Time to make strategic philanthropy more human-focused

Charlotte Vangsgaard and Mads Holme

A sea change is underway in the world of philanthropy. The shift is driven partly by the cataclysmic effects of a global pandemic that has wiped out decades of developmental gains over the past few years while crowding out investment in other sectors. 

Yet it partly has been driven by the eye-watering transfer of wealth to a younger and more purpose-driven breed of philanthropist. Such soaring wealth, especially against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed over five million, has generated outrage yet also elicited hope that private philanthropy can fill in the gaps left by governments and NGOs, when it comes to fighting inequality, eradicating disease, or curbing global warming.

Strategic philanthropy refers to an approach by which businesses or private individuals donate to causes that fit within a defined mission statement or set of goals or values. In recent years it has become a byword for a data-driven approach devised by some third-party consultancy, one scorned by some critics. ‘The tool kit of the consulting business is based on crunching massive amounts of quantitative data and analysing it,’ as Anand Giridharadas, a former Mckinsey consultant and author of ‘Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,’ told the New York Times. ‘What it’s bad at understanding is human life.’

But what if strategic philanthropy doubled down on embracing its humanist side? We would argue that it is entirely possible for philanthropists to build a deeper, more empathetic, and more contextual understanding of the communities they operate in – given the right tools and guidance. Private capital affords philanthropists extraordinary flexibility and autonomy, which can be leveraged to build a strong understanding of the human lives at the other end of their grant or donation.

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