WINGSForum 2017: Business as usual in a changing world


Andrés Thompson


It was the first time that I attended a WINGS Forum and, I must recognize, my expectations were moderate. Big conferences organized by “industry” organizations, such as the ones serving philanthropy, are usually self centered and very poor in terms of questioning their own practices and even less their own existence. To a large extent, this is precisely my perception of what happened during the WINGSForum 2017.

Organizations serving philanthropy do not play their role in a vacuum
Before and after the exposition by Kumi Naidoo – the exception- there was practically no mention to the changing international context; neither the name of Donald Trump was spelled out. It is not enough to name the various examples of limitations to the space of civil society in various countries to understand how the power dynamics are changing the planet nor the reasons and directions of such transformations.

Without such a contextualization, philanthropy is more a matter of goodwill than part of the social and political environment as it applies to different societies. The fabric of philanthropy is extremely dependent from and influential of the global context. A Forum like WINGS cannot let escape the opportunity to help us all capture better the climate of global society. Let us not forget that the meeting took place in Mexico, a country which is at the center stage of conflicts with the U.S.!

Women’s funds
Women’s funds – their networks, their approaches and their ways to achieve collective impact- are perhaps one of the most advanced movements in global philanthropy. They are at the frontline in fighting gender violence, supporting human rights defenders and shaping the public agenda. Their model of supporting global philanthropy, however, was absent, or at least at the far margins, at the WINGSForum.

The closing scene at the Forum, with the WINGS and CEMEFI‘s presidents thanking just the male expositors surrounded by all the women and girls that actually made the event happen, was perhaps another pathetic symbol of the gender imbalance.

Where are the cross-sector conversations?
Philanthropy interacts permanently with the private and public sectors. These two relevant actors, however, were absent at the Forum. How can we explore new ways of influencing public policies if there is a total absence of governmental representatives with whom we can talk, learn, agree or disagree?

How can we improve our strategies to work, collaborate and support our work with the business sector if they are practically not present at the conference? Is it enough to talk among ourselves without engaging in new dialogues and collaborations with other social and political actors?

The WINGS Forum
WINGS’ core mission is ‘to strengthen, promote and provide leadership on the development of philanthropy and social investment’ and the call of the conference ‘Critical philanthropy: addressing complexity, challenging ourselves’. To what extent these two objectives were achieved throughout the conference is quite dubious from my perspective. As said above, our self-criticism as organizations serving philanthropy was very light.

Not surprising if one looks at the WINGS report presented at the conference: ‘the first priority of philanthropy infrastructure organizations is to expand their reach, followed by increasing the number of members/clients (?) and developing technological capacity’. In other words, let’s continue looking at our own bellies and not to the complex changes in the outside world.

Some figures and comments of the report are also surprising:

  • ‘The overall medium budget of infrastructure organizations has not grown much since the WINGS 2014 infrastructure report. It is now $800,000 compared to $600,000 in 2014’.
    My question: not grown much for whom? A difference of $200,000 is quite big for me. Our budget at the Social Justice Philanthropy Network in Brazil is less than $10,000 dollars, and more or less the same at Fondo Región Colonia (Uruguay) and ELLAS (Argentina).
  • ‘Eighty per cent of spending on philanthropy infrastructure is in North America’.
    My question: Is this shifting the power? Aren’t we reproducing the same inequalities as in the global economy? Is this acceptable?
  • ‘The history of the field’, summarized in one page, is offensive to say the least. The story began in the UK and then followed by the US. The rest of the world was discovered in the 1980s ‘with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the ending of apartheid in South Africa’.
    Comment: Efforts and institutions aimed at coordinating social welfare and beneficent institutions were created in the early 19th century in Latin America along with the processes of independence from the Spanish and Portuguese empires.

The mapping of academic/education institutions
This WINGS report was also presented at the Forum. From 60 institutions mapped, just over 30 per cent responded (19). From the 19 that responded, only one was from Latin America and two from Sub-Saharan Africa. Evidently, the results presented do not represent at all the reality of knowledge generation and teaching on philanthropy around the world.

In a way, the findings also raise questions for those regions that didn’t responded to the survey. So, if the results are not representative, why publish them instead of recognizing that the attempt was not successful and therefore open an honest conversation on how to improve the research in order to really capture relevant data?

The positive side of the examples I mentioned is that the Forum helped me understand in three days what otherwise would have taken me much more time. WINGS need to rethink its role, address power imbalances, and look at the world from a broader perspective in order to identify both the internal and external challenges for the growth of philanthropy.

Andrés Thompson is executive coordinator, Social Justice Philanthropy Network, Brazil.

Tagged in: WINGS Forum 2017

Comments (4)

andres thompson

Dear Ana and Benjamin, I really appreciate your reactions to my note in the blog. That was precisely the purpose: provoke a conversation on critical philanthropy and how can we improve our work. An the Alliance blog is a place where this can happen also, beyond filling evaluation forms. I am really sorry if you, Ana, associate constructive criticism with anger and resent. All the contrary, I enjoyed the Forum a lot because, as said, it allowed me to see clearer where we are doing wrong and where is room for improvement. And I also enjoyed writing the note because it is another way of continuing our dialogue. It was great to see you both in Mexico, and to meet Ana this morning with a smile. Cheers, Andres

Ana Toni

Andreas, we have known each other for a long time and as you know I admire your work, but I really felt that your article was shallow and unnecessarily angry and resentful. Why? It was also my first Wings Forum and like you I have been in the “philanthropic world” for more a long time. But differently from you I left the Wings Forum happy because, as far as I know, this is the only real international forum where Southern support philanthropic organizations has the same voice as Northern ones. I was so happy to meet and learn from representatives from Kenya, South Africa, Russia, China, Eastern Europe countries or Australia. I also I learned new things about the "craft" of doing philanthropy which for someone like me that does this on my daily basis was helpful. Perhaps differently from you, I am quite tried of attending meetings where we spend most of the time analysing the context and blaming others for what is happening without also looking at what we can do concretely and what we have done wrong in the past. For me it was quite refreshing therefore to hear about real and concrete cases about what philanthropy is doing to fight against the shrinking space for civil society, I also loved to learn about how philanthropic organizations are supporting legal strategies in several countries for example in the US or in Latin America. Differently from many philanthropic forums it was also good to attend sessions that focused on what philanthropy is not doing well and to be able to discuss in a very candid manner how some of them have are trying to improve it. For me it is really great to hear the experience of the nascent philanthropy in Africa and Asia and all that they are already innovating and what their constrains are (which seems to be similar to ours in Latin America). Yes, there were also sessions that were boring or no innovative but I would love to know which Forums and Conferences you go that you do not have them. Andreas, I am very sorry that you did enjoy the meeting and obviously you have all the right to express your criticism. But in an already polarized world, I do not think that we need more anger or resentfulness. CMEFI welcome us to Mexico in a very warm and professional manner and I am thankful for that. Why do you think that judging them on how they closed the meeting would be helpful or constructive? For someone that understands and values differences, as I know you do, your article for me was unfortunately very disappointing but a testimony of the importance of Foruns like WINGS.

Benjamin Bellegy

Andres, I would like to thank you for your honest feedback after participating in WINGSForum, and for this argued piece about your impressions and analysis. Your points contribute to the debate and this was the objective of this Forum. I am sharing below some comments and responses to your remarks as part of a constructive joint and self-critical discussion. No mention of the changing international context I am surprised by this assertion, as a high number of sessions where specifically focused on the current political and power mutations and restrictions on civic space: prize and speech of Douglas Rutzen on the Rise of Populism, session of CIVICUS on shrinking space, session on Political populism and the role of philanthropy infrastructure, and many others. As you remind us, the Forum took place in Mexico City and you may have seen that we have also issued a Mexico City Declaration directly referring to the current political trends and the role of philanthropy to oppose it. Women’s funds and gender imbalance Women funds are indeed a very interesting and dynamic model in global philanthropy and we would be happy to give it more space in future. This said, WINGSForum was not focusing on one or another model of philanthropy but rather on connections and cross-fertilization between the different models and cultures of giving that exist. This is the uniqueness of a Forum like this one to allow actors with diverse perspectives and backgrounds to meet, exchange practices and ideas, but we are not necessarily emphasizing on one or the other. I’m sorry to read your comment about the symbol of gender imbalance you saw during the closing plenary. I am not sure what exactly you are referring to as the co-hosts’ presidents have not been thanking just male expositors as you mention. WINGS and CEMEFI teams simply came on stage to thank each other collectively. Although I share your legitimate concern, I can’t agree with the power imbalance you have interpreted there. Cross sector conversations You are raising here an important point and I totally agree that this is an area we must improve in the future. Some non-philanthropic actors have participated but not enough, and the space for a structured dialogue was not provided. That’s on our agenda for Nairobi 2020 and thank you for pushing us in this relevant direction! Did we challenge ourselves enough? This is here again an interesting and crucial question. I think the whole programme has been designed to make this self-criticism happen and to start asking thought-provoking questions about our role. I understand your feeling that it didn’t happen enough. We have seen many challenging conversations happening - on how differently philanthropy should assess its impact and think its role, on how it should look at root causes instead of consequences, on how philanthropy infrastructure can play a role in advocating for an enabling environment for civil society, etc. - but I understand you felt that debates could have sometimes been more engaged and self-critical. We can see the glass half-full or half-empty. I would (very un-neutrally!) see it half-full and consider this is a start. For many organizations who are focused on their day-to-day work to serve their members, tackling these questions has been thought provoking. It may have been less the case for organizations like yours who are focusing their work on social justice issues and who are used to deeply questioning the role of philanthropy as a central part of their mission. Infrastructure Report results Organizations that are serving philanthropy, as any organization, are obviously concerned with their ability to fulfill their mission and by their outreach. Indeed, concerned with developing, fundraising, increasing their ability to serve, philanthropy support organizations sometimes lack time and hindsight to look more broadly at their role and at the world they are working in. Our hope is that WINGS, notably through convenings like WINGSForum, contributes to making the connections and providing food for thought that will help enlarging their vision. While mentioning that medium budget of infrastructure organizations has not grown much, we are comparing numbers with the past decade where the development of the field has known a peak. We are underlying that while philanthropy volumes are increasing quickly all over the world, the growth of organizations that serve it is much slower. WINGS indeed believes that philanthropy support organizations are very needed and should get more support, especially in regions where institutional philanthropy is emerging. The 80% number is indeed a key figure of this report and we are on the same page to say that this highlights an important gap and current power imbalance in our field. We hope that disseminating this figure will help raise the awareness and change this unequal situation. We agree that WINGS role is to help developing philanthropy infrastructure where it is needed the most and this is what we hope to do increasingly in future. As far as the history of the field is concerned, I appreciate your contribution and you may be right saying that it is too narrow. It indeed focuses on a rather strict definition of institutional philanthropy infrastructure organizations and does not include other and former forms of coordination in the social sector. We will think about how to be more inclusive when presenting the history of the field in other communications. Our other works, nevertheless, put a great emphasis on cultures of giving and on the fact that philanthropy is a shared global practice that is rooted in ancient and diverse traditions and history. Mapping of academic institutions This piece of the survey is a starting point and a first attempt to capture a little known part of philanthropy infrastructure. From our initial mapping, there is, as for the rest of our field, an unequal geographic distribution. Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa are, among other regions, less represented than North-America and Europe. The sample that responded is also unequally distributed. Proportions are not exactly the same but there are more or less similar (it is actually mainly European institutions that are underrepresented in the sample compared to the initial mapping). Therefore, we believe this initial survey gives relevant indications of the state of the art in the Academics field to date, including its unequal geographic distribution. It is an ongoing work and we hope to include an increasing number of organizations in our research. Discussions are ongoing with Academics and we are looking at ways to be as inclusive as possible. Thank you again for your useful contribution to our common reflections. I hope we keep the conversation going and that you continue sharing your views. They are very much needed to lead WINGS in new and relevant directions for the future. All my best, Benjamin

Pablo Marsal

Excelent article. Andres Thompson's insight of the Forum helps us all to re-think the role of philanthropy in a shifting global context.

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