Fundamental questions about money and power must be debated amid coronavirus and rousing social change


Tenzin Dolker


Like all disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying historical, patriarchal, and colonial injustices. Frontline social change movements already needed more and better funding, but we now have the opportunity and imperative to reimagine the very nature of philanthropy.

For once, this is not a matter of quiet discussions behind closed doors or making modest changes to funding practices. Both within and outside philanthropy, people are loudly debating fundamental questions about the role of money and power in social change.

Some of the key questions and debates around what will define the post-COVID philanthropic landscape include:

  • Who holds power and how can the sector move from merely providing relief to actually building power of our movements?
  • What are the imperatives for philanthropy to democratise and open up its decision making to those most impacted in a meaningful and intersectional way?
  • What is the nature of philanthropic resourcing and its complex entanglement in the vastness of capitalism and colonialism?
  • How can philanthropy use this moment to accelerate change that centers regeneration and cooperation over wealth accumulation?

Extreme wealth and billionaire charity

The very foundation of philanthropy is in question, built upon an extractive and unjust economic system that has resulted in extreme, egregious wealth.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, made headlines recently for being on track to become the world’s first trillionaire, while millions of people live in daily uncertainty. Whether or not this is an overblown projection, the system that propelled Bezos to amass $139 billion has done so by design, not by accident. Even in the past two months, American billionaires have grabbed $434 billion amid the current global pandemic (Bezos’ share of this sum totalled  $24 billion).

It is not always so clear cut. Recently, Square and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey committed $1 billion of his Square equity for COVID relief efforts and other causes, including girls’ health and education and universal basic income. While laudable, we cannot ignore the extreme wealth that enables such “billionaire charity” in the first place. How much of billionaires’ wealth is actually the result of calculated tax dodging that should have been used for public resources to begin with? And what would it mean for a comprehensive response to COVID-19 to have robust social protections, rather than undemocratic processes meted out by wealthy individuals or foundations? Feminist movements and economists have long critiqued these illicit financial flows (IFFs) allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to avoid paying their fair share in tax, funds so critical for social and gender justice work. Over 65 percent of IFFs are proceeds from commercial activities, with countries losing at least $600 billion in public revenue annually and an estimated $20-30 trillion parked in tax havens. These are critical resources that could be used to directly invest in our broken social protections and underfunded public services, acutely highlighted by this global pandemic.

An unprecedented moment to transform philanthropy

The current moment of great economic uncertainty compels us to ask about the political and practical underpinnings of the philanthropic model. When the entire ecosystem of social change is under threat, many leaders in the philanthropic sector are rising to the challenge and raising critical questions. Scott Wallace from the Wallace Global Fund, for example, asked: “[S]uppose a deadly famine was sweeping the land, and you had 100 tons of food. Would it be morally right to give away only 5 per cent, hoarding the other 95 per cent or 95 tons for generations yet unborn as today’s children shrivel and die of starvation?” They not only increased their grantmaking payout from endowment to 20 per cent, but spearheaded a letter to Congress to increase minimum payout by foundations.

Foundations are grappling with the dilemma of whether to hold on to assets and investment while markets collapse or spend down their endowments. More staff are encouraging their organisations to increase funding while others are organising and challenging their leadership to also reach into its deeply endowed pockets. Despite these calls to increase flexibility for existing grants, there has not yet been any significant jump in funding. So some leaders in the US are asking whether federal tax law be amended with a mandate for foundations to increase their annual payout. And how the wealth hoarded in donor advised funds, sitting in coffers of the rich, for pretty much eternity, can be spent down and now?

Fortunately, many activists and movement leaders have already begun to grapple with these very questions while also providing emergency relief. With their deep and dense networks with frontline movements, feminist and gender justice funds have responded rapidly. Activist and feminist funds bring their critical analysis and experiences on how to resource for long term power and movement building while also not shying away from interrogating these larger forces of economics. Networks like Justice Funders have already crafted a new vision for philanthropy. While some in the network call for solidarity philanthropy in reimagining capital stewardship into that of a solidarity economy, others are using this moment to pave a long-term roadmap for a just transition.

Philanthropy has an unprecedented opportunity, to provide a tipping point towards the next ethical horizon in philanthropy. To unleash a massive co-creation of our just and feminist realities that systematically and intentionally shifts power to the most impacted by COVID-19, groups who already carry the burden of structural inequalities.

Nurturing the seeds of just and feminist realities today will create the mighty oaks of our post-COVID futures. When this storm finally subsides, how will philanthropy come out of it? Will it consolidate more power and wealth like billionaire charities, surveillance capitalism, anti-rights states, and unscrupulous corporate actors that mobilize against our movements? Or will it help trigger radical transformation, democratising our socioeconomic and political systems to work for 99 per cent of us?

Tenzin Dolker is the Resourcing Feminist Movements Coordinator at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).

Tagged in: Funding practice

Comments (2)

Jaswinder Singh Sidhu

Good thinking of writter about this Excellent topic .

Michele Shimizu

Very well written, and very thought-provoking. Looking forward to your next manuscript.

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