(Re)building the field of philanthropy


Judith Symonds


Barry Knight’s blog, Philanthropy needs all the help it can get, provides a lucid, compelling analysis and recommendations for functions that philanthropy infrastructure needs to play to look after its ‘own self interests,’ stop ‘punching below its weight’ in addressing societal challenges. His article responds to the Alliance Special Feature, Philanthropy’s Developer, a long-needed and informative review of philanthropy infrastructure.

No one can deny that support for philanthropy infrastructure is disgracefully neglected (and declining from Barry Knights ‘halcyon days’), very geographically unbalanced and provided by an important and insightful, but far too limited group of donors, who often invest according to their individual understanding of what the sector needs and not from collaborative reflection. The latter is even more troubling in a sector that assumes not always modest responsibility for contributing to the resolution of a wide range of the world’s major problems.

The long-standing situation of inadequate philanthropy infrastructure is further exacerbated this era of radical and rapid transformations, which manifests itself in dramatic changes in the media, democratic process, digital communication, wealth disparity, social trust, political leadership, climate and ecological equilibrium, among others. Cumulatively, this state of social dysfunction merits a serious rethink of how national and global institutions respond to these forces and to public discontent as observed by the new initiative, Redefining Pursuit of the Common Good.

The Redefining Pursuit of the Common Good initiative is an international cohort representing philanthropy and business, practitioners, and academia, based on the premise that the current context requires a more fundamental examination of how philanthropy, in collaboration with government, business and the other actors in civil society, pursues the common good and responds to critical challenges and new opportunities. The initiative plans to explore a strategic sample of the vast array of past evidence from philanthropy and related sectors and emerging examples, including the SDG projects, to reconceive the roles and institutions appropriate ‘to restore commitments to a sense of the common good’[1] to the work of philanthropy and cross-sector partners.

The philanthropy sector needs to build its own ‘field.’ Just as philanthropy pioneered in field building in areas such as public health, area studies, and continues to do so in many others, there is a case for building the field of philanthropy and related sectors in pursuit of the common good. This means, at least in part, developing a new learning infrastructure and learning networks to begin to change mind sets and prepare current and future actors to address societal issues through an emerging vision of philanthropy and cross-sector collaboration in pursuit of a contemporary understanding of the common good.

My conclusion is quite similar to that of Barry Knight: commending the innovation that is taking place; acknowledging the importance of the Alliance Special Feature, which should be a call to action for philanthropy to provide the leadership and resources to leverage a fundamental rethink of what pursuit of the common good in the contemporary context really entails and how to provide the learning infrastructure and networks to make it happen. While these views are my own, they are informed and enriched by the other contributors to the Pursuit of the Common Good initiative.

Judith Symonds is an adjunct faculty member at Sciences Po, Paris and a member of the founding cohort of the Redefining the Pursuit of the Common Good initiative.


  1. ^ Bruce Sievers 2018

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