Multiple lessons from multiple crises: a five-step roadmap for philanthropy


Ayşegül Bayar Hildgen


The EFC Annual Conference 2021 started off with a trailer video, where multimedia artist André Heller said ‘Vienna is a perfect place to be born and a perfect place to die. In between, it is a little bit difficult.’ We are passing from difficult and challenging times indeed, both as individuals and as institutions. Times that mirror us our weaknesses, and strengths. It is thus no surprise that this year’s conference was entitled ‘From Crisis to Opportunity: How Can Philanthropy Accelerate Sustainable Change?’. And the underlying question is, to be able to accelerate sustainable change, how can philanthropy reform itself?

It is day one at the conference. We are at Gartenbaukino, an iconic cinema in Vienna. In the opening plenary, Kumi Naidoo quotes Einstein; ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.’ The 400 people in the room nods together. Naidoo stresses that we should not make the same mistakes we did after the global crisis in 2008, where we focused on system recovery and system maintenance. Instead, the goal should be system renovation, system redesign, and system innovation. But how? The buzzwords of day one at the conference provide a good hint to this: climate, emergency, disaster, collaboration, research, core-funding, participatory grant-making, and risk-taking.

Claire Boulanger from Fondation de France, opens the panel of the Society track with a disclaimer by saying: ‘this conference is happening at a time of multiple crisis, that are intertwined.’ In today’s world, increasing illiberalism, trust crisis, climate emergency, and a global health crisis co-exist. Sounds like the opening line of a dystopian novel, only worse: it is real and now. Human rights are at stake with the proliferation of illiberal democracies and the erosion of rule of law. Trust in media, and in politicians is profoundly shaken. Time is running out to stop the climate emergency. Finally, the global health crisis. Not to forget that these are only the global challenges, and each country has its own ingredients to add up to this unsavory cocktail. But there is an unexpected window of opportunity for philanthropy, as for all institutions, to carry out transformations in its architecture and strategy. Let’s share some lessons from day one at the conference.

First; know your audience better, and support your grantees in knowing their audience better. The world we know is constantly changing, and the key to impact in a VUCA world is research. We have to discover how people are affected from these changes, and how their needs shift. In the Society track panel ‘Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous – Navigating the New Normal Society’, Arantxa Ribot Horas from Social Observatory of La Caixa Foundation shares a research, which reveals that global suicide rates are increasing at an unprecedented speed and mental health emerges as one of the key areas that philanthropy should invest in. ‘Companies know their clients very well, we do not’ says Horas. Companies invest in tremendous amount of research to come up with most tailor-made products and services, and to optimise their profit. And philanthropy has a lesson to take from this to optimise its impact.

Second, invest in cross-issue work. Today’s intertwining challenges require an intersectional approach. ‘The work we do should look more like the way people see the world, not less so’ says Claire Boulanger. And for this, we all need to get equipped with an intersectional lens.

Third, have an emergency response reflex. Today’s conditions require flexible, rapid, and insightful interventions. Thus, although emergency response is not a core activity of the organisation, it should be viewed as an extension of the mission. As most of the disasters are triggered by the climate crisis, this also means that every foundation should have a climate lens. We can do more than just dedicating 2% of philanthropic funds to climate.

Fourth, provide core-funding support. ‘Instead of supporting projects we should support organisations who are changemakers’ says Alexandre Giraud from Fondation de France, and continues, ‘Call for proposals kill creativity; provide a space for creativity and partnerships.’ In times of attacks to human rights, and multiple crisis challenging the agility of civil society organisations, core-funding and capacity strengthening is key. Zohra Moosa from Mama Cash adds another approach we should all be considering, that is participatory grant-making. It is the tool that puts the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us’ into practice.

Finally, take more risk. In the opening plenary, Anne-Brigitte Albrectsen points out that ‘Philanthropy is the potentially most risk-taking capital, more than governments or corporations. And we are not taking enough risk.’ In the same panel, Kumi Naidoo puts forward Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for ‘creative maladjustment’. ‘I say you my friends…there are certain things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted… I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.’ said King. Foundations have the privilege and the responsibility to be a game-changer and to take risks, more than the governments and corporations. Otherwise, one may ask, how does it differentiate itself?

The gap between the world we desire to live in, and our belief to reach to this world widens every day. Philanthropy has a role to narrow down this hope gap. And this can only accelerate by reshaping itself; its methods, its priorities. Recalling Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous phrase ‘Well behaved women seldom make history’, we can say that well-adjusted philanthropists seldom make history. After all, the goal of this conference as Lucy Bernholz puts it, ‘…is to help you all change your work, to borrow from Kumi, to leave here as creatively maladjusted philanthropists, to help our planet, society, and our democracies’.

Ayşegül Bayar Hildgen is Grant Programs Coordinator at Sabanci Foundation

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