Here are some reflections on themes discussed at the 2017 EFC conference in Warsaw and on the implications to my own practices as a research funder at Kone Foundation in Helsinki.
Agency, power, and responsibility
Agency is a central theme in anything, and so in philanthropy. Occasionally, the distinction between solidarity and charity is based on comprehensiveness: the former takes into account the bigger picture, whereas the latter could basically just be giving.
But if one wants to keep this distinction, it could be extended to take agency into account: solidarity presupposes a high degree of agency from the grantees, charity might not.
The invigorating final plenary of the conference, ‘Building bridges not walls: philanthropy’s contribution to solidarity around the world’ made this clear to me: the moderator asked the audience if philanthropy should give some of its power away if it takes solidarity building seriously.
Some bold members of the audience gave arguments in favour or not in favour. However, one of the points of disagreement was mostly terminological: should we talk about giving away power or about sharing it?
Giving away power implies giving away your agency, but what we do should be based on sharing agency, acting together. Responsibility was also mentioned in the comments, because it comes (and goes) with power, and if you give away or share power, the same happens with responsibility.
The question is, with whom are we, as philanthropy practitioners, willing to share our power and responsibility?
Just the closest circle of friends and grantees? Instead, there is a pressing need to find new ways of making other people participate in developing our grantmaking, while keeping in line with our strategies and visions.
Debate, dialogue, and story
The theme of agency brings to mind the difference between acting and speaking. ‘One should act, not discuss.’ Obviously, before acting, one must speak and write, use languages. If we respect the agency of others, we should also hear them. Is this debate or dialogue?
The further we go from our comfort zone and our own teams, the more likely it becomes that we engage in a debate, because what we do is often controversial.
Even the funder of basic human rights work may end up being criticized by individuals or groups, both when the funding goes directly to refugees or directly to social scientists who work on LGBT rights, for example. I do not know if a debate with extremist opinion leaders is useful, but one should certainly engage in a dialogue with those who are in the ‘middle ground’.
So is dialogue about stories? It has been stated that extremists ‘have a story’, but those who work for civil or human rights have none.
During the last six months, it has been repeated that Clinton did not have a story, whereas President Trump did, and in Warsaw, one simply cannot forget the murderous consequences that politicians’ stories may have. Should we who work for civil or human rights then have competing stories? This was argued in the inspiring Thursday plenary on ‘reviving and re-embracing the spirit of solidarity’.
Anyone funding academic research and its outreach faces a parallel dilemma: should academics be encouraged to disseminate their research to wide audiences by using simple messages and stories?
Not necessarily or always, because people who understand how research works tend to take it more seriously. I guess that both in the cases of human rights and of research funding, simple messages have their role.
But personally I am more interested in creating messages and stories which make people understand that the world is complicated and cope with it in solidarity, not solitary, ways.
Dr Kalle Korhonen is Head of Research Funding at the Kone Foundation, Finland.
Click here for more coverage from the 2017 EFC annual conference.
For more on solidarity, listen to our Alliance Audio podcast: Solidarity & Philanthropy.