What if we apply the Inner Development Goals framework to philanthropy?


Elisa Ricciuti


The Inner Development Goals (IDGs) are a framework to enhance transformational skills for sustainable development. While we have both vision and knowledge around how to achieve sustainability, we are struggling to reach significant progress in almost every sustainability goal. What we miss, according to this framework, is an insight into individuals: what are the abilities, qualities, or skills that play crucial roles in fulfilling sustainable visions and that we need to foster individually, as part of groups and organizations.

Every organization today is called to reflect upon how to achieve transformation. The philanthropic sector is not an exception. Philanthropy is one of the fastest growing sectors today at the global level. Nowadays, the need for an inner reflection in the sector is on top of the philanthropic discussion agenda typically referring to some key controversial aspects, such as undemocratic governance; organizational structures unsuitable to face current societal challenges; lack of specific competences in foundations; lack of innovation in the way responses are designed; impact metrics unsuitable to define the scope and the effects of philanthropic action.

These aspects beg the following question: what if the pitfalls we see in philanthropy are related to some inertial behaviors replicated through time? And what if these behaviors can be changed for the better through inner reflection? Responses will be given by listing two typical arguments of philanthropic critics and trying to fix them by using inner reflection, with some concrete suggestions to drive change in a non (or less) traumatic way.

How IDGs can be useful for philanthropic leaders?

Argument 1 – Philanthropic foundations are highly conservative. Radical innovation is difficult to achieve, as decision-making forces are driven to keep the status-quo.

A reflection based on self-awareness would help foundations’ leaders to reinforce the consistency of decisions with the action in place. By diving into the Being dimension, philanthropic leaders may ask themselves: Am I true to the change I am promoting? Do I really want to change? Am I ready to embrace a discussion on how to innovate, before asking innovation to others? This sort of questions may concretely help foundations’ boards in:

  • supporting the process of strategy refresh;
  • designing different tools to discuss change internally.

A different face of a conservative philanthropic attitude is the so-called “donor-beneficiary trap”, which trust-based philanthropy seeks to overcome. Boards’ openness and the way they are formed are fundamental in promoting the connectedness to the people foundations are there to support – is there anybody informing decisions which comes directly from the target of foundations’ funding efforts?

Leaders may reflect upon this to:

  • deploying resources to JEDI practices (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion);
  • reforming boards, monitoring the effects and sharing learnings with peers.

The third reflection rests around the so-called responsive vs. proactive approach. Reflecting on the deep roots of the Collaborating dimension and on mobilization and co-creation skills may help concretely foundations leaders in:

  • supporting a more open discussion on foundations’ agenda-setting power;
  • enhancing peer learning and cross-fertilization on participatory governance practices as a dimension of foundations’ impact.

Argument 2 – Philanthropic foundations are not taking enough risks and their capital is not long-term oriented.

They tend to fall into the short-term trap of demonstrating they can achieve (quick) impact.

Much of the debate around philanthropy is around their risk attitude and the potential to act as policy entrepreneurs, using their capital to test new solutions and innovative models and scale them up. A reflection on the skills related to the Acting dimension of the IDGs would help philanthropic leaders in:

  • re-balancing the risk profile of their foundation;
  • opening a public discussion on the way philanthropic endeavours can scale innovation by setting up strong and generative partnerships.

Finally, a reflection on risk-taking may not hide the relationship with courageous leadership. Foundations are well positioned to be change-agents in the current narrative as they have resources to spend in a quite quick and unconstrained way. Are leaders of foundations trained to system change and which metrics of impact are needed to evaluate it? A deep reflection on these aspects would help foundations by:

  • incorporating system change metrics;
  • incorporating system change and sustainable leadership skills into the training plan of foundations’ people, at all levels.

Conclusion: Good News

This short contribution had the objective to start triggering a reflection on the philanthropic sector by applying the framework of the IDGS around some of the typical pitfalls which persistently affect the sector, with no presumption of completeness at all. The reflection has focused on skills which can be trained and practiced. The reflections highlighted in this short paper and the skills they presume to stimulate can be fostered to make the transition towards sustainable development less traumatic and faster than imagined. “As transformative skills need an open, receptive and enabling culture to emerge, individual capacities and cultural support for those capacities must grow in parallel. Inner development is a collective and cultural process that is ultimately expressed in community in service of the greater good”.[1]

Elisa Ricciuti is a philanthropy and impact advisor. Since she met the IDGs Hub of Milan, Italy, she supports the diffusion of the Inner Development Goals.

[1] Source: Going Deeper 2023, IDGs.

Comments (0)

slope game

Integrating personal growth and transformation with external actions can lead to more impactful and sustainable outcomes in our collective journey towards a sustainable future.

David Crook

Thank you Elisa for such a wonderfully clear exposition of some ways in which inner development awareness and practices - framed here by the Inner Development Goals - can support philanthropic actors to address mental models that are limiting risk tolerance, innovation capacity, power-shifting potential. Building on your points about inner development at the level of individuals: We should also consider that organisations, groups, whole systems have inner / relational dimensions and shadow sides that are largely unexplored - and yet are fundamentally shaping the possibilities for action. Inner development is required - and is proven to be effective - at all levels. At IDG Foundation we are exploring into these issues and possibilities - and we invite philanthropists, founders and foundation staff to join the conversations. The next frontier of effectiveness is inner-led! David Crook Philanthropy Partnerships Advisor Inner Development Goals

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