To achieve real impact, we have to act collectively


Annmarie McQueen


The theme for this year’s TPW global summit is unlocking abundance – whether that’s resources, talent or funds which can be used to do good. In their live panel session, TPW explored real life examples of how collaboration between investors, government and philanthropic leaders can unlock the potential for transformative change.

Moderated by Jess Tomlin, co-CEO of the Equality Fund, the panel featured Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation; Theo Sowa, Independent Philanthropy Advisor; Andrew Mitchell MP, Minister of State in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office; and Sophie Gupta, Principal & Head of Responsible Investing at Yaletown Partners.

Supporting the rights of women and girls

Following a lively introduction to each of the panellists by Jess Tomlin, Andrew Mitchell began the discussion by turning the topic to girls’ education, a topic that he says is a particular priority of the British government and something he is clearly personally passionate about. ‘Educating girls broadens horizons and lifts up whole communities’ he stated, going on to announce that the British government is contributing $54 million CAD (approximately £33 million GBP) towards the Equality Fund’s mission to support women and girls’ rights. This is joining contributions from the Canadian government of $300 million CAD and Ford Foundation of $23 million CAD (approximately $17 million USD). Since launching in 2019, The Equality Fund has committed already $53 million CAD to support over 300 organizations working in 85 countries around the world.

‘It’s hard to understand development if you do not see it through the eyes of women and girls’ Mitchell stressed, acknowledging recent attacks on women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan, and how the British government is trying to combat this by supporting philanthropic initiatives that focus on ‘education, economic and social empowerment, and ending violence.’

Tomlin invited Darren Walker to speak next, however in a show of humility Walker instead handed the mic to Theo Sowa, saying ‘I’m not going to have the two men on the panel speak first!’

Sowa began by acknowledging the polycrisis affecting the world today and how ‘women have never been daunted by those polycrisis…they have been the drivers of change in intersectional ways.’ She discussed her own experiences of working with women in refugee camps in Sierra Leone who had gone through extreme trauma, and the resilience they showed in the face of adversity for the sake of their children. ‘They were consistently looking forward, they were consistently working together to make change….and they were consistently under-resourced.’ Her call to action to the wider philanthropic community was this: ‘we have the power to actually get the resources to the people who are making the change, and we don’t have an excuse to say that we can’t do this.’

Investing with purpose

Many feminist funds around the world are doing valuable work resourcing feminist movements at the grassroots level. One of these is The Equality Fund, which focuses on grant-making, networking and programming funded through long term gender-lens investing so that ‘money goes to actors that can use it effectively…in ways that are not limiting and that do not have strings attached.’

Sustainable funding for movements is important, as short-term funding cannot change generational problems. Even more so is investing with purpose, by encouraging people to ‘stop investing in ways that undermine women’s rights, that undermine human rights, that undermine our planet.’ Impact investing can make just as much difference as grant-making, and philanthropists are in the unique position to advocate for it, by ‘changing people’s minds about the approaches they take’ to do good with their money. However, true transformative change is not something that individual philanthropists can achieve alone. ‘We have to act collectively,’ Sowa finished. ‘If we don’t work together, we will not see the change we want to see.’

Sophie Gupta was next to speak about her role at the intersection of human rights advocacy, philanthropy, and impact investing, stating that they are really all part of the same world. ‘Impact investing’s origins are in philanthropy,’ she said, crediting the Rockefeller foundation and Ford foundation for their pioneering work in the field.

‘Power is only shifted when power in shared…both philanthropy and impact investing are but tools to do that.’ She discussed how partnership is an effective way to share power, by ‘taking advantage of the various strengths each actor brings to the table’ whether that’s government, individual philanthropy, or institutional philanthropy.

Transformation starts from within

‘The way that the world sees women and girls needs to change,’ Darren Walker opened. ‘We need to value women and girls…in our behaviour, in our cultures, in our policies and our political economy.’ Philanthropy in particularly needs to believe that changing ‘the dynamics of power and control’ is something that truly needs to happen. ‘We, meaning places like the Ford Foundation, are really good at the rhetoric…of empowerment,’ Walker stated. ‘But we have not internalised it fully in our behaviour and our own policies. That’s the hard work…the work that needs to happen.’

He challenged the sector, asking ‘we know the interventions that work, why aren’t we implementing them?’ Again, the answer comes down to sharing power. For there to be equality, those that are privileged must give up some of their power. Walker called for the philanthropy sector to acknowledge its own complicity in failing to do this, and to start the journey of transformation from within to deconstruct these unconscious biases and unequal power dynamics. ‘That’s the work that we need to hold each other accountable for,’ he said. In reference to his own foundation, he acknowledged that ‘there’s so much of it that we have to work out of our systems, our legacy, our heritage, which I’m proud of in some ways, but in other ways have made it harder for us to be a better foundation.’

Sowa chimed in with support for Walker’s message, acknowledging that while there’s been great progress in the rhetoric, this still isn’t translating into real change. ‘It does feeling overwhelming…but that isn’t a sufficient excuse.’ She finds it inspiring though to see more philanthropists beginning to make those hard decisions, building partnerships, and holding each other accountable.

Centring philanthropy in local communities

Mitchell talked about the British government’s focus on endorsing ‘localism, and using local NGOs…we partner with them, we empower them to make a real difference on the ground.’ He also credited the philanthropists themselves for their ‘ideas and skills which drive this agenda forward.’

Walker picked up on Mitchell’s comment about localism, exploring the gap between rhetoric and action: ‘the billions of dollars on capacity building that have been spent on Africa…really built more capacity in Geneva and London and New York than in Africa.’ Small organisations often challenged by local context often don’t know ‘how to play the game and manipulate the system’ and therefore have not been the primary beneficiaries of philanthropy.

Walker stated that localism requires dismantling ‘institutionalised behaviour that goes back to the origins of development’ when African grant-making was done by Americans and Europeans rather than Africans themselves. He praised those who are willing to visit the communities they are helping to directly support local NGOs working there. ‘The egos, the logos, all of that stuff that gets in the way of impact,’ he stated, ‘we need to call that out.’

Sowa joined the discussion to say: ‘when you tell people that their lived knowledge is worth less than someone else’s book knowledge from a distance, it changes perceptions and the possibilities of real solutions.’ She called on the sector to expand the circle of ‘who we trust with ideas’ and engage local communities in coming up with the solutions to their problems.

Gupta added that the world of impact investing works similarly, where local context in business is very important and success in one region doesn’t guarantee success elsewhere. The question of ‘who we’re listening to’ affects how impact investment portfolios are designed.

Spending down vs perpetual endowments

The panel then moved into a Q&A with the live audience. One question came from a philanthropist who is spending down their foundation, and asked about the ethics of perpetual endowments and whether that money would be more effective being used to do good rather than under asset management.

Walker replied saying that the Ford Foundation was originally chartered as an institution in perpetuity, and there is therefore a legal and moral obligation to that idea. However he believes that ‘all forms of philanthropy should be able to flourish’ including spend downs and perpetual institutions that address continuing challenges. He believes it’s more important to interrogate ‘how we spend and make the money’ and believes there are ways to generate ‘both financial and social returns.’

The value of partnerships in fund allocation

Another question came from a philanthropist who asked about the best way to shift power in terms of making decisions about fund allocations, and who should have the right to make those decisions.

Walker praised the philanthropist for their courage in interrogating the question, commenting that when it comes to fund allocation ‘the really hard work is the follow through, and first the diligence on who to choose.’

Mr. Mitchell was keen for ‘philanthropists to decide’ where and how their money should be spent. Sowa quickly disagreed, saying ‘it doesn’t serve people to make decisions around things they don’t have sufficient expertise in…you do need partnership.’ She then broke down the concept of philanthropy being an elitist idea and talked about the everyday philanthropists that exist in every community, encouraging people to think about philanthropy ‘not just vertically, but also horizontally’ in order to collaborate on decision-making and ‘advance agendas that we all have in common.’

Sowa commented on how women’s funds were set up as the resource arms of feminist movements, and are able to partner with donors to advise them on the most effective ways to use their funds. She also spoke about the need for real leadership, which isn’t about ‘proximity to power, it’s about ethics, a moral backbone, being courageous.’

She added that many of the groups we minoritise have power already, as power is not purely about wealth. There is also power ‘in thought, in ideas, in activism…it’s not about shifting power, it’s about stopping the abuse of power and then stepping into our own power and using it proactively, constructively, and collectively.’

Final takeaways

Featuring some big names in philanthropy, TPW Global Summit’s live panel session addressed its key theme of collaboration by exemplifying how philanthropy, investors, and government can partner to address complex global issues such as women and girls’ rights.

A big part of the discussion revolved around dismantling unequal power dynamics by sharing power with beneficiaries and involving them as equals in the decision-making process when it comes to grant-making. Local context is important, and to be effective philanthropy must partner with those who understand it best and listen to what they have to say.

Impact investing was also a recurring theme. With many foundations managing endowments worth billions of dollars, it’s important that the money is invested in ways that furthers the organisation’s mission to do good in the world rather than undermining it.

Ultimately, the key message of the panel was a self-reflective yet optimistic one: philanthropy has to do better. It has to be held accountable and move away from institutionalised models that are not serving the people it’s trying to help. But it can’t do this alone. To really make a difference, philanthropy must put aside egos and focus on action over rhetoric. It must welcome collaboration with local communities, grantees, investors, individuals and government. The current polycrisis the world is experiencing is too large for any single actor to tackle. To achieve real impact, we must act collectively.

Annmarie McQueen is subscriptions manager at Alliance

Tagged in: #TPWGlobalSummit

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

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