Harnessing capitalism for development? Reflections on the 2015 Global Philanthropy Forum


John Harvey


The 2015 Global Philanthropy Forum, held 22-24 April in Washington DC, concluded on Friday (a small number of participants departing from Washington for the next stop in the philanthropy conference junket, the Council on Foundations’ annual conference in San Francisco).

Breakout sessions over the past couple of days covered four main tracks: supporting communities in times of crisis, leveraging market systems for good, mobilizing resources (ie using private capital for development), and strengthening health systems.

I especially appreciated a breakout session on strengthening philanthropy’s contribution to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), led by Heather Grady of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Speakers from Colombia, Kenya, the US and elsewhere spoke of their strong belief that the SDGs, expected to be formally adopted by the United Nations in September, represent an extremely important opportunity for philanthropy to have a greater impact with their development-related grantmaking. According to Ms Grady, ‘Unless aggregated, very little philanthropy makes much of a long-term difference.’ In her view, philanthropy’s participation in the SDGs offers opportunity for greater impact.

The SDGs are quite comprehensive – as currently drafted, there are 17 proposed goals with 169 targets. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which focused only on the global South, the SDGs also target the global North, including the US and Europe. Because of this expansiveness, foundations and philanthropists are quite likely to find within them at least some of the issues they are concerned with. Ms Grady advises that, rather than continuing in a more boutique style of funding this NGO here and that CBO there, why not ask how funding could be used in more strategic coordination with the SDGs? To enable this kind of thing to happen, a group of organizations has come together to form the Post-2015 Partnership Platform for Philanthropy. Implementing this initiative are UNDP, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Foundation Center; the Foundation Center will soon be launching a mechanism to track SDG-related grantmaking around the world.

Plenary sessions in the final two days of the forum looked at a number of different topics, including the global supply chain, tri-sector collaboration (especially in the context of the SDGs), the disruptive power of the internet, and strengthening health systems. My own preference is for conference programming that is relatively focused and that takes a participant on a fairly coherent and systematic learning journey. That is certainly not the style of the Global Philanthropy Forum, with a preference for a wide range of topics. For those interested in a wide-ranging, higgledy-piggledy conference programme, the forum can be a great stop.

I have been to, if I recall correctly, six Global Philanthropy Forums, including the very first one. There certainly has been consistency in programming and atmosphere from one year to the next, but this year I was pleased to see something a bit different. In the past I’ve felt that the forum focused too much, and too uncritically, on the latest craze in philanthropy: microfinance one year, social entrepreneurship the next, impact investing the next … This year, I didn’t see the same singular focus. Instead, a broader range of strategies and tools was discussed – this tool here, that tool under those circumstances. This was a refreshing change, and my hope is that it was not an anomaly.

I spoke with several conference attendees who had participated in last week’s stop in the philanthropy conference junket: the EDGE Funders Alliance annual conference, called Just Giving. The Global Philanthropy Forum and Just Giving could not be more different, so people participating in both felt something like whiplash this week. The language at the two conferences is dramatically different: ‘countries’ and ‘communities’ versus ‘markets’; ‘grassroots’ versus ‘the bottom of the pyramid’; ‘social justice’ versus ‘measurable impact’; ‘revolutionary’ versus ‘disruptive’. At the Forum, I heard not a single reference to ‘social movements’ or ‘indigenous communities’, though I am certain these words came up often at Just Giving.

The theories of change put forth at each gathering are also worlds apart: on the economic front, Just Giving speaks of the need to fundamentally alter the current economic system, quite possibly even doing away with it; the forum celebrates capitalism, business and the private sector and wants to harness its power for development. The mood of the two gatherings is also quite different: energized but generally pessimistic about the world at Just Giving, fairly sedate but generally optimistic at the Forum. Such is the diversity of global philanthropy today – it is a highly contested space.

Individual sessions as well as full-day highlights have been posted and archived on YouTube. The Twitter handle was @GPForg, hashtag is #GPF15.

John Harvey is an independent global philanthropy professional.

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