The Future of Philanthropy part one: Power, Knowledge and Trust


James Alexander


No one can predict the future, but we can all become better informed about it. Doing so enables us to make more informed decisions and place better innovation bets. To assist with this, Future Agenda hosts the world’s largest open foresight programme, a free resource for individuals, organisations and governments.

There is huge variation, and sometimes contradiction in the way that philanthropists from around the world are striving to achieve positive change. Indeed the seed for Future Agenda to explore philanthropy was sown when a Middle Eastern sovereign wealth fund said in passing ‘we invest a lot of money and understand it fairly well. We also give away a lot of money but honestly we do not know if we are doing that well.’

Completed in 2018, The Future of Philanthropy, aimed to build a global view of how philanthropy will change and adapt over the next decade. Professor Cathy Pharoah of Cass Business school generously and bravely authored an initial perspective. This was then built on and deepened via high-level discussions involving more than 200 experts from academia, business, government, charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, London, Mumbai, Oxford, Quito, Singapore and Washington DC. They all gave generously of their time and intellect to share ideas and challenge each other. The results of these discussions and associated conversations have been published in a report that highlights the key issues and offers insights around some of the opportunities for positive change.

During our conversations three interconnected drivers of change were identified. They are Power, Knowledge and, inherent to both of these, Trust. They will shape the evolution of philanthropy over the next decade.

Theme 1: Power
Exerting power and influence to create positive change has always been a key element of philanthropy. Looking ahead the experts we spoke to expect increasing fluidity over who holds power and how it is exerted, managed and regulated. As the centre of wealth shifts east and southwards a new global elite will emerge with greater female representation, and a technological mindset. This new generation brought up at the cusp of the century will challenge traditional orthodoxies. Similarly, corporate interest and participation in building shared value for a wider set of stakeholders will ensure that the lines between “who does good” and “who drives profit” will become increasingly blurred. In this time of fluidity, the role of the state to provide both leadership and deliver effective regulation will be critical. In particular a key challenge will be how to best unleash local, community-based philanthropy and sustain and grow smaller and medium sized delivery organisations.

Theme 2: Knowledge
Greater knowledge and understanding, together with working feedback loops, were viewed as essential pre-cursors to more impactful philanthropy. However, while an increase in more data driven philanthropy is widely expected to deliver improvement across the board, basic human nature will ensure that emotional giving continues to mitigate the ultra-rationalist promise of effective altruism.

Greater knowledge is also expected to lead to an increase in the development of collaborative solutions and an appreciation of the need to invest in philanthropic capacity. It is also expected that on- going efforts to share knowledge for the benefit of all as well as harness new media to spread it more effectively, will further grow philanthropic impact.

Theme 3: Trust
There has always been a degree of both private and public scepticism around philanthropy and philanthropists, and, as in other walks of life, this distrust has been growing in the last decade. While cause and effect is impossible to prove, it is interesting that this has occurred at the same time as the gap between the rich and the poor has increased. Perhaps this is because wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. Indeed some in our workshops referred to the emergence of a global philanthropic oligarchy.

James Alexander is Director at Future Agenda. Look out for part two of James’ Future of Philanthropy series soon.

Tagged in: Next Philanthropy

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