Breaking with the past

Katherine Fulton

Very few, if any, of the ideas in this issue are truly new. But together, they do sketch an urgent agenda for leaders who see the need to take philanthropy in a new – even discontinuous – direction. The good news is that the disorientation of a crisis can create openness to new approaches. The bad news is that the gap between today’s practices and the changes urgently needed is actually growing rather than shrinking.

I want to do three things as I comment on this special feature: first, discuss this moment in history; second, comment on the ideas the writers put forward as approaches that would interrupt the status quo – what this issue calls ‘discontinuous thinking’; and third, look at what it will take to seize the opportunity for philanthropy.

A moment in history

The financial shock of 2008, whose effects we will feel for some time, certainly intensified many problems we face even as it shrank philanthropic resources. Many institutions and individual givers responded at first by shifting their giving, and in some cases increasing it in the face of so much pain. But the more structural responses are just beginning. In the US, large foundations are just getting around to making deep cuts in their staffs nearly a year after the shock hit. And everyone here is still in the early stages of adjusting to the swift, concurrent changes in US politics. It is still too early to know how philanthropy will really respond to this complicated moment.

What is going on now is, after all, only partly about a short-term crisis. As my Monitor colleague Eamonn Kelly has argued in his essay, ‘Taking Advantage of Tumultuous Times’,[1] the global context is being reshaped by long-term, disruptive trends that are combining to create a very new post-crisis reality. He highlights post-western globalization, ubiquitous connective technologies, climate change and sustainability, and the blurring boundaries between the corporate, government and civic sectors as the big forces remaking our world – and shifting the choices every leader faces.

For a complementary, darker view, look closely at the thinking of the Australian environmental business expert, activist and writer Paul Gilding. He argued in a visionary piece published in July 2008 that humanity has entered ‘the Great Disruption’,[2] a long-term global ecological and economic crisis that must result in fundamentally new economic and social policies, indeed an entire transformation. This is the moment in which ‘Mother Nature and Father Greed have hit the wall at once’, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman memorably put it as he wrote about Gilding’s argument.

Interrupting the status quo

The recession may end, in other words, but ‘the Great Disruption’ is here to stay. The question is what we are going to do about it. The specific suggestions in this issue fall roughly into two broad themes: rethinking the roles and relationships of the sectors (particularly business and civic) and catalysing bottom-up change (by engaging citizens and empowering entrepreneurs).

Under the theme of sector change, at least five writers from different regions argue for market-based solutions and a new partnership between philanthropy and business. I was particularly struck by the well-known Jordanian business entrepreneur Fadi Ghandour’s statement that ‘civil society has to redefine itself to include the private sector as a major pillar of development, and the private sector must step up and define its purpose beyond profit maximization’. Peter Blom goes even further in arguing for reinventing the financial system entirely, complete with a new coalition of banks who have begun to do so. And Amir Dossal from the UN looks at the growing importance of public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder initiatives, especially in education and health.

The relationship with government is also being rethought. Matthew Bishop’s interview with Sonal Shah explains the new emphasis in the US on experiments to improve social capital markets through government and philanthropy working together in new ways.

Shifts in the roles and relationships of the sectors will not be enough, however. Citizens and entrepreneurs need to be empowered in new ways as well. From Africa, we hear two pleas for finding out what Africans want and empowering them to take their future in their own hands. From the US, we hear of the need for growing community solutions and building non-profit capacity. From Europe, we hear that foundations need to help strengthen non-profits so they need less philanthropic help. And from the Middle East, we hear an entreaty to ‘champion grassroots entrepreneurship in our search for sustainable solutions’.

Taken together, these suggested new approaches insist that we have an opportunity today to break with the past – that we must move beyond the status quo assumptions about who does what and what is most needed in the world of aid.

Perhaps it is because I live near Silicon Valley, but I was surprised to hear so little talk of the transformative power of new technology to create discontinuous change. Just in the past five years, it has suddenly become possible for individuals connected together to accomplish tasks quickly and at a scale that used to be limited to large institutions. At Monitor Institute, we call this ‘Working Wikily’,[3] and encourage everyone to look at the tools not as an afterthought or add-on, but instead to embrace the new, networked mindset that the tools engender. (For a bracing look at what’s ahead, see also Kevin Kelly’s recent essay, ‘The New Socialism: Global collectivist society is coming online.’[4])

Put it all together – the effects of the short-term financial crisis, the drivers of the long-term disruption, the growth of technologically empowered, bottom-up change, the expanding experimentation and innovative partnerships in search of new solutions – and you have the dynamic, new normal facing every leader in every sector.

Seizing the opportunity for philanthropy

Unfortunately, philanthropy seems especially poorly equipped to adapt. Philanthropic institutions and leaders are often risk averse, usually slow to move and unusually insulated from meaningful feedback. That makes them perfectly mismatched for discontinuous change. As Marta Rey argues in her brilliant assessment in this issue, ‘there is a risk that foundations will be perceived as selfish and paralysed entities, socially irrelevant organizations that were worried mostly about their own immediate survival rather than the problems of the stakeholders they were supposed to serve.’

The writers here collectively ask funders and impact investors to remain relevant by innovating at a more rapid pace, sharing power in new ways and looking closely at how their actions are connected to others’ actions in increasingly complex and unexpected ways. ‘Much depends on the willingness of philanthropic agencies to focus attention on supporting transformative social change that builds on collective rather than individualistic actions or on acts of charity,’ writes the Kenyan Firoze Manji.

Requests such as these fly in the face of much of what we know about the instinct that shapes most private philanthropy: the guarding of private, autonomous choice. This guiding force (and in many cases, imperative) can make it very difficult to accomplish what the writers here urge.

Still, I do derive hope and inspiration from the fact that a small but growing number of philanthropic leaders are taking steps to act cooperatively, strategically and in ways that are aligned. Indeed, these leaders see many of the same truths that the writers in this issue see. They already live a series of challenging dilemmas on a daily basis: how to learn and move faster and do more when the demands on their time and attention are already more than they can manage; how to balance achieving short-term results while aiming for long-term sustainable solutions; how to let go of old habits and stop doing things in old ways when they are not sure that any of the new approaches will ultimately work any better. After all, it is obviously a lot easier to write about all this in a magazine than to embrace and then lead change.

There is no question that this moment is an opportunity to rethink and reimagine – perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How many of us, though, yet appreciate what it will mean to truly, deeply think and act in discontinuous ways? I know I am struggling to do so. But the hour is already late. We had better hurry.

1 Eamonn Kelly (2009) ‘Taking Advantage of Tumultuous Times: Mastering the moment’, Monitor Institute

2 Paul Gilding (2008) ‘The Great Disruption’

3 Diana Scearce, Gabriel Kasper and Heather McLeod Grant (2009) ‘Working Wikily 2.0: Social change with a network mindset’,  

4 Kevin Kelly (May 2009) ‘The New Socialism: Global collectivist society is coming online’, in Wired magazine

Katherine Fulton is president of the Monitor Institute. Email

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