Blog / Community Philanthropy

Comunidad y Familia: Translating Philanthropy Across Borders

Q&A with Michael Layton and Michael Moody
Comunidad y Familia: Translating Philanthropy Across Borders

en español

ABOVE: Michael Moody and Michael Layton pose with Ricardo Bucio Mújica, Pilar Parás Garcia, and Ana María Sánchez Rodríguez at Casa Cemefi in Mexico City.

In the past two decades, Latin America has seen important progress in the development of its philanthropic infrastructure — including in the use of institutions such as community foundations for channeling and growing local philanthropic engagement. Today, growing wealth concentration, the preponderance of family business ownership, and the nascent philanthropic culture combine to create a crucial moment in the philanthropic development of the region.

However, research on philanthropy in Latin America is relatively sparse and doesn’t yet offer the guidance needed to understand these dynamics — such as promising trends in collaborative and place-based giving — and take advantage of this vital moment. The Johnson Center’s two endowed chairs, Dr. Michael Layton, W.K. Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair, and Dr. Michael Moody, Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy, are collaborating on a project to explore the intersections of community and family philanthropy in Mexico (comunidad y familia) — with the hopes of doing similar studies in other Latin American countries in the future. Their research is generously funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Moody and Layton spent 10 days in Mexico City and Puebla, Mexico, in mid-May, interviewing some of the region’s leading philanthropic families and connecting with partners. They even ran into a few of Dr. Layton’s former students from his time as a faculty member at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México!

A depiction of the 1862 Battle of Puebla is projected onto the City Hall building at night in Puebla, Mexico
Michael Layton (left) and Michael Moody (center) pose with an organ grinder in uniform in downtown Mexico City
An ornate brick church in Puebla, Mexico

Upon their return, the Johnson Center’s director of communications and strategic partnerships, Tory Martin, posed a few questions to the two of them to better understand the landscape of philanthropy and civil society in Mexico and the potential impact of this project.

Tory Martin: First of all, can you give us a general sense of how philanthropy in Mexico compares structurally to U.S. philanthropy?

Michael Layton (ML): The philanthropic sector in Mexico is much smaller than that of the United States. While the U.S. has 1.5 million 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, analogous organizations in Mexico — called authorized donees — number about 10,000. Whereas the U.S. has over 100,000 grantmaking foundations, Mexico has about 300.

Why is that? Since 1810, successive governmental regimes have been characterized by two consistent characteristics: a hostility towards an independent sector, resulting in onerous over-regulation in the best of times, and by corruption, resulting in acute social and institutional distrust. That history undermined the full flourishing and institutionalization of philanthropy in Mexico, more reflective of the generosity of its people.

Michael Moody (MM): More than once during our research trip, people involved in Mexican philanthropy told us they thought the field was still in its infancia — its infancy stage — especially when compared to the U.S. And while this is true in terms of the formal institutions that are so widespread in the U.S., such as foundations and philanthropy support or membership organizations, it doesn’t acknowledge the extremely long history of giving and generosity in Mexico, especially through and to the Catholic Church. This collective self-perception of Mexican philanthropy as underdeveloped is certainly something we will be exploring as the research continues.

You each have specific aspects of philanthropy that are your main areas of study — community philanthropy for you, Michael Layton, and family philanthropy for you Michael Moody. Why are you working together on this project?

ML: I think there is a natural progression from the cultivation of generosity in the home and its extension into the community, and this occurs consistently around the world. So, it’s natural for the two of us to collaborate and explore how family philanthropy is related to community philanthropy. Having worked in and on Mexico for more than two decades, I bring a deep understanding of that context. For me, it is invaluable to have Michael Moody’s fresh eyes and deep knowledge of family engagement in place-based giving. He asks questions that offer a fresh perspective and new insight.

MM: The vast majority of family-directed giving, whether in the U.S. or Mexico, is focused on local or regional needs and organizations. Big national and international givers get a lot of our attention, but they are outnumbered by families giving more modestly but passionately in the communities they care about. So, family and community philanthropy are deeply intertwined, which makes a collaboration like this between our chairs almost inevitable. Plus, Michael Layton is a legend in Mexico’s philanthropic circles, which I witnessed firsthand every day we were there. Why wouldn’t I want to ride those coattails?

What are some of the fundamental questions at the heart of this research? What are you trying to better understand — and why is it important?

MM: In general, we are exploring how families and donors in Mexico think about and practice their place-based and community-focused giving, especially through institutions such as community foundations. And we’re looking more broadly at how the climate for philanthropy in Mexico — e.g., the cultural, socioeconomic, and regulatory context — affects this family-community nexus. From this analysis, we will distill some recommendations for strategies to increase family donor engagement with community giving institutions.

ML: I would add that our visit to the Fundación Comunitaria Puebla was particularly illuminating. We had conversations with local philanthropists who embodied a firm commitment to their community and family engagement. They talked about their love of Puebla and how they gave of their Five Ts — treasure, time, talent, testimony, and ties. It struck me how many stories there were of how they recruited new board members and donors for the community foundation among their family and friends.

You have created an Advisory Council for this work. Why did you take that step? What is the value-add for the project?

MM: Being a bridge between research and practice, the Johnson Center in general relies heavily upon partners in the field and at other research centers to carry out our work. We felt it was essential to connect with a core group of leaders and experts in community and family philanthropy to accompany us on every step of the project, from reviewing interview protocols, identifying and recruiting interview subjects, providing feedback on our progress, and eventually with dissemination.

As you can see from the full list, there is an amazing mix of leaders and researchers from the U.S., Mexico, and Latin America. The Council provided most of the first round of interviews, and we owe a special debt of gratitude to Pilar Parás Garcia, the president of the board of the Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía A.C (Cemefi, the Center for Mexican Philanthropy), who was hugely helpful in providing introductions to leading philanthropists for our visit.

ML: I would add that our conversations with the Council help us maintain focus on the purpose of this research, to have an impact on the field. In an email exchange with Pamela Cruz from Comunalia, the alliance of community foundations of Mexico, she made this astute observation:

I think the research is valuable, as long as we know “how to make things happen/change” after this research — understanding what prevents us from being recognized and how we can position community foundations beyond the concept. My perception is that we remain in the conceptual and not in the practical. On the other hand, I wonder if most family foundations don’t know [community foundations (CFs)], or don’t know what we do or the value we bring. So, what would be a reason/motivation for philanthropic families to help/bet/connect with and for CFs? I mention it because we are working to co-create a clearer narrative, together with the CFs of the alliance, of what Comunalia and the CFs do … The study is pertinent, we just need the “how to’s.”

Having Pamela on the Council is critically important to the success of the project in terms of its impact on the field in Mexico. Each member contributes unique and important insights, adding to the rigor of the research and strengthening its practical implications for the community philanthropy movement in Mexico and Latin America.

Michael Layton, you lived in Mexico for more than a decade, creating one of the first academic research projects on philanthropy and civil society there. What are the most striking differences and similarities between your work in Mexico and your work at the Johnson Center?

ML: Just as the philanthropic sector itself is relatively underdeveloped in Mexico, so is its study. When I arrived in Mexico in 2000, there were few researchers using quantitative methods to study the sector and few publicly available sources of data. Those of us in this field felt an obligation to undertake work that would help strengthen civil society and philanthropy, in terms of public policy and practice. And I was fortunate to be at an amazing university with highly motivated students and collaborative colleagues, and I found extraordinary partners in the nonprofit sector with whom I developed long-term, highly productive partnerships.

Another member of our Council, Dr. Jackie Butcher, is the founding director of the Centro de Investigación y Estudios sobre Sociedad Civil, A.C. (CIESC) at the Tecnológico de Monterrey. I have worked with Jackie for two decades, and she graciously invited me to contribute a chapter on cross-border philanthropy to her edited volume, Generosidad en México III. What I find most gratifying about working at the Johnson Center is that our mandate is to serve as a bridge between research and practice and focus our work on having an impact on the philanthropic ecosystem.

While you were in Mexico City last month, you both engaged in a conversation with Cemefi’s board and Michael Layton took part in a panel discussion about Cemefi’s recently published 7 Tendencias de la Filantropía y de la Sociedad Civil Organizada, which the Johnson Center co-sponsored with Cemefi and Comunalia. Tell us about the board discussion, panel, and audience for the program. How are these partnerships growing?

MM: Cemefi is a fascinating organization, as its membership includes both civil society organizations — NGOs, foundations, and the like – as well as businesses and corporations committed to social responsibility in some way. It’s not surprising, then, that our conversation with their board often veered into discussion of the challenges and opportunities of all that’s been happening at the lively boundary between philanthropy and business.

ML: The aim of the panel was to create a conversation about the trends, especially the novel ways in which young people are engaging in social change and seeking to defend the civic space in Mexico. The panel and the audience consisted mainly of people under 30, and the energy and creativity they exhibited was inspiring.

Both the current project and the topic of the panel reflect our ongoing collaboration with both organizations, which are represented on the Advisory Council for the Community-Family Philanthropy Project. Comunalia was our partner in conducting the 2022 webinar series on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), co-hosting the first session and providing translation into Spanish for the other three. And I serve on the advisory committee for Cemefi’s think tank, which took the lead in the 7 Tendencias project.

What’s next for this project?

MM: We will continue to do interviews, investigate case studies, gather other data through this summer, and then we will finish this phase with a second research trip in early October. This time we will head to a region that is the industrial heart of Mexico, with many active philanthropic families: the city of Monterrey and nearby areas of Nueva Leon.

After that, we will write up our findings and recommendations and produce our report(s) next year. But the best stage of the project will probably be when we return again to Mexico in 2024 for a dissemination tour. I’m not fluent in Spanish like the other Michael, so I’ve been fascinated by certain new phrases I’m learning in this work. One of those I heard on this last trip was detonar una conversación, which seems to literally mean “detonate a conversation” but is commonly used to describe less explosive efforts to spark discussions among people. So in 2024, we will go to Mexico and detonate some conversaciones about family and community philanthropy!

Can you share some of the non-academic highlights of your time in Mexico?

ML: Beyond the incredibly generous manner in which we were greeted, there are two things that I especially enjoyed during our trip.

First, the food. We got to eat mole in Puebla, which competes with Oaxaca for the title of the Mexican state with the best mole. Mole — pronounced so as to rhyme with olé — is a name given to a variety of sauces that usually combine chile, nuts, and spices. I ordered a degustación de mole (below, left) a mole tasting — consisting of five kinds of mole served with turkey. It was amazing.

We also enjoyed two adventurous appetizers, both insect-based and served with fresh tortillas and salsa. The first was escamoles (below, right), which are the larvae of a particular species of ant, sauteed in butter with onion and chiles. The second was chapulines, dried and roasted grasshoppers, seasoned with garlic, lime, salt, and chiles.


Second, Mexico’s deep historical roots. The foods I mentioned date back to well before the Spanish arrived, as do tortillas, which go back to perhaps 10,000 B.C. As you walk through Mexico City’s centro, or the city of Puebla, you encounter churches and secular buildings that were more than a century old before our Declaration of Independence was penned. We visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología (below, left), or National Anthropology Museum, in Mexico City, which has a breathtaking collection.

While in Puebla, we visited the Museo Casa del Mendrugo, and this name requires an explanation. A mendrugo is a crust of bread, and this refers to how the Jesuits, who constructed the house, relied on alms or charity. The museum offers a lovingly curated collection of pre-Hispanic and colonial items, and it was created by a leader of the local community foundation. In a sense, the origins of the building and its current usage embody the trajectory of philanthropy in Mexico.

MM: I enjoyed the mole, for sure, and I discovered I prefer ant larvae over grasshoppers. Who knew? I was also fascinated by the historical and cultural explorations that Michael mentioned. To his list, I would add our visit to the Palacio De Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where we stood, awestruck, in front of some of the best work by Mexico’s world-famous muralists, including Diego Rivera (below, right) and, my personal favorite, José Clemente Orozco. The photo stream on my phone has dozens of shots of cool details from these massive — and usually politically provocative — masterpieces.

Michael Moody and Michael Layton pose in front of a large sculture at the Museo Nacional de Antropología
A mural by Diegor Rivera at the Palacio De Bellas Artes


Members of the Community-Family Philanthropy Advisory Council

Gabriela Boyer
Regional Lead for Community Philanthropy and Foundation Rep. for Nicaragua
Inter-American Foundation
Washington, DC, USA

Dr. Jackie Butcher de Rivas
Director, Centro de Investigación y Estudios sobre Sociedad Civil, A.C. (CIESC)
School of Humanities and Education, Tecnológico de Monterrey
Mexico City, Mexico

Pamela Cruz
Special Projects Coordinator
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Ana Cristina Dahik Loor
Professor, Social and Political Environment Dept.
IPDAE Business School
Mexico City, Mexico

Nick Deychakiwsky
Senior Program Officer
C.S. Mott Foundation
Flint, Michigan, USA

Daniela Fainberg
Independent Philanthropy Consultant
São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

Tatiana Fraga Diez
Executive Director
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Emilia Gonzalez
Director, Center for Philanthropy and Social Investment
Adolfo Ibáñez University’s School of Government
Santiago, Chile

Caroline Kronley
Tinker Foundation
New York, New York, USA

Agustin Landa
Founder of LANZAA consulting and former president of Comunalia
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Katherine Lorenz
Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation
Austin, Texas, USA

Tony Macklin
Independent Philanthropy Consultant
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Dr. Laurie Paarlberg
C.S. Mott Chair on Community Foundations
Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Pilar Parás García
Board Chair
Cemefi (Center for Mexican Philanthropy)
Mexico City, Mexico

David Perez Rulfo
Director, Corporativa de Fundaciones, former President of Comunalia
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Dr. Carol Sanchez
Retired Professor and Director of Seidman International Business Programs
Seidman College of Business, GVSU
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

Jennifer Touchet
Vice President, Personal and Family Philanthropy
Greater Houston Community Foundation
Houston, Texas, USA

Rodrigo Villar
Senior Researcher
Center for Philanthropy and Social Investment
Adolfo Ibáñez University’s School of Government
Santiago, Chile