It may be that the term philanthropy has never been entirely satisfactory especially – and paradoxically – since the notion has become globalised. Once upon a time, there was charity. Then, that began to seem inappropriate – it was patronizing and impertinent – so the ones that considered themselves out in front of the field began to distinguish charity from philanthropy. Later, this didn’t seem quite right either –philanthropy could be too aimless and piecemeal. Enter strategic philanthropy to replace the piecemeal variety, sometimes called ‘traditional philanthropy’ and variants like venture philanthropy.
Alongside these terms, ‘social investment’ has been gaining ground. In fact, in Latin America, private social investment is much more recognisable than philanthropy, which is seen as akin to the the charity or alms-giving model that philanthropists in Europe and the US have been shunning.
In the rest of the world, the terms are often paired. Consider, for instance, the website of the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) which speaks of ‘venture philanthropy and social investment’ throughout or the website of its sister organisation, AVPN, which describes itself as a network ‘committed to building a vibrant and high impact philanthropy and social investment community’. The strapline of Alliance magazine is ‘for philanthropy and social investment worldwide’.
What the distinction between the two is (even whether there is any real distinction) would exhaust the wordage of many blog posts. Suffice to say that many funders now make social investments as well as grants, while others are engaging in an approach which uses the whole of a foundation’s assets in pursuit of its mission (see ‘What happens to the rest of it?’ in the June 2017 issue of Alliance) and even grants are often spoken of as investments – as one person I spoke to when researching the ‘What happens to the rest of it?’ called them, an ‘investment with a minus 100% return.’
This is not to suggest that grantmaking is being consigned to the scrapheap of history. Even the most convinced social investors usually stop short of saying there’s no place for grants. But the encroachment of the language of the financial sector into philanthropy probably reflects the erosion of a well-marked border between the two forms of activity. In token of this – if one were needed – AVPN has just issued a report called The Continuum of Capital which ‘reflects the expanding social investment landscape in Asia’. Note that this social investment landscape includes foundations and ‘traditional’ philanthropists. So are we also seeing a definitive evolution of terminology? Could it be that the term ‘philanthropy’ is being superseded by that of ‘investment’? For many of us, it might appear semantic but language can shape behaviour just as well as evolving from it. In other words, if the sector speaks the language of ‘investment’, it may also increasingly adopt investment-like behaviour.
I don’t insist….but for those who like an outside bet, consider this: in 10 years’ time or less, social investment will take pride of place and the term philanthropy will have been discarded. Sound far-fetched? Remember where you heard it first.
Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance magazine