Philanthropy needs all the help it can get


Barry Knight


It is good to see that the Alliance Special Feature on ‘Philanthropy’s Developers’ pays homage to some of the pioneers of philanthropy infrastructure. To my mind, one of these – Barry Gaberman – merits special mention. When he was Senior Vice President at the Ford Foundation, he saw the importance of the unglamorous backroom role played by philanthropy support organizations, and led the first ever International Meeting of Associations of Grantmakers (IMAG) in Mexico in 1998. This meeting stimulated the idea of a global movement to support and develop philanthropy and led to the formation of WINGS.

At that time, the Ford Foundation had joined with the C.S. Mott Foundation in a unique partnership. By the time of Barry’s retirement in 2006, some 10 per cent of Ford’s budget was dedicated to the support of philanthropy, and we saw the rapid growth of new support structures to develop philanthropy. These halcyon days came to an abrupt halt when, under a new president appointed from 2008, the Ford Foundation relinquished its key leadership role in the development of international philanthropy.

This is the historical context in which modern pioneers – Masha Chertok and Benjamin Bellegy – have developed #LiftUpPhilanthropy. This is ‘a strategic, global campaign to highlight the value of philanthropy support and development, and to raise awareness of the importance of funding infrastructure in order to allow philanthropy, including philanthropy media, to grow.’

It is a puzzle why such a campaign is necessary. In most fields of work, debate over the need for a robust system of support that facilitates and enhances the effectiveness of the work would simply never occur. Yet, the relevance and importance of infrastructure is not well understood in philanthropy, and it has always fallen to a small number of funders to support it. This has led to vulnerability of the field and imbalances in geographic provision. You may think that these facts are sufficient in themselves to justify a campaign, but there are more pressing factors too.

Twenty years on from IMAG, we live in a different world. Philanthropy is bigger now, but faces a crisis of identity. The post-Communist and post-Apartheid optimism that philanthropy’s support for civil society would usher in an age based on liberal democracy has gone. External threats are enormous, and philanthropy is uncertain how to respond to the rise of extremism and the related problem of ‘closing space’.

There are four key functions we need our philanthropic infrastructure to play in the coming years: enabling, protecting, leading and reforming. All of these dimensions reflect the need for the field to look after its self-interests – which at present it is not doing very well. Let us take each of the functions in turn.

The limits of the Anglo-American model of philanthropy are increasingly apparent. At a recent PSJP meeting hosted by the Ford Foundation in South Africa, many participants admitted that they felt philanthropy was making little progress and they were ‘stuck’.

They concluded that philanthropy needs a new story.

The Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize, Giving Tuesday and the #ShiftThePower  campaign are ushering in a new way of doing business that are more relevant to meeting the challenges of an interconnected and culturally diverse world. The role of infrastructure organizations can help to develop these transitions, using the latest technology to develop new ways of measuring their value.

The fact that many states are closing the space for civil society means that philanthropy is increasingly under attack. Although there has been much hand-wringing about this, there are so far few practical solutions so far on offer and it is a priority for the field to work together to find ways forward.

As inequality across the world reaches unsustainable proportions, political extremism rises and climate change threatens the existence of our species, we need to articulate the kind of society we want. This needs to be based on a model of fairness, respect and dignity for all.

Combining philanthropic voices, based on the experience of multiple field programmes and research evidence, could be a potent force for change. In a field that is poor in the organization of its knowledge, it would be a major advance to join up learning through a common platform.

Philanthropy is not an unalloyed good. A friend of mine begins his lectures with the sentence ‘Philanthropy sucks’. If you don’t believe we need to clean up our act, I suggest you put the phrase ‘dark side of philanthropy’ into an Internet search engine and read the results. WINGSForum 2017 was refreshing in criticizing philanthropy, but more needs to be done.

In conclusion, the Special Feature makes clear that we must improve our philanthropic infrastructure. However, it is hard to see how to do this if philanthropy doesn’t take responsibility for its own self interests. The consequences of doing nothing will – at best – be that philanthropy continues to punch below its weight.

Barry Knight Director is director at Webb Memorial Trust and on the Alliance magazine Editorial Advisory Board

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