Elephants transforming philanthropy: Reforming international development at WINGSForum 2023


Amy McGoldrick


Reforming International Development had two – very different – sessions during the WINGSForum. The first was upon the terrace, dubbed the ‘Garden of Experimentation’, where statements were made and those in attendance were to choose if they agreed or disagreed, by standing on either side of the room.

Below are the questions, with a few audience members’ justifications for you to ponder.

What would your answers be?

Q1: Agree or disagree with Lankelly Chase: “We view the traditional philanthropy model as so entangled with colonial capitalism that it inevitably continues the harms of the past into the present’.


  • ‘The way that philanthropy is done continues to perpetuate inequalities’
  • ‘If you force others to change the way they work in order to receive funding, then it absolutely is colonialism’


  • ‘I can’t view it as inevitable, or I wouldn’t be able to do my job. But the harms are real’
  • ‘Inevitably, I do believe in the power of philanthropy to change, and I’m hopeful that this will continue. But tradition is also an issue – maybe it’s time to embrace new modes of philanthropy?’

Q2: Do new billionaires and foundations in Asia, Africa and Latin America replicate colonial structures?


  • ‘They are an extension of hyper-capitalism. If one was able to go into the back-end of some of these foundations, you’d find the way money gets to some of these families wouldn’t be appropriate’
  • ‘Accumulation of wealth comes about through exploitation and through taking resources from people and maximising them at their expense. New foundations and new approaches come from that perspective. We do still need those resources, but we need to focus on making sure we don’t have billionaires. Let’s start there’


  • ‘Modernity brings change’
  • ‘Corporate foundations are doing more good than some NGOs in Kenya’

Q3: The most powerful potential role of philanthropy is as a creative driver of change


  • ‘It should be a driver, but it is stuck’


  • ‘Not a driver of change, but a server of it’
  • ‘Not a driver, but an enabler. Communities know the challenges they face and know the solutions to those challenges. Philanthropy comes in as a catalyst’

Q4: With strong policies, foundations will achieve EDI and justice in their workings


  • ‘If you don’t write it down, no one will follow it’
  • ‘Policy is a map; if followed correctly, it leads to treasure’


  • ‘Policies work for a particular elite clique, but if we want to turn tables in philanthropy we need trust, transparency and accountability’

Q5: The idea of locally-led development romanticises communities and ignores power dynamics within communities


  • ‘‘When we make blanket statements, we often do think that it’s all equal at the community level, and we know it isn’t. Not equal anywhere; we need to be more aware when trying to support change’
  • ‘The issue of thinking that it’s romanticised is because in practice, when we talk about community, that entails leadership. You acknowledge power. You can’t have community without a leader. Every community has power dynamics and they should be held accountable’


  • ‘When we say locally-led, it doesn’t mean power doesn’t exist, but it’s recognising the power. We need to name it.’

The second gathering was in a session called How change happens? Deepening the philanthropic transformation conversation. This was led by Tsitsi Midzi – Head, Transformative Partnerships & Philanthropy, Urgent Action Fund- Africa; Briggs Bomba – Programme Director, TrustAfrica; and Barry Knight – Rethinking Poverty/PSJP.

The session began with Tendisai Chigwedere reading aloud the parable The Wolf you Feed, and spoke of holding space for an intimate conversation about feeding the possibilities.

Knight spoke about the need to shake things up. ‘There are political forces that are raging against us. One of the greatest achievements of philanthropy was the neoliberal revolution. The work of 12 key foundations actually plotted to change the world away from the welfare state-based way of working in the world to a market-based. That’s the transition, the biggest accomplishment that philanthropy has ever achieved, from the right wing. So we need to think differently.’

Attendees were then asked to reflect on any examples of their own transformations – personal, relational, organisational or political.

One attendee reflected on a deeply personal transformation – being a parent. Describing themselves as previously ‘so angry’, one day their child told them that they didn’t like how they were being spoken to. The parent had to unlearn their own behaviours, ‘break down the African notions of compliance’ and admit they were wrong. Now there is a dialogue between parent and child on what’s working, and what is not, in their relationship.

This moving anecdote spoke to the integral process of ‘letting go’. ‘For someone who has grown up in an era where the white man was THE figurehead, it was really difficult to let go,’ said Knight. ‘No ego, no logo, no silo, no halo. Us older guys must stand back and not lead. It’s hard. You’re fighting your basic conditioning.’

Barbara Nöst then spoke about both her personal and professional transformation. Initially set up as a donor advised pooled fund, with a strong board chair they soon moved the donors out of their consultative meetings. ‘There was also a recognition early on that if we wanted to be a really local organisation, we need to change our structure… there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the traditional aid system, I cannot overemphasise this.’ ZGF’s budget went from $4 million to $350,000. ‘My salary was cut 50 per cent before that, and then we cut all salaries again by 40 per cent. There was a huge outcry, but the team stuck with it.’

After a period of turbulence, staff were now fully aligned to their mission and they were comfortable in their new roles. ‘We need to work from within, helping local organisations understand that we need to work with your own wealth, your own resources, let go of external support, build a sector’s constitution from within in order to be able to confront these external forces that are much bigger than us as a civil society group.’ The result from all this has also led to a profound personal impact. ‘I’m European, so ideally I should not lead a local Zambian organisation. Where should I be? What should my role be? How can I be useful in this new world that we’re creating?’

Midzi then spoke of the transformational work of Urgent Action Fund- Africa. ‘Our presence in Africa is very political for us. We have presence across all 55 African countries… how we are structured is political, and how we see transformation is also very political.’

As a rapid response grantmaker for over 20 years, the institution has realised the importance of flexibility. ‘We’ve realised that movements cannot be boxed or put into projects, because they are very much alive,’ said Midzi. ‘We need to be facilitators of resources, of funds, of thought leadership and really document and bring some of the critical conversations that are coming from the work to a global level. We should initiate and facilitate a process that is not rigid, that is quite transformative, so the funds that we give are flexible – but beyond funding, the trust, the sharing of power, and harnessing and holding relationships together.’

Bomba spoke last, speaking of the Pan-African history of TrustAfrica, with a board of Africans. $30 million was committed to the organisation’s founding by Ford Foundation: ‘At the heart of the idea, was the issue of trusting; that those who are closest to the problems we’re seeking to solve must also have the biggest voice and agency in providing solutions to solve those problems. That’s where the name came from – because at that point, no one was trusting Africa.’

Bomba discussed the interconnectivity between the four transformations, and the importance of looking inward. ‘When we look outside, we dream; when we look inside, we awaken,’ he said. ‘What has happened to us internally, as human beings? Us, as agents of change, us as organisations? I don’t think it’s a question that we ask ourselves enough.’

When economic and political crises are protracted and unresolved, it becomes a social crisis. ‘Solidarity collapses, hope collapses, trust collapses, individualism rises. The very social fabric of society collapses. I think it’s also a time to recognise that the crisis can go deeper than that, by going inside. …We are wounded as agents of change.’ It’s in understanding our woundedness, Bomba says, and in its recognition that we can begin to lead again.

Bomba’s last point was around political transformation. ‘Philanthropy has to have a certain political consciousness, which means being aware of the intersectionality of issues.

‘Those who had less power now have even less. There are exacerbations around gender, race, geographical location; all of these have become manifest. There’s no way that philanthropy can intervene in a transformative manner if we’re not aware that we need to deal with that.’

Amy McGoldrick is the head of marketing, advertising and events at Alliance

Tagged in: #WINGSForum2023 reforming international development

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