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Community, by another name: My recent trip to Turkey

Posted by: Stuart Comstock-Gay on 3/22/2013

One of the great pleasures of life is seeing the world through the eyes of your children. With that in mind, I just returned from a visit to Istanbul, where my daughter teaches at a local university. While the trip was for pleasure, I found myself surrounded by new experiences (I quite enjoy the raki tradition), new data, new stories, and new perspectives on my work, our state, and much more. It was also an absolute blast to be with somebody completely fluent in Turkish. Though it didn’t help us avoid all of the street scams (it may have been expensive, but at least my shoes did get a good shine), it allowed many deeper insights.

One of those insights came from our visit to the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TUSEV), a 20-year old organization seeking to strengthen nonprofit infrastructure and encourage social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. I owe a debt of gratitude to Başak Ersen, Liana Varon, and Ayşegül Ekmekçi, who spent a couple hours answering our questions about their work. 

What struck me was both how incredibly different their challenges are from those of most philanthropic institutions in this country — and, at the same time, how similar.

Let me start with differences. Here’s something you wouldn’t read in the U.S. It’s a summary — from the TUSEV website — of a new law regarding foundations, passed a few years ago.

The new law creates a single set of rules for the different types of foundations spanning the Ottoman and Republican Eras. The new provisions will affect "old" foundations (foundations established during the Ottoman Era), minority foundations (foundations established by non-Muslim communities during the Ottoman Era), and "new" foundations (private cash foundations, established according to Civil Code provisions after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923)...

That passage captures the astonishingly diverse historical context within which they work. Here in the U.S., we talk about the Tax Reform Act of 1969. Turkey is dealing with the differences between a republic established in 1923 and its predecessor, which was a 600-year old, sophisticated, far-reaching empire. There are foundations that are hundreds of years old…and some that are brand new. Both traditions are very alive. In Islam, one of the five pillars of faith is charity to those in need. Which is to say, there’s a long and deep history of charity in Turkey. But strategic philanthropy (incentive grants, grants for research into root causes, regional or statewide initiatives, collaborative, multi-year efforts) of the kind we see in this country is in its early stages. 

We talked with our hosts about community foundations. There’s just one in Turkey — in the town of Bolu, about 150 miles east of Istanbul. The tradition of giving to something like a community foundation just isn’t there. More than that, the very word community is a problem, as it doesn’t directly translate into our understanding of the word. The word that comes closest — jemat — is a religiously-oriented term and its use connotes a whole host of things about religiosity and perspectives on social issues. “We would love to find some donors who wanted to start some community foundations here,” our hosts told us. “But it’s a big challenge.” 

And yet ...

When we asked Başak, Liana, and Ayşegül about the things they’re most proud of, I could’ve been sitting in my office here in Middlebury: they talked of serving as a “voice for the sector,” monitoring civil society to see what works well and where there are problems, and working for social impact. When asked where they’ve had most impact, they talked about support for pre-school education, about establishing a kindergarten program and a mental health institute, about technical assistance and small grants to nonprofits, and about scholarships. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say a few words about a topic that often comes up when the discussion turns to the region: women’s issues. That was, in many ways, a theme of the entire trip. I was constantly struck by a society that seemed to both celebrate the role of women as equals, and simultaneously set women into secondary roles in the public sphere. Just as I reached Turkey, the winter issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly came out — a lead article was titled “Gender Rights and Freedoms in Turkey and the Arab World: Spring or Winter?”  I’m not a regular reader, but for a deep dive on the issue, I recommend it. I can’t claim to have reconciled the seemingly contradictory perspectives any more than I can claim to have figured out anything about Turkey on such a short visit.

But I’m left appreciating, as much as ever, the sense of community we’re all looking for, whatever we call it.

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