What’s really needed of us all now: New frontiers in funding, philanthropy, and investment


Cassie Robinson


In July, a new conference in London will bring together innovators across the philanthropic and investment worlds, to learn from one another and make new connections.

The event will explore approaches in investment and philanthropy that are actively challenging practices that prop up aspects of current systems that are not serving people and the planet well. It’s been curated to highlight financing and funding practices that have the potential to invest in – and even speed up – a transition towards a regenerative, fairer future.

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Deep shifts and transformations

We are living through an extraordinary time in history. Two years of the pandemic have shown how quickly things can change and how the entire world can mobilise to confront a problem that threatens us all. Yet we are also living in a time of growing inequality in wealth, opportunities, and outcomes – while facing a climate emergency, habitat destruction and the resurgence of forces of division and violence on all sides.

Philanthropy itself has been in something of a crisis too, as critiques of power and privilege, wealth accumulation and extraction – deeply ingrained problems in the sector – have finally risen to the surface. Those of us working in and around philanthropy are learning to bring power awareness to our work, to commit and deepen our anti-racist practices and centre questions of equity in everything we do. That’s vital work, long overdue, that will be a lifelong endeavour. Philanthropic organisations are in different places on this journey — but equity work is in motion with growing accountability across the sector to ensure that work on this continues and deepens.

With much energy rightly going on these inward-looking reflections, alongside the efforts to be responsive to the immediate and relentless needs of a pandemic and a growing living crisis, it’s been hard to have the bandwidth for innovation, for new ideas and practices. And when things feel hard it’s easy to default to what we know. There is a comforting safety in the language of ‘reform’ and continuous improvement, rather than an acknowledgement of the unknown territory of deep shifts and transformations that are required.

Looking at the whole funding ecology

In a time of rapid change, we can’t rely on what we once knew. And it really matters what philanthropic money gets spent on now. We can acknowledge that philanthropy isn’t justice and keep working towards normalising reparatory investment – essential for an equitable future – but we are not there yet because this is a time of transition. The continually shifting ground of transitions offers opportunities to shape and bring intent, to work in multiple timeframes and with multiple approaches. We cannot afford to keep getting stuck in the binaries – relational versus evidence-based, power-shifting versus strategic – there are so many more of these binaries that we spend hours debating in philanthropy and yet what we need most of all is plurality. That’s why this conference is also looking at the whole funding ecology – bringing together different kinds of capital because we need all of it and for it to play different roles. The traditional practice of separating out routes into Foundations by either grant or investment is likely to look increasingly dated.

We know many working across the funding, philanthropy and investment space have an uneasy feeling that ‘something different’ might be required. We cannot turn away from the trouble that is already with us. Our historic approach to investing endowments is at risk of perpetuating the problems philanthropy seeks to solve. Models of grant-making are not shifting the dial in the face of the multiple crises we are living through.

So, we wanted to create a conference that invites people into this uneasy space. An opportunity to bring people together to explore it, and possible ways to navigate our way towards something better. A space to learn how to experiment, create and be courageous together. Our starting point is simple: it is at least as risky to not experiment, as it is to do so and a pragmatic incrementalist approach alone will not deliver anything close to the scale of deep change that is needed now.

This first conference is being powered by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, signalling the direction of a new Emerging Futures, a new programme of work, and is being delivered in partnership with the Grant Givers Movement. Register, or learn more about the event, here or by emailing cassie.robinson@jrf.org.uk.

Cassie Robinson works with the Emerging Futures Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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