In more than three decades of working in the field of philanthropy at The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), I have participated in countless conferences and conversations about the role of philanthropy in society. Despite the saying that there is nothing new under the sun, it was truly inspirational to listen to the wisdom, advice, and ideas shared throughout the Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium, co-hosted earlier this month by TPI and New England International Donors (NEID). It was inspirational, and at the same time, sobering.
I was particularly struck by Kumi Naidoo’s honesty, humility, and sense of urgency in acknowledging the critical need to adopt new strategies and approaches. While his focus is on climate change and the dire situation facing humanity without dramatic and rapid change, his words are meaningful to funders working on a multitude of critical issues.
First, the sobering part. We have not made the kind of progress that is desperately needed. We do not have enough to show for our efforts. Within the field of philanthropy in particular there is far too much emphasis on immediate needs and on supporting existing programs and services, and far too little focus on innovation and on reinventing and reimagining systems and structures. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” If philanthropy is to fulfill its potential to catalyze lasting and significant change, Kumi says funders will need to think outside of the box, and perhaps “throw the box away altogether.” How many funders are truly willing to step outside of their comfort zone? How much philanthropy actually serves to maintain the status quo rather than fundamentally improve structures, institutions, policies, and systems?
And now, the inspiration. For funders who are serious about making a difference on the issues and in the communities they care most about, what advice can energize and inform their thinking? The Symposium was rich with powerful ideas and action steps offered by so many amazing speakers. Here are four takeaways that I believe are particularly meaningful:
- Listen well: Listen to and learn from diverse voices and perspectives. Develop and refine your philanthropic strategies with humility and with a beginner’s mind.
- Support social movements: As Kumi says, ordinary people with knowledge, information, and skills can do extraordinary things. Learn more about the ingredients needed for successful social movements and how philanthropy can support such movements. What can be done to build public understanding, change attitudes, support leaders of all types, influence policies, and communicate in ways that are accessible to all?
- Build bridges: In our world today, it is not enough to stay within our echo chambers. Social media and other sources of information are influencing hearts and minds in ways that are deeply troubling. How can philanthropy engage people across the spectrum to come together around common values, embrace scientific knowledge, and act with humanity and compassion? We are all in this together. Let’s work harder to find ways to bridge the divides that are pulling people apart.
- Think big and think differently: Move beyond the status quo and find ways to accelerate change efforts. Philanthropy has a critical role to play in sparking innovation, developing new solutions to social and environmental issues, reimagining and transforming systems. Kumi encourages funders to act with courage, leadership, compassion, and intelligence. Philanthropy has the power to convene, enlist creative thinking and ideas, and move to action.
If there is one thing that I firmly believe, it is this: if the answers to daunting issues were easy, we would have solved the problems long ago. The challenges are complex and the slow pace of progress can be frustrating, even paralyzing. Let’s find new ways to work together and find promising pathways forward. Philanthropy does have the power to transform – let’s use that power in the best ways possible.
Leslie Pine is the Managing Partner of The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI)
You can read more reports from the 2021 Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium here.