One of western philanthropy’s most elite networks showed it is ready to open up – and step up – to the challenges of the times. Charles Keidan reports from The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW) summit held in London – the organisation’s first outside North America.
What would a group of multimillionaires think about ‘unlocking abundance’ – the theme of the conference – during a cost-of-living crisis for everyone but the one per cent? That question was on my mind as I joined around 200 philanthropists and philanthropy professionals at The Conduit in London’s Covent Garden earlier this month.
The Philanthropy Workshop – which serves a community of around 400 liberal and mostly western philanthropists through its offices in London New York and San Francisco – turned out to be thinking far more deeply about that question than some may have anticipated.
This is a ‘space for truth telling, self-reflection and collective action’, TPW CEO Renee Kaplan said in her opening remarks. ‘We’re here to be inspired, renewed and discover ways to unlock our abundance and bring forward social progress’.
‘Welcome to London – built on the Industrial Revolution – financed by colonialism’ announced TPW’s Sam Underwood in an early indication that this would be no typical philanthropy conference.
The programme proved to be deep, reflective, and hard hitting. That seemed in keeping with the urgency and challenges of the times – racial injustice, climate change, authoritarianism, poverty – to name a few of the interlocking ‘polycrises’ mentioned by Conduit cofounder Paul van Zyl as he welcomed attendees.
The combination of extreme problems being discussed in comfortable surroundings would no doubt have seemed jarring to someone looking in from the outside – especially someone seriously impacted by the problems being discussed. But the welcoming atmosphere of The Conduit – a community dedicated to social change – served as a convenient backdrop for two days of intense discussion between 100 TPW members who were joined by an equal number of ‘TPW guests’, typically philanthropy professionals, sector leaders and experts.
What made the event so special was the programme – and the willingness of TPW members to engage with it.
First, the subject matter. Race, climate, gender and economic inequality were front and centre but not as abstract problems but actual issues which philanthropists – with their abundance of wealth, generosity and ideas – can make a contribution to addressing.
None of that would have been possible without careful curation. The TPW team and in particular the aforementioned Sam Underwood brought together leading figures from the progressive end of British philanthropy and civil society to share ideas for change. The dialogue which ensued meant the meeting felt filled with new people, ideas and challenge. ‘You’re all welcome!’ said TPW’s Europe director Marylou Gourlay, ushering in what many will hope is a new open-ness.
The opening sessions focused participants on racial injustice. The Ubele Initiative’s Yvonne Field told the story of how London’s Notting Hill Carnival – Europe’s biggest celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture – emerged out of community organising following the death of an activist. Some of Field’s ‘She-roes’ were projected on screens rooting us in London’s history of racial struggle and injustice. I wondered what American participants were making of this account of racial injustice through a distinctly British lens. Interestingly, Field observed, it was an incident in the US – the murder of George Floyd which led British foundations to ‘wake up’ several generations after pioneers like Claudia Jones had helped establish the carnival.
Black philanthropy activist Derek Bardowell asked us to consider ‘whether philanthropy has been institutionalised in ways which prevent some of the values’ described by Field – of humanity, joy, camaraderie and organising as a form of resistance – becoming more present in today’s philanthropic work.
Despite otherwise flawless programming, I wondered whether an opportunity had been missed to take participants a few miles to Notting Hill to see this history – and the impact of gentrification today in erasing it. But grounding the meeting in London’s own story of racial injustice set the stage for even harder questions which followed.
Chief among these was the question of how wealth – not least the wealth of people in attendance – relates to poverty and economic injustice. To address this, we heard reaction from Steph Brobbey of the Good Ancestor Project, Ayeisha Thomas-Smith from Neon, Jo Swinson of Partners for a New Economy and, later in the day, from Friends Provident Foundation’s Danielle Walker Palmour – all pioneering figures shaking up the status quo and challenging economic orthodoxy.
Stephanie Brobbey gave a compelling speech her journey from city lawyer to her current role advising wealth holders how to be a good ancestor to future generations by using the money for good rather than hoarding it wealth and avoiding tax. Her argument focused on the imperative for to significantly reduce the scale of their wealth, revisit their investment practices and advocate for more progressive and effective taxes.
In her contribution, Ayeisha Thomas-Smith offered a powerful metaphor to illustrate the changes we need. Rather than seeing our economy like a bucket into which some give and others take – the model of ‘striver’ and ‘scrounger’ – we should rather see it ‘like a computer where a small number of people and corporations have taken the passwords and programmed it in their own interests.’
What would an economic model look like which worked in everyone’s interest? Thomas-Smith asked us to imagine a society with a four day working week, expanded childcare and better public services. And, added climate action champion Gonzalo Munoz, some ‘new accounting rules.’
The questions of how the economy is failing – and what specifically philanthropy should be doing carried over into breakout sessions later in the day. Friends Provident Foundation’s Danielle Walker Palmour led one giving a foundation view on seeking ‘full impact’ in practice using grants and investments as well as her work on a foundation rating system to improve accountability.
But a standout session by the accounts of attendees (I was not there as it was restricted to members) was where around fifty participants gathered to consider how much private wealth is ‘enough’? Once a wealth holder can determine their ‘enough’ figure, then the rest is not just excess but the raw materials for abundance which can be directed to the greater good, including through philanthropy. The session was led by Dutch philanthropist Robert Boogaard and US based Brent Kessel. It was reported that the conversation was ‘transformational’ and – in itself – ‘well worth the flying over from the US for’, according to one attendee.
The buzz flowed right through to the end of the day as The Equality Fund CEO, Jess Tomlin sat down with pan African and feminist leader Theo Sowa, Canadian philanthropist Sophie Gupta, community foundation chief, Andrew Chunilall and the Ford Foundation’s, Darren Walker. As one of the few philanthropy professionals with star power, Walker’s appearance on the panel was keenly anticipated.
When I caught up with him at Canada House in London – Walker was in the UK to promote a fund for gender equality alongside the UK and Canada – he told me that his message to TPW would be two-fold. ‘One is that all philanthropists should strive to reduce inequality and bring about more justice. That may feel a little contradictory because the reality of philanthropy is that inequality makes it possible for many of us to exist – we have to interrogate our own complicity. The second part of the message is around power. We cannot have more justice in the world without focusing on the injustice for women and girls and… the gender inequality that exists.’
Walker picked up on that theme at the TPW panel observing that, as foundations, ‘we have perfected the rhetoric of empowerment but not internalised it in our policies.’
While Walker was characteristically eloquent, he seemed a bit tired perhaps bearing the weight of hope and expectation pinned on his shoulders. It was striking to see him somewhat bristle at a question posed by Sophie Marple from the climate funder, Gower Street. She asked Walker why the $16 billion endowed Ford Foundation needs to continue into perpetuity given the risk of planetary collapse due to climate change.
‘Ford owes a legal and moral fidelity to its charter, Walker responded. ‘It’s right that Henry Ford could say he wanted a foundation to address issues of the future.’ That lacked the kind of interrogation some participants were clearly hoping for.
‘In the case of Ford, we are always well above five per cent in our payout. We’re closer to six per cent and, on 16 billion dollars, the difference between five and six per cent is a significant amount of money’ he’d told me earlier. But judging by the post panel chat, clearly some participants were looking to Walker to push the envelope much further.
It was always going to be a hard task for the second day to maintain the same level of explosive dynamism. Not least as it was a Saturday, and many of the local guests had returned home to family duties. The slower pace proved a great opportunity for smaller group-based work to digest some of the themes and start developing plans of action to take away. There was also some meaty content too.
First, we were treated to a video message from Melinda French Gates inviting TPW members to connect with her philanthropic outfit, Pivotal Ventures, for match funding on gender issues. We then heard from Co-Impact founder, Olivia Leland, about efforts to foster collaboration around systemic issues. ‘Problems are too big to solve alone’ Leland noted. She urged funders to ask CSO’s not ‘how they are different but how they complement each other.’
Later, I attended a breakout session on the future of science funding convened by Ronit Kanwar of Schmidt Futures looking at the development of ‘Focused research organisations’ or ‘Fru’s’ as a new model for researchers and commercial bodies – both changing the mindsets of university researchers and developing new ways to fund science.
TPW stalwart and British philanthropist Fran Perrin – who had been instrumental in the development of TPW outside North America – called on the community to be willing to be more critical of one another. And to be more political. Something that Perrin is doing, alongside her own philanthropy, through donating £500,000 to the Labour party, a donation that will seek to propel the Party into government at next year’s general election.
‘We need to make best practice, common practice’, said Kaplan. There are 50,000,000 millionaires but only 400 are members of TPW, an indication that TPW (with a new name and brand to be publicly unveiled soon) must take their equity centric and values driven community further out into the world.
And that was it. Or so I thought.
But much to my daughter’s delight (yes, my five-year-old Ariel Keidstein spent her Saturday with me at The Conduit), we walked into the closing ceremony to find a giant pink, red and blue unicorn running around the room. Ariel explained to me later that it was a man dressed in a unicorn costume and not in fact a real one. The man turned out to be Elliott Donnelley the Chair of TPW bringing some levity to the final session. A session which also included holding hands in concentric circles for some mediation led by the Dalai Lama’s physician, Barry Kerzin.
I headed out into the streets of Covent Garden, daughter in hand, thinking that she had glimpsed a vision of working life not to dissimilar to home – unicorns, macaroons, a chocolate brownie or two, and making some new friends – while readying for some tough challenges one day on the streets beyond.
The TPW summit proved to be quite a tour de force. Let’s hope its members can now be an even greater force for good in the world through the catalytic power of their philanthropy in the years to come.
Charles Keidan is Executive Editor at Alliance.