From smart people doing good things to good people doing smart things


Jon Huggett


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.

Jon Huggett is a Senior Fellow of The Young Foundation
Twitter: @JonHuggett

Tagged in: Covid-19 Funding practice

Comments (18)

Christine Foster

So useful. I think we've been collectively using our vetoes a lot more than we've been sharing our votes.

Paul Guenette

Thanks Jon, for sharing these spot-on observations. Hopefully, society evolves as citizens learn and are enlightened. Don’t stop speaking out. You inspire others to do similarly!

JoAnne Tillemans

Thank you for this excellent article Jon and for the carefully crafted overview of the work we need to perform.

Jason P Lorber

Excellent job. I love the examples of people who are most affected by a cause taking the lead and finding solutions.

Tyler T.

Share the votes, include the voices of those directly impacted, should be the ethos of so much of our work professionally and for social change.

jono Nicholas

Well done Jon. So much of the conversation is on shared sacrifice at the moment but the aftermath of the the GFC showed us that it is actually shared benefit that matters. Hopefully those with the power and privilege to get to the front of queue during recovery remember that the bus driver, nurse and school teacher is worthy of more than their applause.

Zingi Mkefa

Thank you for this timely piece. Now is a good time to recognize good people doing smart things, and to remind us to look to them when we rebuild tomorrow. Thank you!

Alastair Wilson

Meritocracy is a theme you keep coming back to John, each time with greater sense of urgency and opportunity. I think this piece is particularly strong, hope it sparks further discussions, Ali Wilson

Clive Faro

A terrific piece, Jon. I'm already seeing some of this happening in our neighbourhood, where people have become more connected despite (or because of) the lockdown. The young especially are taking a lead, harnessing technology while we older ones stagger in their wake.

Tim Miles

Good piece Jon. We need people thinking now about how to make sure the future 'different' is better, not rush to the old normal. The comparison with the end of WWII is well made. It pays to remember that it was voters then who chose a different future. Given the choice, they could again.

Matt Beard

Great piece that clearly and concisely makes clear how smart people power can refashion our post-corona world.

Ken Kannappan

The inspiration to turn this crisis and tragedy into an opportunity for a better world is on target. The point of how we conduct ourselves personally in line with what we preach is also dead on.

Ben Miles

Really insightful piece. Great comparison between now and post-war Britain. With the right people this could be an opportunity yet

Paul Williamson

Jon's insight chimes here in London, UK. We need to look beyond, to use the crisis as a springboard as Jon points out, not as a hurdle to be jumped and left behind

Jonathan Miles

Fantastic. As a member of Gen Z, my hopes for what will inevitably be my "post-war" lifetime are very succinctly put here,and I hope future generations look back at this time with as much pride at what was done as we do at post war society.

Liz Miles

Great read. Hopefully, in the rush to return to normal, change will happen.

Glyn Thomas

Great piece, let’s hope some of the good and sometimes surprising things that come out of this pandemic last and change how we behave and relate to one another.

Julia Lee

I appreciate the thoughtfulness & detail Jon has put into this article. His experience & comments come just at the right time. A must read !

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