A new paradigm for the common good

Julie Fry and Judith Symonds

Highlights of a survey that explores a new framework for the common good from different perspectives and cultures

As part of this special feature, the Pursuit of the Common Good initiative (PCG) undertook a perception study, the first of its kind on this issue, among 50 people from civil society across 21 countries around the world, an initial indicative sample to be expanded to additional regions. The objectives of the study were to explore the fundamental purposes of philanthropy and determine whether one of these is to pursue the common good. In the survey, the interpretation of philanthropy was a broad one, including voluntary actions and community engagement as well as grant distribution and related support. We present here the highlights of the findings. The full report will be published in June, available on the Alliance website.

Describing the common good

A variety of terms was used which illustrated the communal aspect of the common good (see below). There was also a consistent response that the process of achieving a common good is more important than a universally accepted definition.

At the same time, some queried the concept itself as a European and US construct imposed on other regions. Questions were also raised about the extent to which it is ‘common’.

It is not a framing that is used in the African context. Who’s defining what is common good and whose world view decides? South Africa

When the minority becomes the majority, then we start to see that the common good never worked for everyone. US

There were strong regional convergences: the importance of trust, relationships, and leadership in building communities. There was recognition that seeking the common good requires a long timeframe and that some groups will need special attention in the short term to mediate the cost of transition to a more sustainable and just society.

  • Despite our diverse backgrounds, the core principles of the common good remain remarkably consistent, regardless of where you come from. Kenya

Drivers and barriers eroding the common good

There was also general agreement that the sense of benefits shared by all was eroding.

  • Neoliberalism has demolished the role of the collective and socially oriented policies that recognise we are humans and not robots or machines. Egypt

Despite the benefits that technology could bring, it was also perceived as a potentially fragmenting force, and democratisation of, and universal access to, information in the technology transition are seen as central to achieving the common good.

  • A barrier to the common good is that we feel we need each other less in a digital society. US
  • Technology is threatening to make us more atomised than ever before, less dependent on each other than ever before. Egypt

Does philanthropy pursue the common good?

There was a large degree of consensus that setting the agenda for the 21st century should be done in concert by government, business and civil society, including philanthropy.

  • We have to be able to hold each other accountable, and that’s where the triangulation of public, private, and nonprofit sectors come together. Jordan
  • The promotion of the common good doesn’t belong to a specific group, it’s rather for everyone. Mexico

Perception of whether philanthropy and philanthropists intentionally pursue the common good were mixed. Even if they do, the power imbalance with grantees, inconsistent engagement with local communities, and the philanthropists’ organisational and individual ambitions can interfere with equitable results.

  • Philanthropy contributes to the diminution of the common good when it funds projects primarily of the donors’ interest, advances their own ideologies, lacks transparency. Singapore

The main areas where philanthropy could play a distinctive role are in making connections, supporting and helping to develop networks, taking risks, democratising data and providing neutral spaces for civic dialogue.

  • Philanthropy can help to play a big role in ensuring that people with voices we rarely hear are helping to shape what the common good is. Nigeria

Engaging youth

Young people are crucial to reviving and reframing the common good. A finding across regions was the importance of offering civic education and providing experiential learning and community involvement during school years, coupled with civic learning within the family when it is available.

  • I think young people have to be at the centre and the investments really have to be for the most part in our young people. Zimbabwe
  • Our role is to empower and involve them [young people] in decision-making early so they can bring their opinions and ideas to solutions that drive change. Singapore

Shifting the paradigm

Despite the polycrisis, there emerged a sense that attitudes are changing and an awareness that action needs to be local to impact shared global challenges. Practices in finding common ground are taking place in all the regions through people empowerment initiatives and connecting people with each other and with nature.

  • Once we’re able to trigger the community voice and community power, we are on the road to building the requisite civic agency, which is what we need for building and upholding the common good. Uganda

Philanthropy-supported reframing and network development initiatives are bringing together and supporting social and other innovators to reframe our societies of isolated individuals into communities. Existing models need scaling, replicating, and adapting, to help them expand. Philanthropy has an important role to play to ensure that this connection and reimagination happens in a way that includes everyone. This is not a small agenda, but a hopeful one across the world.

The African philanthropy sector is reimagining its role and reframed it as: Harambee ubuntu pan, African and Feminist Philanthropies. South Africa

  • We can begin to connect to the well-being at an individual level that connects to the common good at the social level that might create a framework for rethinking economies, health, governance and such. US


Terms used in the survey to describe the common good



Common bettering

Mutual flourishing

Mutual help

Social contract

Social justice

Social harmony

Living in peace

Ubuntu (Africa)

Hózhó (Native American – Navajo)

Buen vivir (Latin America)

The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation in facilitating the PCG survey. Both Alliance and the research team maintained full editorial independence.

The survey was conducted by PCG members, Julie Fry and Judith Symonds, with strategic contributions from fellow PCG members: Bruce Sievers, Clara Miller, Diana Leat, Gregory Witkowski and Sophie Lemouel. Special thanks goes to each of the interviewees.

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