EFC opening plenary: do we have the luxury of the long view?


Caroline Hartnell


It was fitting that in a session that began with the award of the EFC’s Compass Prize to the late Pier Mario Vello, recognized as an outstanding visionary and thinker in the philanthropy field, the first keynote speaker, Ellen Dorsey, president of the Wallace Global Fund, should call into question one of philanthropy’s most sacred tenets.

In the long view of philanthropy, she said, problems and abuses will always exist. We build towards a future we might never see. ‘But do we have luxury of the long view today?’ We have the knowledge and technology to solve the world’s most pressing problems. If we look at the need to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change, ‘surely we must be involved in transformation today?’

We have at most 15-30 years to solve the problem of climate change and keep global warming below the critical 2 degrees threshold. ‘We are the last generation that will be able to solve the crisis of climate change. Can we afford the long view any more?’

Dorsey described how the youth-led climate movement is exploding. Increasingly it’s no longer OK to invest in fossil fuels; if you do, you’re part of the problem. The campaign that started in universities has now spread globally. Divest Invest Philanthropy, headed up by the Wallace Global Fund, calls on foundations to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable solutions; now 90 foundations are signed up. Foundations can of course support this through their grants, advocacy, convening and assets. But, she reminded us, foundations receive tax privileges; yet they are invested in companies that are actually causing some of the world’s biggest problems. If foundations put just 5 per cent of their assets in renewables and clean energy, she suggested, ‘it would be game-changing’.

If we take the short view, said Dorsey, we have to forge collaborations: we can’t address intersecting crises working alone. Be audacious: big problems need audacious solutions. Get uncomfortable: outside our comfort zones, investing in youth leadership, engaging in advocacy, using convening authority to support grantees.

Are we invested in things we ask our grantees to solve? Should we sit on assets in perpetuity when the solution of problems is so urgent? These were Dorsey’s final challenges to her foundation audience. Go home and ask: how does climate change affect the work of my foundation, she suggested.

An inspiring start to the EFC conference. ‘We are the first generation to understand climate change and the first generation to have the resources to tackle it’ was apparently the most retweeted statement of the opening plenary. Let’s hope Ellen Dorsey’s appeal to divest/invest will not fall on deaf ears.

Caroline Hartnell, Alliance magazine

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