Vital systems, healthy communities: reflections on the 2021 Global Philanthropy Forum


Stephanie Heckman


This year’s Global Philanthropy Forum brought leading philanthropists together online to take an expansive look at what is needed to create healthy communities, in a way that promotes equity and well-being for all.

The forum allowed participants to take a step back and reflect on how the philanthropic sector responded to the pandemic. The increase in funding and the speed it reached communities has quite rightly been lauded by funders and social impact leaders. However, with the world reeling in the wake of the pandemic, it is essential for philanthropy to – not only get more funding out faster – but also identify its role in healing communities. In particular, the forum provided valuable space to find alignment on the essential elements required to build systems that will uphold equity. As a nonprofit medical technology company, focused on maternal and newborn health, Equalize Health attended the conference with the goal to help map out key action items that will lead us to a healthier, more equitable future.

Over the course of three half-day sessions, forum attendees highlighted multiple inequities that the pandemic exposed and exacerbated, again emphasizing those who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The online format allowed meaningful connection-making, something often not possible with online conferences, with speed networking, direct messaging, and a virtual social lounge. It also gave a glimpse of the future of virtual convenings, and how we can work together across time zones in an inclusive, sustainable, environmentally-conscious way. 

The following trends emerged from the speakers and discussions:

1. Be inclusive

Mark Malloch Brown, President of Open Society Foundations, opened the conference calling on social sector organizations and philanthropies to emerge from this pivotal moment stronger, by committing to build equitable, inclusive societies. The recognition that philanthropy itself must be inclusive was a theme that ran throughout the conference.

2. Who decides matters

As philanthropy reckons with the power imbalances inherent in the sector, participatory grantmaking and trust-based philanthropy have emerged as alternative approaches to philanthropy. Shaady Salehi, Director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project showed how these two philanthropic models actively strive for equity, by shifting and redistributing power back to the communities philanthropy serves – today, not tomorrow. 

3. Women are at the centre

When talking about carrying the burden of the pandemic, women are at the centre, and in particular women of colour. Dr Joia Crear-Perry, Founder and President, National Birth Equity Collaborative discussed the importance of women’s rights and racial justice in the context of global health. Philanthropists need to think about how to mobilize women’s influence in philanthropy and global health. Who is making the funding decisions? Who is asking the questions? Who is providing the funding? Who is leading the work? The old structures will not be capable of building a future that no longer sees women of colour bearing the brunt of every health and economic crisis. There must be a willingness to redesign the system with racial justice and gender equity at its core. 

4. Climate affects health disproportionately

Across the globe, the effects of climate change disproportionately affect poor communities, women, and people of colour. If philanthropy does not apply lessons learned from this pandemic, future health crises, driven by the repercussions of climate change, will continue to disproportionately affect the same communities, with [even more] tragic consequences. 

5. Innovation can scale

There have been incredible advances and innovations in healthcare. Yet, too often they do not achieve the necessary scale to close health disparities. Why? And what can be done? Krista Donaldson, CEO at Equalize Health, shared insights that have helped their medical technologies reach more than one million patients in over 70 low and middle-income countries.  

  • Healthcare workers need to be at the centre of health strategy-setting, not just implementers on the frontlines. User research will highlight their needs as well as constraints and opportunities in developing smarter solutions.
  • Technology solutions that are inferior in quality perpetuate inequity. There needs to be a shift in mindset from ‘good enough’ to standard of care solutions.
  • Innovative doesn’t mean ‘new’. The key to innovation achieving scale can often lie within supporting and strengthening existing infrastructure, such as local healthcare workforces, distribution channels, and local medical associations, as compared to funding new efforts. 

The role of philanthropy in building healthy communities

So, what is the role of philanthropy in building healthy communities? What will future partnerships look like? It is clear that social, racial, gender, and climate equity must be embedded in philanthropy. It is not just a matter of getting more money out faster and with fewer restrictions, although that needs to happen too. The 2021 Global Philanthropy Forum identified ways to build more inclusive, trust-based partnerships that are designed to address our biggest and most unjust inequities. The know-how and resources are at hand. Now it is time to put them into action.

Stephanie Heckman is the Director of Development and Partnerships at Equalize Health.

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