One October morning in 2019, back when international travel and gathering in groups was allowed, I watched as Alix Guerrier, CEO of GlobalGiving, cut through what had become an enthusiastic and complex debate on the ‘Neutrality Paradox’ with a physical voting exercise. He asked us – attendees of a convening on the subject – to stand along an imaginary line from one end of the room, where neutrality (not supporting or helping either side in a conflict or disagreement) was considered essential, to the other, where neutrality was considered (in the words of one of the other attendees) ‘garbage’. The group spread across the room, with clusters here and there. I climbed the stairs that led out of the room, to be as far as possible at the extreme end. In my opinion, neutrality is garbage.
‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’, is really the crux of what I want to say about philanthropy’s role on this issue. The Neutrality Paradox – whether it’s possible to be neutral in dilemmic situations relating to impact work – provides a lot of scope for debate and discussion in the philanthropy and non-profit worlds, but my opinion is: we exist within a perpetual maelstrom of injustice, and if you have any power at all (of which money is a form), neutrality is an impossible stance to hold, and attempting to do so often evokes injustice.
Speaking as a Philanthropy Advisor, a non-profit Board Member, a donor, and a fundraiser – I can see that aiming for neutrality is tempting and sometimes more comfortable. However, from working with everything from long-established foundations to newly-minted young philanthropists, I have seen that attempting to stay neutral can result in inaction, silence or pandering in the face of harm – usually in the name of avoiding risk, accountability or controversy. What I explore with my clients is that when you have resources and influence and power, you have already stopped being neutral, you are already part of the problem or the solution, depending on how you use what you’ve got. This can feel thoroughly uncomfortable and brings to the fore what I see as one of the biggest junctions of existential angst across all of my philanthropy clients. It boils down to three core questions: Who am I to be making these decisions? What could getting it wrong cost me? How will I know for sure if it’s the right thing?
Exploring these questions often ends up at the same place: there is no singular right answer, there are just an array of good and bad ones. Good philanthropy is just doing the best you can with what you’ve got – and if you are trying to stay neutral to avoid personal or professional risk, I believe you are not trying to find the good answers, or do the best you can. So, here is some of what I tell my clients:
- Who am I to be making these decisions? – Who are you not to? If you can activate your curiosity, empathy and deep listening, you can share decision-making with the communities you serve. You have power, and you can’t easily get rid of it, so share it.
- What could getting it wrong cost me? – What could inaction cost the communities you’re serving? What could your action inspire in others? What could getting it right give you? What costs can you bear in the name of creating a better world?
- How will I know for sure if it’s the right thing? – You won’t, it will always be a best guess, even with all the data in the world. Try anyway, and centre the voices of the people you’re trying to get it right for. Stay accountable to them and only them.
The summary of this is that I believe those of us working in philanthropy must reframe what risk really means for us, and bravely face what feels risky to reduce the life or death risks the communities we serve are often facing. Inaction, or passive observation of an unfolding issue, is still a decision, and it’s still not really being ‘neutral’ in an objective sense. Impartiality, neutrality and the passivity they inform still actively create risks for the progress, and change, that could come from conscientious action. And the latter is what philanthropy must always work to do.
Emily Collins-Ellis is Managing Director at I.G. Advisors