The field of philanthropy has often been criticised for being slow, inflexible, and lagging behind contemporary developments. While true to a certain degree, the field has recently proved that it can also work quickly, flexibly, and based on trust. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, foundations adapted their rules for giving, supported novel forms of collaboration across sectors, and invested in promising though uncertain outcomes. In doing so, they were able to pursue their strategic missions while laying the groundwork for their organisations to be more open to collaborative approaches.
But what works in response to crises has not yet translated into changes to the core practices and principles of most philanthropic organisations. Why do foundations struggle to embrace and embed these open and collaborative approaches into their everyday business? The answer lies partly in the conventional understanding of philanthropy’s role, which is bound to the paradigm of grant-giving and a causal impact logic based on the expectation of a highly predictable world.
However, our sense of urgency today is bigger than ever. We have years, not decades, to change to avoid systemic collapse. We no longer need to talk about whether collaborative approaches and impact networks matter ‒ we know that they do. Deep collaboration engages all actors who are essential to addressing an issue, allowing them to build a common understanding of the interconnectedness of a complex challenge, test and learn together, and leverage invested resources in a highly efficient manner.
The question we face now is: ‘How?’ How do we apply open and collaborative approaches successfully, and how do we make them mainstream?
At the PEX Forum held in August in Istanbul, around 100 colleagues representing over 60 philanthropy support organisations from 20 countries have been working on this and related topics. We shared a vision that an evolution of innovative, collaborative alliances and platforms will emerge in the coming years. We saw that foundations will have a central role to play in this development. Still, this will only happen if we accommodate the need for rapid adaptation not only in our programmes and approaches, but within the core of our organisations as well.
Let’s envision, for a moment, a near future where foundations are …
- … rooted in communities: Community funds and participatory grantmaking are the new normal. Foundations are approachable, deeply woven into the ecosystems that they are supporting, and are giving more than just money. They operate with a supportive mindset, are aware and transparent about given power constellations, and build long-lasting relationships.
- … trusted partners: Unconditional giving is standard, not just an exception saved for emergency cases. Targeted challenges are seen as shared challenges that can best be tackled with a diverse set of allies. Deep collaboration in impact alliances and the celebration of successes as collective achievements are living practices.
- … nurturing new ways of learning and doing: In a constantly changing und unpredictable world, foundations are bringing the best community builders, experts and intuitive complexity surfers together. They can convene the most talented because they offer working conditions closely intertwined with meaning and impact and thereby also approach eco-system building and organisational development with a systemic lens.
As our organisational contexts differ greatly, these ideas may resonate at different levels and their realisation may seem closer or further away for you. But most of you will agree that in this transitional moment the urgency of change applies also to the core practices and principles of philanthropy.
This transformation requires places for us to connect and to learn, and places to focus on inner development. It requires incentives to think boldly and to launch courageous pilot projects. It requires brave pioneers who can forge new paths and build bridges between the world where we live now and the one we want to live in in the future. And, it requires philanthropic organisations that dare to be part of this transformation.
The PEXforum provides such a place of exchange and learning for pioneers and support organisations in the field of philanthropy. I am looking forward to meeting you at the next PEXforum in Rome in 2024.
Darius Polok is CEO of iac Berlin.