Philanthropy infrastructure matters, but morning gathering calls for evolution


Jen Bokoff


Despite the humidity and conference center maze, nearly 30 people attended the Alliance Breakfast Club about philanthropy infrastructure. Charles Keidan from Alliance magazine introduced the meeting and panelists Maria Chertok of CAF Russia, Benjamin Bellegy of WINGS, and Filiz Bikmen of Esas Sosyal with a few driving questions: What is the value of infrastructure? What trends are we noticing? And what is needed to improve its sustainability? These questions and more are explored in the just-released edition of the magazine, and also are present in my work every day at Foundation Center.

Over the course of the panel discussion and through comments from the room, one theme was omnipresent: with visible shifts in forms of philanthropy, technology, and contexts, infrastructure remains critical but must evolve in its approaches to business models/resourcing, partnerships, and communications.

Philanthropy “infrastructure” – a word which itself is hotly debated and described as lacking creativity and connoting mere scaffolding – organizations have generally been defined as those organizations which offer connections, resources, information, and/or capacity building to foundations or other mission-driven grantmaking or social investment organizations. Now, there’s a broader audience to serve, pointed out Maria. “There are many other philanthropic actors outside of foundations, many of which aren’t institutionalized. There are giving circles and movements, and many entities that border lines of business or politics. We need to look at potential of philanthropy in a broader sense, and make sure that potential is realized.”

A part of the challenge is building trust and engagement with these new, broader constituencies. Philanthrospeak will not work with more diverse audiences, and so as many attendees and panelists pointed out, infrastructure groups need to become more authentic and descriptive about their outcomes, rather than simply speaking to their activities. And, they will need to work to make audiences feel like an essential piece of the equation, or else risk valuable services not reaching those audiences and a resourcing challenge. As Natalie Ross, in attendance from the Council on Foundations pointed out, “We’ve been around for 70 years, and a growing challenge is that with our work being broad-reaching, people freeload. They think our work should and will serve their interests, but don’t always understand why membership and other participation are key to advancing our agenda. So we’ve had to rethink business models, both with resourcing, and how to make the case.”

Youth were another audience noted as critical to infrastructure organizations, given social change efforts that they are leading worldwide. Especially in contexts where political participation is not possible, mission-driven activities are a positive and possible mode of youth engagement. Filiz raised an important point though. “Philanthropy is good and we should lift it up, but it also has its limits. We for example work in the space of youth unemployment. We want to engage other donors and people more broadly in this work. If we approach this challenge philanthropically, we’ll have limits. If it’s a social business though, we’ll have greater potential.” She called for philanthropy support organizations to consider how shifts in approach like this can be noted by and influence the resources, services, and activities on offer. And, I would add that our traditional identification of support organizations negates the role and value of both less formal entities and the more institutionalized and broad-reaching support of academia.

Benjamin offered an important reminder that this conversation of supporting and evolving infrastructure needs to be aligned and global. Our partnership on developing the Global Philanthropy Data Charter and participation in two WINGS’ affinity groups (data and infrastructure) is a piece of this, but it’s essential that organizations like ours, WINGS, and others move from conversation to active collaboration to better meet the growing needs of a growing set of people participating in philanthropy. That’s how we’ll build the field. Fortunately, there are already terrific examples of this underway. Two from our end: We partner with the East Africa Philanthropy Network to facilitate a capacity building program in which foundations work collectively to co-create a data strategy and portal for the country. The process itself is an outcome as well, as participants increasingly value of partnership beyond their day to day work. Another: We’ve been partnering with Ariadne, Human Rights Funders Network, and Prospera for years to collect and curate data and learning from funding human rights. I’m eager to see increased collaboration and perhaps even consolidation of efforts in the months and years ahead.

I’ll leave you with two musings that this gathering raised for me. The first is the infrastructure ecosystem’s connection with the notion behind the conference hashtag, #PhilanthropyWorks. Would philanthropy work without support organizations? I think it would. One piece of evidence: So many philanthropy organizations and people already don’t participate in – either through contribution or learning – infrastructure! And, they’re still doing good, important work that “works” just as much as any other organization. However, does infrastructure help philanthropy work better? Absolutely. I see evidence to that every day, as the services provided lead to smarter questions, partnerships, strategy, and learning. The other musing: As other infrastructure – notably governmental – is failing and losing trust in contexts around the world, we have an even harder task of driving conversation about and investment in this already-unsexy topic. It will be interesting to see strategies used by existing infrastructure orgs, invested foundations, and sector media in broadening engagement in and evolution of philanthropy support work.

Jen Bokoff is director of stakeholder engagement at Foundation Center.

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