Philanthropy in transition: Sharing our ‘Pathways to Change’


Filiz Bikmen


The Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) of which I am an avid enthusiast (and proud Board Member), has a methodology called ‘Facilitating Leadership for Social Change’. It starts with a simple set of questions to help organizations design ‘Pathways to Change’. They are:

  • Where are you?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • How will you get there?

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) is in the process of asking itself these questions. Celebrating their founders’ 150th birthday this year, CGF decided to embark on a strategic review process and as part of this journey, invited approximately 150 guests from the Portuguese and international philanthropic sector to join in on the reflections at the ‘Emerging Trends in Philanthropy’ conference held in Lisbon on 5 September 2019.

In her opening remarks, CGF President Ms. Isabel Mota referred to five themes influencing leadership’s discussion on defining new strategies which included:

  • Changing roles and approaches of allocating private wealth for public good
  • Making use of technology, big data and AI
  • New financing mechanisms such as impact investments and Social Impact Bonds
  • Allocations of endowment funds to new types of assets
  • Balancing act of keeping to core CGF values of inclusion, accountability and collaboration while also embracing innovation, creativity and diversity

Senior Advisor to the CGF Board and Conference Commissioner Rien ven Gendt shared five trends and realities of institutional philanthropy, which CGF are considering as they re-evaluate the commitment, relevance, strategy, programmatic concerns and operating model. They included shifts from:

  • Donating to combination of donating and investing
  • Funding projects to funding larger programs; or in other words, from shorter term approaches to deeper engagement which also involves convening, thought leadership and advocacy
  • Identifying symptoms to root causes and using evidence based philanthropic methodologies
  • Working alone to working in partnership- with other foundations AND sectors
  • Disconnected and reactive activities to cohesive and proactive strategies

Over the course of the day, other guests were invited to share views and perspectives with much of the discussions centering around the challenges of:

  • Preserving the intent of founders while adapting to changing realities
  • Mitigating risks in investment and programs while embracing innovation, and
  • Managing political, social and economic contextual complexities especially with regards to the shrinking space of civil society.

CGF is not alone in its journey to re-examine current practice and craft new strategies. Trends discussed at the Conference affect the entire philanthropic sector. We are indeed all in this together, and I sense this is precisely why CGF generously invited us to be part of their journey.

It was a rich discussion and left me and others reflecting quite a bit on many of these trends and how they may play out in the sector.  Yet one of my main observations from the event (and others like it) was what wasn’t being discussed. Many foundations face challenges in applying the old adage ‘out with the old in with the new’. Marie Kondo would be disappointed, as foundations quite often do not have the freedom to hold each ‘article’ in hand (programming, tools, approaches etc.) and ask ‘does it spark joy?’, and throw it in the bin if the answer is negative. (Of course, joy in this case would translate as impact, sustainability and other measures by which foundations try to assess the value of programs and investments.) This is especially complicated for foundations who carry the namesake of its founder.

Yet these challenges are often not discussed. A lot of time is spent discussing and intellectualizing trends, yet much less said about the often-painful process of change management experiences and lessons learned. I left this Conference curious about how foundations will tackle these transitions: What approaches and methods are applied? What are some processes used to manage change? How are assessments of programs and investments made, and what kinds of challenges are experienced? What are best practices in change management, especially with regards to managing relationships with various stakeholders both within and outside the foundation before, during and after the changes take place?

Trends are of course important and foundations must be prepared for some difficult conversation and decisions. Yet the process of managing change- endings and new beginnings- should also be a topic of discussion among peers in philanthropy. Learning from how foundations craft and steer through their respective ‘pathways to change’ will be valuable as more foundations prepare to transition strategies and operations as we quickly move into the next decade 21st century philanthropy.

Filiz Bikmen is founding Director of Esas Sosyal

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