Top representatives from some of the region’s leading non-profit organizations met on St. Thomas this week to cap off two years worth of research with some concrete solutions on how to enhance and promote philanthropy throughout the Caribbean.
The three-day symposium at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort was the culmination of the Caribbean Philanthropy Network (CPN), an initiative of the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands that has been funded over the past couple of years by a grant from the Ford Foundation.
The goal of the conference, according to organizers, was really to figure out how each person’s research supported the development of the network, and what it could eventually become. To this point, the project has really been rooted in the U.S Virgin Islands — spearheaded by CFVI President Dee Baecher-Brown and an advisory board of members led by CPN chairwoman Catherine Mills — but discussions also focused on how it could successfully fold in organizations from other neighboring islands.
In the end, immediate steps — such as the development of a comprehensive website with a virtual library for research and relevant data, along with some ways to engage both donors and regional non-profits — were outlined, while the group also brainstormed more ideas for getting the millions of Caribbean residents living abroad interested in giving back to their community.
The Caribbean actually has a long history of giving, according to Aubrey Webson, educational consultant for Perkins School of the Blind. In a nearly 30-page paper written for the symposium, Webson charted the course of Caribbean philanthropy over the past century, running from tribal communities, to the brain drain in the 1960s and 1970s to the development of non-profit organizations and political parties.
From the research, he said, it was clear that there needs to be more organization when it comes to figuring out and tracking who’s giving what and to whom, some better definitions for non-profit organizations and the type of work they do and a way for non-profits to maintain a relationship with government organizations that can provide resources without becoming a part of their political agenda.
"We have to find a way to link the brain drain back to us — a way so that people in North America, Europe and England, can contribute to the development of the Caribbean, not just by sending money or getting a vote," he added later. Webson suggested building a volunteer corps, where islanders sitting in their offices abroad can help solve some key social and developmental issues within the region, such as a financier in New York contributing by writing some sort of policy to deal with the economy.
Tying philanthropy to key issues within the region developed as one of the conference’s major themes, and bringing the youth into the arena — particularly when the focus is on high crime rates or developing skilled workers — was ranked next to using the power of technology to build capacity within the region.
"The funding and funneling of the funds in our region have not addressed some of the critical life issues of youth in the community, and that’s really the missing link," said Donnalie Edwards-Cabey, president of the YWCA of the Virgin Islands. "What are we not doing and where are we not funding? We need to look at that, and set some timelines, because it’s really urgent."
Spitting out the facts and figures, UNICEF country representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Tom Olsen said in one week, the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across "in a lifetime," during the 19th century. Meanwhile, the number of text messages sent every day is more than the population of the entire planet, he said.
And tapping into that network to build education from birth on up is essential, he added, as the discussions began to wind around specific targets or issues for regional non-profits.
"It is extremely important how we learn," Olsen said. "It’s just some food for thought, but in the Caribbean, when it comes to looking at the way we learn, transmit and share information, you have to realize that how you do that is what gives you the cutting edge."
And in terms of boosting non-profits, Olsen said the members of the Caribbean Philanthropy Network would also have to use technology to stay relevant, continue to share information and chart the course for what they wanted to become.
"It’s not about the amount of funds you bring into the region, but about the added value in terms of technical expertise and being solutions-oriented," he said. "You have to be strategic and you have to contribute to economic development if you want to be relevant. If not, it’s always going to be an uphill battle."
And pulling from mid-sized businesses, instead of just looking to big corporations, can be a key to driving development, since many of those local companies — particularly those receiving Economic Development Commission tax benefits — are mandated to give back to the community, added Claire Starkey, head of Fintrac Inc, a local agro-development firm.
One of the final themes of the conference was creating a legal framework or structure for non-profits for the network that would be applicable throughout the region. There are charity laws on the books, but they’re not as organized as they could be, and some are extremely old, according to Island Resources Foundation principal Judith Towle and Rockefeller Brothers Fund fellow Bill Moody.
The duo, with decades of experience working for philanthropic organizations throughout the Caribbean, recommended that such a framework revolve around the establishment of a non-profit organization, good governance techniques, financial sustainability provisions and codes for accountability and transparency.
Many participants said the laws should be universally based, but tailored to each specific island country. Moody also suggested that looking at models from countries such as Ireland, where ideas for building society are tossed around between a cross section of community and government representatives, might be helpful.
"We have to find out where there is the best possibility for real interaction and building an interest in working together on issues," he said.
Speakers during the three day conference included: Douglas Rutzen, President of International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; Debra Morris, Assistant Director of Legal Studies at Cayman Islands Law School; Michael O’Neal, Former President of H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, BVI; and Sonia Barnes-Moorhead, Executive Vice President of the Astor Home for Children Foundation, among others.
The Caribbean Philanthropy Network, under CFVI, is a successor organization to the Association of Caribbean Community Foundations, which existed from 2003 to 2007 and was comprised of community foundations, other grant-making entities and individuals in Anguilla, Antigua, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands.