The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for philanthropy and social innovation to evolve from an educated elite doing good to a much broader and wiser movement.
My parents grew up in the Second World War in a small town in England with a ringside view of the Battle of Britain. They divided ‘the old days’ into pre-war, wartime, and post-war. Pre-war was when you had to pay to see the doctor. Wartime was when the town was bombed. Post-war was the new normal with free health care – a product of pre-war social innovations and resolve to win the peace as well as the war.
The Covid-19 pandemic is both a crisis for now and a chance to create new normals.
Our first imperative as global citizens is to get through the crisis. Yes, it is heartwarming to hear applause for the health care workers and to see so many volunteers working to make a difference. But the pandemic and its response are also driving up inequality. The richer are more likely to work from home and skip travel to avoid infection. The poorer are more likely to be in jobs which can’t be done from home, or even jobs that expose them to the virus, such as driving a bus.
The second imperative is to look beyond, and work now on shaping a fairer world. We can start by including the heroes we are applauding, hearing their voices, and giving them votes or even vetoes.
Over the past 25 years, I have worked with social innovators on six continents. The most inspiring innovations have brought together people with specialized expertise and first-hand experience. Consider the fight to stop the spread of HIV. The STOP AIDS Project in San Francisco, Prepster in London, and Thrive SS in Atlanta were all founded by people with HIV. Wikipedia has shown us the power of collective wisdom. Millions of people have demonstrated the new power of movements like #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and All Out.
I have also attended meetings of smart people with few or none of the frontline heroes we are now applauding. At the Skoll World Forum I saw a hierarchy: the ‘heropreneurs’ were smart people doing good things. The good people doing the smart things did not have much of a voice. Daresay, they had no vote nor veto. Even worse, I have sometimes encountered a toxic meritocracy: people with the privilege of excellent education discussing inequality while scorning people that suffer from it.
To include our heroes, we can each take three practical steps.
- Listen to the voices: Include a ‘cross-section of society’ in all our discussions. I know senior scientists, frustrated by the pace of climate change work, who were startled by the rise of Greta Thunberg. She captured the attention they had wanted. Younger voices have reignited the debate about climate change. Each of us can be curious to hear new voices.
- Share the votes: Include heroes from the front line in governance. On the board of Khulisa, which works in prisons, I served with a member who had been incarcerated. Sadly, many boards lack diversity and do not look beyond ‘meritocracy.’ Collective impact collaborations can cede power to ‘experts.’ Each of us can demand that we give votes to folks with hard experience.
- Use our vetoes: Refuse to tolerate scorn of the people who are now keeping us safe. When I was growing up, television was often racist, sexist, and homophobic. Thankfully, this worldview has changed. It is now cool to call out such insults. We can also call out the toxic meritocracy when it manifests itself in using exclusive jargon or patronizing comments about ‘those people.’
COVID-19 could accelerate widening inequality or it could give us a chance to attack inequality with a new social philanthropy: the power of philanthropists with their millions collaborating with volunteers in their millions. The impact could change our world.
Let me take you back to my hometown. In 1957, my mother lost units of blood in the hospital where she gave birth to me. She survived due to catastrophic changes that created a free health care system. Events could have turned out differently if circumstances had compelled her to give birth in the same basement apartment where she herself was born in 1935. They certainly would have turned out different for me.