We are living in an unprecedented time, facing a global health pandemic, climate change, natural and humanitarian disasters, structural inequalities, and much more, requiring us to rethink philanthropy and to act with courage. The novelist Arundhati Roy reminded us at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.’
We face a time of opportunity and revisioning, a time to be active, creative, and intentional citizens of the globe who harness philanthropy to effect real, lasting change. As the organisers of the 2021 Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium, we felt a substantial responsibility to create a platform that would inspire the philanthropic community to move from ideas to action, equipped with concrete ways to move forward now, motivated by both urgency and hope. As one of our keynote speakers, Kumi Naidoo of Africans Rising for Justice, Peace & Dignity, so aptly put it, ‘We are in the most consequential decade in humanity, and truth is, we are one minute to midnight. What we do will define what kind of future humanity will have.’
During the three days of the gathering we heard examples illustrating the work being done now in communities around the globe and ideas for what is needed next. In many countries, new organisations, leaders, and innovators have risen – many from the communities that are most vulnerable – to meet the challenges we all face. From India to Chile to Colombia, new partnerships arose in response to COVID-19, often involving civil society organisations and presenting a marked opportunity in countries where there had been a shrinking space for civil society to engage. Collectively, we gained a better understanding of how to leverage new partnerships and investments to ‘build back better’.
Some of the other key opportunities we heard throughout the Symposium include:
- Who you listen to and how you listen matters.
As keynote speaker Theo Sowa of the Equality Fund noted, real change happens when donors listen with humility not for stories of victimhood, but of capability and opportunity. Those on the frontlines of every issue have often gone unheard, yet their lived experience makes them the experts in what is needed or sustainable locally. The Symposium offered participants not only important ideas on how to shift power and adopt a racial equity lens in one’s philanthropy but also guidance on how to apply the same lens to both philanthropy and impact investments.
- Long-term investments into systemic and systems change delivers results.
Using healthcare as one example, when COVID-19 hit, some of the most vulnerable communities around the world were better prepared than they might otherwise have been because of past philanthropic investments. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti prompted investment in hospitals and rural health delivery that saved lives in 2020 during the pandemic and again in 2021 when another earthquake hit. The 2014 Ebola epidemic in Liberia led to investment in learning and practices like contact tracing, vaccine education, and equity, that shifted the trajectory of the current pandemic. Past investments in systems worked to make communities better prepared for the future. In fact, some of the programs developed in the global south provided proof points for approaches to COVID-19 on a global scale. Global health systems need more of such investment and sharing of ideas and innovation across borders.
- Today’s challenges require bigger picture responses
Philanthropy needs to act with a mindfulness about the interconnectedness of every issue. Malala Yousafzai of the Malala Fund pointed out during her keynote that supporting girls’ education creates stronger communities, which have the knowledge and agency to mitigate climate change, improve healthcare and education systems and outcomes.. This decade is the critical timeframe for our global community to act on climate change and create equity in health, education and so much more… While many vital investments are being made to mitigate climate change and other related global challenges, real change requires a bigger shift. It requires citizens to understand how our current way of life – globalisation – needs to shift to greater localisation. We need to support new opportunities for local supply chains in every country. And we need to focus not only on what our philanthropy supports but also what our other investments support, too.
These ideas and challenges can seem too big and daunting. But we must not become overwhelmed. We simply can’t afford to. Instead, we need to recognise our individual and collective ability to act now and be part of the solution. So, what does this mean for you? It’s simple. Philanthropists have a key role to play at this important moment. We urge you to:
Do something. Don’t allow whatever looming challenge you fear most to stop you. Tackle it however you can. Launch a pilot, experiment, learn, and share.
Do more. Use the breadth of your resources. Test impact investing and make sure your investments align with your values. This is not a time to hold back.
Do better. The ‘how’ of philanthropy is equally as important as the ‘what’. How we show up to listen and learn from others and successfully shift power and control is a key to greater success. It also means opening ourselves to people we do not agree with and listening to other perspectives that are important to understand.
Maggi Alexander, Senior Partner and Director of the Center for Global Philanthropy, The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI, @TPIPhilanthropy)
Ina Breuer, Executive Director, New England International Donors (NEID, @NEIDonors)