Sticking With It: A Closer Look At Mott's Long Push to Strengthen Civil Society

Remember those heady years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when idealistic do-gooders streamed to post-communist countries to help them create new democracies? That all seems like a long time ago, and most global funders aren't thinking so much about this part of the world. They're busy instead fighting dread diseases and trying to lift up the world's ultra-poor.

Yet some funders have stuck with the hard work of promoting strong civil society in places where statism prevailed for many decades. The Open Society Foundations is the biggest leader here. But the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is another impressive long-distance runner when it comes to this challenge.

The foundation's roots are in Flint, Michigan, but its reach is international. According to Neal Hegarty, senior vice president of programs, a major current running throughout the foundation is “Mr. Mott’s belief that all people are in partnership with their community,” which is clearly a guiding influence in the foundation’s Civil Society program grantmaking. Mott, by the way, made his fortune in the automotive industry before becoming a public servant and philanthropist. 

Mott’s Civil Society program aims to strengthen nonprofit sectors in countries around the world in an effort to increase civic engagement and contribute to the overall improvement of communities. The main regions of focus for the program are Central/Eastern Europe, Russia, South Africa, and the United States.

Related: Charles Stewart Mott Foundation: Grants for Global Development

We recently spoke with Hegarty, who shared with us that “two central themes run throughout our global work: participation and philanthropy.” Encouraging and increasing civic participation, Hegarty says, helps “people to have a voice in decision-making and to more constructively and effectively shape their societies.” And programs to further develop philanthropy in local communities “are unlocking and increasing local resources for charitable activities and exploring new forms of charitable giving.”

Not a lot of funders promote philanthropy globally, so Mott's commitment here is notable. And it's smart, too, given the potential to leverage the foundation's grantmaking. 

One recent example of that commitment is the foundation’s $450,000 grant to the Community Foundation Development Program, which is supporting a community foundation movement in Romania. The funds will be used to provide assistance and build capacity for 12 existing community foundations in Romania, as well as provide funding and technical assistance to newly established community foundations.

The $450,000 grant to the Community Foundation Development Program is pretty representative of Mott’s Civil Society grantmaking approach, which according to Hegarty, “is to support institutions, processes, and infrastructure that foster indigenous grassroots activities — rather than efforts tied to a particular issue or subject area.” What is unusual about this particular grant is the amount. The Mott Foundation awards around 150 Civil Society grants each year totaling a little under $20 million on average. Very few of those grants, generally less than 5 percent, are for amounts over $400,000.

Building up community foundations does like a promising strategy, given how crucial they've been to strengthening local civil society in the United States. As we've previously reported, Mott has also fostered philanthropy is more innovative ways, such as its support of YouthBanks in post-communist countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina, which aims to build an army of young, civic-minded people with the desire to participate in community development and philanthropy.

Again, we don't see a lot of other funders working in this space, so Mott definitely has a distinctive niche. 

Related: A Long Push for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement Among Young People in Former Communist States

Like other global foundations, Mott has offices abroad, in South Africa and London, as well as staff and consultants in Brazil, Russia, and Ukraine. “The foundation conducts much of its international grantmaking through staff deeply rooted and engaged in the regions where we focus," Hegarty says.

Mott supports grantees that are working at lots of levels, from communities to the arena of global institutions. In this regard, Hegarty noted:

We make sure all of this work is connected through networks and informal relationships. This allows us to work, for example, on World Bank policy while also staying true to Mr. Mott’s focus on community and local responsibility and action.