these conversations, we designed three strategies for resource mobilization, and they are very straight-forward. One is to mobilize in-kind resources. We are doing this in a large warehouse that we call San Alejo, where people can bring in functional, used items that can be distributed to the nonprofits in the city that need them.

Our second strategy was to develop various thematic funds to give people a way to donate toward nonprofits and initiatives in these areas through the foundation’s grantmaking process. This is flexible funding that we provide based on trust, so they can use them as is needed. The third strategy is to establish business partnerships. Here, businesses can connect with the social sector in various ways, through cash or in-kind donations, training, or volunteering. This is a beautiful way to mobilize resources because many of the employees would not have otherwise visited some of these communities in their cities.

How do you feel about this work, now over one year later?

We are really pleased because it’s been taking shape and body, heart and soul. We feel like we have been respectful of community processes within the city, a respect that is beautiful and leads to more equitable relationships. We aren’t above anyone – we are on the same level as the organizations and individuals who are working for this city.

How have you been communicating this work to your board and wider audience?

There are two board members who are designing a way to tell this story about Paisano and how it has been developing. It’s so amazing to feel the voice of these organizations, because we can relate certain things that they cannot always say. We are like a bridge, and I feel this role of spokesperson is vital and could lead to real change. I talk a lot about social innovation, but now I don’t think it is that so much as the opposite – it’s about returning to something more elemental, more essential.

I think that we as community foundations need to be flexible and not so set in our ways. We need to be innovative, which is basically to find the most essential elements within our communities, within our humanity, within ourselves, and try not to complicate everything so much. Above all, we need to listen. To listen to the many voices that are in our territory and to be able to articulate that and create a vision together.

You can hear the full interview in Spanish here.
Passcode: ?P0q&=KY