Throughout 2021, SIX will be sharing our tracking and interrogation of how the discourse around philanthropy has shifted, or not, after the profoundly impactful events of 2020. We are looking for themes that have been lost in the noise, and trends that have become louder; we are searching for signals about what has already gained, and what may still gain, traction and attention. We are examining, in a light-touch way, what the implications of this might be for our funder friends in the SIX Funders Node and beyond.
Where were we this time last year?
‘In a world like ours – ever-connected and deeply interwoven, what better way to build meaningful exchange than through the conversations of losing control, redistributing resources, and shifting our systems of power? The value of this kind of work is never more necessary than now.’
On 4 March 2020, the ‘Losing Control’ event brought together funders, commissioners and local organisations in Westminster to re-imagine what supporting the process and practice of social change could be through movements, communities and networks. For many, that was the last physical event of the entire year and its title was telling of times to come. A year later, these often ‘invisible’ groupings and informal associations were without a shadow of a doubt the heroes in our pandemic response.
What did we find important a year ago and do we still find it important a year later?
‘If I consider the events currently impacting the globe, including Australia’s devastating bushfires, it is difficult to overlook resilience as a priority. From reactivity to proactivity…’
– Helen Steel, CEO Shared Value Project (Australia)
In the Spring of 2020, the UK began taking the urgency of our situation – for the NHS, for lives – more seriously. With everything changing so rapidly, many felt the push and pull of emergency response. The pandemic had created a short-term sense of urgency around issues that needed deeper and longer work, and looking back at the discourse around philanthropy at this time, many were already trying to look beyond.
Last year, the Robert Bosch Foundation announced a realignment of its priorities. They wanted to know how they could take advantage of the new and emerging developments in the field. Their move was a demonstration of forward-thinking: resilience is a question of effectiveness ‘in a world of constant dynamic change.’ Fast forward to 2021 and Pioneers Post published an article called ‘Survival Skill No. 1: Resilience’, which gave ten tips for building resilience, including maintaining perspective and building strong global relationships.
Recognising global differences in the discourse
Many of us in the Global North began to understand that global exchange was critical in helping to shift our outlook and find new ideas and alliances going forwards. The Shared Value Project in Australia and Bosch, a European foundation which works globally, had understood something earlier than most: that players in the Global South, who had already been dealt near-fatal blows through various crises in the past, were far better prepared than we were, and that resilience and effectiveness were about much more than action. It is a fine balance between being proactive about present needs without losing long-term thinking.
What issues were we grappling with then and have they evolved into action?
‘Failure, setbacks and disappointment are certainties in life. What matters, what makes the difference, is how we deal with them.’
Questions were being raised like what will become normal (from McKinsey) or how not to waste this (from Sir Prof. Geoff Mulgan). Questions that looked into second and third horizons of response and recovery were arguably premature for that very early point in the pandemic, or at the very least – as we already mentioned in our conversation with Rhodri Davies on the CAF Giving Thought podcast – a luxury that many simply did not have.
In Spring 2020, Lankelly Chase published a report called ‘Gender Matters’, which returned to their work from 2015 to explore how disadvantages might cluster differently in the lives of women. This was a group that, during the pandemic, was shown to be leading the health response whilst also shouldering much of the burden and dangers of the pandemic. So far in the Spring of 2021, we have not seen enough philanthropic initiatives incorporating the gender lens in their giving.
Meanwhile, thankfully, other areas of inequality only grew in attention and action. There was of course much talk on the importance of Black Lives Matter, but moving from mere statements into action, earlier on in 2021, the CEO of Toronto Community Foundation published a short piece stating that the organisation had re-evaluated its entire commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a way that enabled it to go from being non-racist to actively anti-racist and to achieve that from the inside out.
What did we think we needed to do and have we done it?
‘And I think what philanthropy can do is invest in those narratives that lift up the reality… to be in the business of hope… I lived at a time when little boys like me felt that our country was cheering us on. And I just today am concerned that we don’t seem to be giving that message to young people who are increasingly marginalized and incarcerated and ensnared in systems and structures that doom them to failure.’
– Darren Walker
Last year, Darren Walker famously wrote about moving from generosity to justice around issues of inequality, saying that philanthropy needed to ‘elevate the voice of people who are most harmed by the system’, proposing that in the face of growing inequality, philanthropy needed to be investing in ‘the idea, institution and the people who are closest to the problem’.
This is culture affecting work, which transcends sectoral divides and involves the arts. something that philanthropy has largely shied away from (or at least shied away from talking about). Partners Global and Peacebuilding at Humanity United wrote in an Alliance article this year about collaborating with the artistic community in order to ‘build a narrative strategy‘ that can be one of many ways to combat toxic polarisation in our societies.
Turning to 2021, narratives work is certainly gaining in popularity this year. The Ford Foundation and partners across philanthropy and the arts launched a programme called ‘Reclaiming the Border Narrative‘, in which funding was given to ‘enable immigrant rights advocates, artists, writers and organizations to work over the next three years to organise and preserve stories reflecting the dignity and truth of border communities, connecting and empowering them to centre their own narrative on their terms and in their voices.’
‘These are but a few of the strategies that philanthropies can use to seed strong narrative competency during an era of deep division. It is time to be bold, and to work across geographical and sectoral borders to bring wisdom to these complex cultural, political and narrative challenges.’
– Julia Roig (Partners Global) and Melanie Greenberg (Peacebuilding at Humanity United).
Meanwhile in Europe, a large part of the PEX Forum 2021 – a 2-day virtual convening hosted by Ariadne, Dafne and SenseTribe, which brings together philanthropy support organisations from across Europe to explore the key values that unite European philanthropy – incorporated visual storytelling and poetry, and even produced a post-event write-up in the form of a storybook. Much of the discussion at the event itself was about the importance of investing in social imagination and using story to better illustrate the concepts and ideals that philanthropy works towards.
How are we planning to move forwards?
If we look back to some of the earlier conversations of 2020 – for example, Yuval Noah Harari at WEF – we understand why story is only going to grow in importance:
‘Life is a drama of decision making… humans are likely to lose control over our own lives and also lose the ability to understand public policy… If we fail to conceptualize the new heaven quickly enough, we might be easily misled by naïve utopias. And if we fail to conceptualize the new hell quickly enough, we might find ourselves entrapped there with no way out.’
– Yuval Noah Harari
With this observation, we arrive at our starting point: that once we acknowledge this sense of losing control, we can focus on the important elements that will keep us moving forward and making positive change: exchange, proactivity, long term thinking, and building narratives of hope and justice, with different people and perspectives, around the complex, changing world and the ‘drama of decision making’ we must all now face.
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