What does a conscience in philanthropy look like?


Jenny Oppenheimer


I was recently invited to a conference with the rather enigmatic title, Curation with A Conscience. Truth be told, my first thought was, oh my goodness is this another new thing I ­­should know about! The dial has been turned up on philanthropy, which is facing increasingly insistent questions about its purpose, legitimacy, hypocrisy, power structures etc. Depending on who you are and where you sit, you might either say that the sector is reflecting and learning or that it is in crisis. Either way, what’s coming out of these questions is more opportunities for discussion and for new perspectives and approaches to enter the conversation. I was intrigued by the framing of Conscience and was looking forward to hearing the speakers take on what a conscience in philanthropy looks like.

What I heard were a variety of takes which, to me, amounted to pretty much the same thing. Edgar Villanueva spoke of the ongoing impact of colonialisation and of the moral imperative to listen to and involve indigenous communities. Tessa Khan called out philanthropy and its role in climate change and was eloquent on the need to include communities affected by the climate crisis in a just transition process. Rose Longhurst spoke about her experience of working inside philanthropy and how decision-making there compared to that of a participatory grantmaker. With the latter, the ones who were making the decisions on where money should be allocated were the people most affected by the issues. Swatee Deepak and Chantal Bonitto argued that feminist philanthropy was an act of empowerment because women are heart-led, fund for systemic change and are directed by their personal experiences. Sonal Patel was phenomenal: speaking as an individual philanthropist, she challenged the room on the obsession with risk. Her point was that once money had been allocated to things like the mortgage, living expenses, holidays etc, what’s then given away is what’s additional. That, Sonal upheld, was not risky, especially when compared to the daily realities and work of the people being funded.

The consistent theme for me during the morning’s discussions was really about accountability i.e. who and what is philanthropy accountable to? The old paradigm of board responsibility, fiduciary duty, reputational risk, relying on known networks and the burden of process wagging the dog is being questioned and shaken up, and it’s about time!

New decision-making tables are being constructed where there is active participation from those with lived experience and change is being driven from the bottom up. Philanthropy is beginning to catch up and I wager that the discussion on divestment of power and resources will continue to rage, as will the calls for racial justice and the imperative to find alternative mechanisms of moving money directly to those affected.

So, back to that question of what a conscience in philanthropy looks like. I would say it’s about owning the effects of past actions, honouring and respecting the knowledge and experience of those most affected by those actions and being honest and unflinching when looking at the why, who and how of decision-making.

Jenny Oppenheimer is Action Inquiry Manager at Lankelly Chase

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