It feels, right now, as if the only real certainty is uncertainty. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to think about the future. Once we abandon the idea of rigid predictions and focus instead on identifying key existing trends and drawing upon weak signals at the edges of current practice, it is possible to extrapolate to a wide range of possible futures. And it is vital that we do so, as 2022 sees philanthropy and civil society standing at a moment of potentially enormous change, which will require making choices and facing up to challenges.
One recurring theme as we look ahead is whether adaptations made through short-term necessity during the pandemic result in more fundamental longer-term change. Will the rise in remote working lead to a broader transformation in the ways we work? Will the enforced pivotal to digital that many CSOs have had to make lead to a step-change in the use of digital tools and engagement with technology issues? And will the shift many funders have made towards unrestricted or trust-based grantmaking models result in new norms within philanthropy?
Transformations in how we work could have major implications for philanthropy and civil society. In the short term, it may bring new opportunities to draw on a wider pool of talent, as traditional geographic barriers are removed. It will also bring new challenges, as organizations have to adapt to the practicalities of distributed ways of working. Longer term, there is also likely to be an erosion of the boundaries of organizational identity, as remote working makes us more accustomed to working across networks and outside of the traditional siloes of individual institutions. This will pose challenges for existing organizations, but also presents a huge opportunity to embed new norms of collaboration within philanthropy and get away from the emphasis on ‘egos and logos’ that has dominated in the past.
2022 may well be a year with long-term implications for civil society, so it is important that we do find ways of supporting organizations to engage with foresight.
The pandemic forced organizations to adjust rapidly to a wide variety of new digital tools. Many responded in highly-innovative ways, and in doing so arguably accelerated a much-needed process of technological transformation within philanthropy and civil society. However, the pace of this adaptation could come at a cost. Organizations that have shifted large parts of their operations online may face a significant risk from cyber security attacks if hackers perceive them as easy targets. More broadly, should we be concerned about sleepwalking into ‘platform dependency’, by making ourselves reliant on digital tools that seem like public infrastructure, but which in reality are owned and operated by a small handful of large tech companies? In doing so, what kind of power are we ceding to these companies to determine the future shape of civil society?
2022 will also bring important questions in terms of how we understand philanthropy and its role within society. The pandemic response brought a new sense of urgency, which has lent weight to existing debates about appropriate timescales in philanthropy. Over the coming year, we are likely to see even more debate over whether funding needs to happen faster, in light of the urgent nature of challenges such as the climate crisis, or whether philanthropy needs to retain a focus on the longer-term as part of its USP. Similarly, there are growing concerns that the accepted wisdom of ‘measuring impact’ has simply led to more power being concentrated in the hands of funders at the expense of CSOs and communities; and during 2022 we are likely to see more voices arguing that a necessary part of rebalancing power within philanthropy is to change the ways in which we think about measurement.
There is a clear need to contextualize philanthropy as well. It may once have been the case that philanthropy could be understood in isolation; but as mainstream awareness of the role it plays has increased, this no longer feels true. To assess the legitimacy and value of philanthropy we need to understand it in the wider context within which it sits. This includes considering how wealth was created in the first place, how assets are invested, and the tax status of the individuals or organizations involved. There are also issues that are so crosscutting in nature that arguably they can no longer be seen as ‘cause areas’ in any traditional sense but must rather be seen as ‘lenses’ through which all philanthropy should be viewed and judged. Precisely which issues meet this criterion is likely to remain a source of debate throughout 2022 and beyond, but many might argue that the climate crisis, racial justice and global inequality are clear contenders.
Thinking about the future can often seem daunting; especially to those working at a grassroots level, for whom the constant struggle for resources and capacity is often all-consuming. Yet 2022 may well be a year with long-term implications for civil society, so it is important that we do find ways of supporting organizations to engage with foresight. Philanthropists and funders have a key role to play in this, by providing the required resources and infrastructure. In doing so, not only will we be able to navigate the present more effectively; but perhaps we can also develop future visions for our societies that provide an alternative to those being offered by governments or the private sector.
Rhodri Davies is a Pears Research Fellow at the Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent and the host of the Philanthropisms podcast.