PEX Forum 2021 – Philanthropy is stepping out, but into what?


Josiane Smith


At the time of writing, multiple contributors have already shared some excellent thoughts about the PEX Forum 2021, a 2-day virtual convening hosted by Ariadne, Dafne and SenseTribe, which brings together philanthropy support organisations to explore the key values that unite European philanthropy and how to jointly advance the philanthropy ecosystem for a sustainable and just Europe. The authors share a sense that change is coming; that the future of philanthropy is being written by more, and more varied, authors, and that this next chapter has the potential to look radically different in demographics, practices, impact and outlook. 

The role of PEX in building trusting relationships, rooted in a common identity and shared values, is crucial not just for the sustainability and utility of philanthropy, but also for its necessary change from within. Now, as Barry Hoolwerf noted, common identity is not, nor should it be, a given when we consider the values of European philanthropy. Zibran Choudhury also notes that ‘many of the stories I heard and discussed aren’t linear… [they are multi-dimensional]. These complexities will challenge us…’

Many discussions at the PEX Forum discussed the importance of language, metaphor and storytelling in triggering critical questions in order to enlarge our understanding of complex issues. In their follow-up articles, Nick Perks and Joanna Pienkowska emphasised the importance of imagination, and investing in those who have been doing this important imaginative work, to help make the abstract concrete, to reach the people we are trying to serve, and ultimately to have better impact as a sector.

But I would argue it is not that we cannot speak of or imagine a better future, it is that we don’t want to. Storytelling and imagination force us to confront the idea that there are multiple possibilities, alternatives and differences outside of what we know and see, outside of our current systems and paradigms. Holding and working into this complexity is immensely demanding. Geoff Mulgan was right to say that currently in philanthropy, ‘the whole remains much less than the sum of its parts‘. Carola Carazzone elaborates on this in ‘The Social Life of Forests’, remarking that currently: ‘the mission of forging and fostering cooperation and collaboration… is [aspirational]. For too long… the thinking was that in a competing world, individualism, logos, siloes, egos would thrive.’ Using bioscience and complexity theory, Carola also sets out several tangible visions for what European philanthropy could become.

But as Martin Modlinger pointedly asks, ‘who is it that should be imagining these better futures, for philanthropy and beyond? … These are the discussions we need to have in order not only to move forward, but to figure out where ‘forward’ actually is’. Johannes Lundershausen and Daniel Großbröhmer echo this sentiment by saying: ‘the PEXforum 2021 is a terrific place to start this interaction and contemplate new alliances. But we cannot stop here.’

So to paraphrase the words of Debora Guidetti: how can we ‘gracefully affirm’ these visions of change? My answer would be that, more than imagination, the hard work of relationship building, critical reflection and exchange is key. This is what opens us up to new possibilities and provides us with the tools and mindsets needed to work together effectively, navigating the challenges facing philanthropy and civil society now and in the many futures that await us.

That the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) is even writing about this is perhaps part of the shift that we see taking place. We are not a philanthropy support organisation, yet we have been working with funders for 6 years, infusing philanthropic discussions with global and cross-sector perspectives. We have a bird’s eye view of this space: scanning and sensing for future signals through deep dive discussions and regional clusters; supporting philanthropic organisations to prevent, prepare for and adapt to the challenges ahead through global learning exchanges and trainings; and finding new meaning in times of change and uncertainty through our global research and analysis.

Shared data, intelligence and evidence do reveal emerging trends, patterns or ideas which help us to imagine the path ahead, but connecting spaces like PEX, and bridging organisations like SIX, are what will help philanthropy to actually work with the complexity and diversity they’re facing today and in the future.

In the title of his article, ‘All is present, all is here’, James Magowan refers to a poem shared by Stien Michiel on the first day of the PEXforum 2021 (‘moment by moment our roots reach out and intertwine’). James goes on to describe his experience of the PEXforum as ‘a pleasurable meander through an enchanting woodland,’ which also reminded me of one of my favourite poems by Antonia Mechado (copied below). The poem tells us that there is no path except the one we take, and that only by walking do we forge a path ahead.

If the future of philanthropy is yet unmade, we ourselves must make it. We can imagine new and better paths ahead, but then we must start walking.

‘Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada más; caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.’

‘Pathmaker, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; pathmaker, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Pathmaker, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.’

Josiane Smith is Partnerships and Growth Manager at Social Innovation Exchange

  • PEX is where the European philanthropy infrastructure meets. For more information visit:
  • Read more reflections from PEXforum 2021 here.

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