The dilemmas of philanthropy: to be or not to be? to do or not to do?


Andrés Thompson


For some time now, because of research we have conducted on philanthropy and gender in Latin America, I have noticed several warning signs in the field of institutional philanthropy in our region. These are simply signs – since systematic publications are not yet found. Yet, in many cases, these troubling signs can end up becoming institutional policies, even if they are not declared.

The first issue I want to address concerns the legality of social movements and organizations – what in philanthropic jargon is often called the ‘regulatory framework.’ We have seen in the research that there has been significant growth during the last decade of new organizations working for women’s rights in the region, many of them feminist. But when we look at its legal format, it turns out that more than 37 per cent are not legally registered. In the case of Brazil, this number climbs to 56 per cent according to research done by Fundo ELAS+.

The reasons given for this new organizational informality respond to various circumstances, including:

  • The bureaucratic difficulties, times and costs involved in legal registration in most countries.
  • The search for new, more informal, flexible, horizontal, democratic and autonomous ways of acting from an organizational perspective.
  • The advance of a ‘decolonizing’ approach that questions the ways in which feminisms have organized themselves in past decades – mainly in the form of NGOs – emulating the models of the North.
  • The desire of many organizations to ‘escape’ state control by not accepting established legal forms.
  • The persistence of the cleavage between ‘statists’ and ‘autonomous’, accentuated even more with the entry into play of a new generation of young feminists.
  • The emergence of the so-called ‘popular feminism’ (recovered factories, popular assemblies, movements of the unemployed, environmental collectives) that was born as a product of the feminization of the resistance against neoliberal policies in the nineties.

This set of motivations may be talking about a process of deinstitutionalization of Latin American civil society, or to use the jargon again, of ‘deNGOzation’. If this were so, it could explain the growing difficulties for the financing of organizations and groups to not be able to access to qualify as ‘grantees’. This hypothesis is supported by another fact that emerges from the Brazilian ELAS+ research mentioned: most organizations are primarily based on volunteer work, small individual donations from their members and various local fundraising strategies such as events and product sales.

The so-called ‘NGOzation’ of the 1980s-1990s implied not only the legal formalization of many organizations but also a greater ‘technical specialization’. This expanded, according to Sonia Alvarez (1998 and 1999) the[1] capacity of organizations to act, and at the same time pushed them to provide services closer to the practices of execution of public policies, away from popular education actions and other activities of social mobilization and promotion of the debate on the structuring of gender inequalities. This dynamic would weaken the activist character of the organizations and would make them lose the capacity to demand and critical control of government policies.

If this trend continues, we would be witnessing an important transition of the feminist and women’s social movement in the region, which would imply a greater diversity of organizational forms in order not to ‘bureaucratize’, the emergence of new narratives, an expansion of thematic agendas, as well as their forms of expression, with a strong cultural accent and a more widespread presence on the internet. And consequently, new challenges in obtaining resource flows from institutional philanthropy.

To be or not to be an NGO thus becomes a dilemma of multiple contours and not necessarily the path to be travelled by collectives, collectives, groups, and other initiatives.

The second issue to which I would like to draw attention has to do with the ways of ‘doing’ of philanthropic entities, mainly those that are donors of financial resources. Our research brought to light, through surveys and testimonies, the growing process of administrative bureaucratization, the lack of transparency and the obstacles to decision-making processes.

The funds available are scarce and the obstacles are many: complicated forms -often in languages not easily accessible-, proof of current legal status, presentation of audited balance sheets, counterparty requirement, institutional bank account, to name the most relevant. Given the informality of the ‘new’ organizations, these requirements are very difficult to meet and, therefore, access to them is increasingly distant. Thus, the gap between available resources and the demand of organizations tends to widen.

To this is added the lack of clarity of the programmatic calls for proposals. Under very general principles and statements, the discretion of officials to make financing decisions is often hidden. The testimonies collected show that not only is it very difficult to contact the people responsible for deciding on financing, but also very rarely make explicit why they have supported a project and not another of similar characteristics. There are those who argue that fundraising is first and foremost ‘relationship-building.’ If these cannot be built, the funds are unlikely to arrive. To do this, you must dedicate time and skills to them, but who has them?

In addition, it is notorious to observe within philanthropic institutions the presence of countless officials who seek to change this status quo and make ‘things work.’ But no matter how much effort they make, they finally encounter ambiguous institutional obstacles that argue that ‘the time is not right’, ‘we must do it more strategically’, ‘we can expand the scope’, ‘the impact is not clear’ and a number of other reasons that make such initiatives go to the waste can.

In the days when I worked in a large donor foundation, we used to tell each other among colleagues, in the face of these circumstances, it is better to apologize after doing things than to ask permission to do them. It seems that nowadays no more apologies are accepted and only permits are required. Thus, to do or not to do is not simply a rhetorical question but speaks of the quality of institutions in the face of the responsibilities they face.

Andrés Thompson is Senior Advisor at ELLAS-Mujeres y Filantropía.


  1. ^ ALVAREZ, Sonia E. Feminisms and anti-racism: entraves and intersecções: Interview with Luiza Bairros, Minister of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality (Seppir). Rev. Estud. Fem., vol. 20, no 3, Florianópolis, dec. 2012, pp.833-850. Also: ALVAREZ, S. Para além da sociedade civil: Reflexões sobre o campo feminista. Cadernos Pagu, n. 43, p. 13-56, 2014.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *