Strategic philanthropy in emergencies: Learnings from the TPW community


COVID-19 has kickstarted a conversation across the social sector about the role of philanthropy in responding to the crisis. An encouraging consensus is emerging: now is the time for swift, strategic action. 

Strategic vs unstrategic
The big question is, what does ‘strategic’ look like in an emergency? In multiple virtual convenings held across our community of investors at The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW), we have heard a number of themes emerging.

Most salient is the idea that the core principles of strategic philanthropy are not only still relevant – but are more important than ever. Collaboration and coordination, for example, are essential to avoid duplication.

Funding in collaboration may also help funders to take on greater risk.

Being part of the collaboration gives me the courage to invest in what we can’t imagine yet – to invest in the unknown and the unseen – and that’s what we have to do at this time. The state of the world right now is something that none of us imagined, and we can’t fix the problems using the same systems and the same thinking that caused them in the first place.’
English Sall, Co-Founder of Impact Thread and TPW Member

Due diligence processes are being made less cumbersome to grantees, and funding is being de-restricted. This represents a shift in power dynamics that has to be sustained after the crisis to build the resilience of the social sector.

The narratives that you can’t trust grantees, can’t do unrestricted funding, must steward money for the next generation and not spend it – where have they gotten us? The disease didn’t create terrible things, it revealed terrible things and exploited them.’
Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO, Nonprofit Finance Fund

Transparency and thought leadership from social investors are key, not for publicity, but to ensure the response is coordinated. Speaking out in this way has the added benefit of scaling impact by sharing best practice and encouraging peers to unlock resources. 

All of our other giving has been very quiet, anonymous. For the first time we agreed to use our names publically and put out a big press release. Every aspect of that made us uncomfortable! But at the same time we thought let’s do it, because it’s in service of trying to encourage other potential funders to step up.’
Andrew Morris-Singer, Founder and Chair of Primary Care Progress and TPW Member

All of these efforts are part of a mindset that embraces systems thinking to see connectedness in complex and chaotic environments, ensuring that anxiety does not lead to inertia, and urgency does not lead to poor decision making.

The greatest crisis we face is the feeling that people think that the message is unmanageable. It is manageable if we make the right choices.’
David Miliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee

Beyond COVID-19
Coronavirus has forced the philanthropy sector to recognise that the traditional modus operandi is no longer tenable. Social investors have an opportunity – not just to play a vital role in helping communities across the world to survive and thrive – but also to commit to more strategic practices that will break the cycle of inequity, fragility, crisis and collapse.

For that opportunity to be taken, funders need to stay connected, communicate with each other and consider their role in a wider systemic response. This is core to our mission at TPW to mobilise social change leaders committed to unlocking resources and lifelong learning. 

In the words of Former Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, ‘one cannot address a crisis without leaders willing to lead.’

This is an abridged version of the original article, which you can read here. Each of the quotes above are taken from webinar recordings that are accessible on our website, here

To learn more about TPW’s work, please reach out to Marylou Gourlay at

Tagged in: Covid-19 Funding practice

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