Reflections from the Philanthropy New Zealand Summit


Ken Whitney


Thinking deeply about the role of trust in philanthropy was the theme of the Philanthropy New Zealand Summit recently held in Wellington. In a local context particular attention was paid to the failure of trust as a basis for relationships with Māori as the indigenous people, the consequences of that failure and how we might work together to rebuild trust and forge a new model of philanthropy that recognises and is informed by our unique history and culture. 

Perhaps not surprisingly many of the themes resonate across many forms of human experience where minorities of whatever sub-set feel excluded, ignored or worse, actively discriminated against. Dr Jane Goodall reminded us that this offends our common humanity and that we need to be more respectful of our common heritage, planet Earth, which sustains all life but which we are in danger of destroying through lack of trust in a common future.

The Summit began with a panel discussion highlighting the challenges of economic and social dislocation made worse by the sheer speed of change which seems to overwhelm our ability to cope. They pointed to a failure of leadership across the world leading to communities fragmenting and feeling helpless and angry. Trust in leadership was failing as societies succumbed to global forces beyond their control. Many of the old tools for dealing with economic problems do not seem to work anymore and current models are unsustainable.

Ani Mikaere spoke of the balance that philanthropy needed to find between funding immediate needs and making long term investment for change which is ultimately more valuable. She challenged us to be less prescriptive and trust more in communities, especially indigenous ones, to develop their own solutions. Vu Le asked if a lack of trust led us to intellectualising problems too much and imposing too many restrictions and conditions which diverted attention from dealing with the real issue.

For me, one of the most interesting topics was a discussion on media manipulation and its threat to democracy and civil society. One of the speakers in this session was Canada’s Ben Scott, an expert in digital disinformation in democracies. We heard that the radical disruption of traditional business models has led to a severe decline in quality journalism making it difficult for the Fourth Estate to perform its role in promoting accountability from politicians and business leaders. Instead algorithm-driven media reinforce prejudice and tribalism by withholding contrary ideas and views which require questioning and thought. Recent events in New Zealand have generated urgency in tackling this issue.

The conference posed us with many challenges that are critical for us to act around. At the same time, the speakers and attendees also gave us cause for great hope that we can continue to create a better world. Gathered at the Summit were more than 500 people already making positive change in the world, and it was inspiring listening to the many collective conversations around what we can do next. For example, the powerful role of technology to connect us and find new solutions, and the data and learnings available to guide us. I listened for the voice of youth at the Summit and was reassured that the younger generations, with their strong values-driven approach and focus on social and environmental issues, can only help the progress we need.

Ken Whitney is Chair of Philanthropy New Zealand

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