Benjamin Bellegy: Heads together to #LiftUpPhilanthropy

Benjamin Bellegy

There are many good reasons to invest in infrastructure and all of them point to the need for concerted thought and action

It is not that common to debate the question of philanthropy infrastructure. It’s rare to turn the spotlight on this field which tends to play behind the curtains, to remain relatively intangible and generally unknown outside its own circle.

Maybe one of the reasons is the term itself. Words are not neutral, they create reality. ‘Infrastructure’ evokes a static set of tubes, channels, bridges, that belong to the background. It allows cars to run, water to flow and services to function, but has no active role. As this special feature shows, this field is much more than that. It is about leading, about developing and harnessing private resources for social good, about building civil society and democracy and about laying the necessary foundations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There are some encouraging signs that a growing number of funders, including individual philanthropists from emerging market economies, but also non-philanthropic funders such as development aid agencies, are strengthening their investments in this field.

Moreover, reflecting the complex and increasingly diverse mix of organizations – philanthropy’s developers, enablers, accelerators – that dedicate their energies and talents to increasing the volume, quality, and diversity of philanthropy, this special feature is about their contribution and how to unleash their potential in serving the needs of societies.

Philanthropy support has impact…
WINGS’ own research on community philanthropy shows that countries with dedicated support organizations for community philanthropy have created nine new community foundations in three years, versus fewer than one in countries with no support organization. An initiative such as #GivingTuesday has generated millions of dollars for civil society through a very effective approach which harnesses ‘New Power’. Foundations’ associations in many countries have successfully advocated for regulations that have enabled the application of billions of dollars to the common good.

…so why is it under-funded where it’s most needed?
Why do most of these organizations struggle for resources and report ongoing concerns about their sustainability? Why is infrastructure so little developed in the global south and east where it is the most needed? WINGS’ research last year (see reference in Maria Chertok’s article) showed that 80 per cent of philanthropy infrastructure spending is in North America, while only 5 per cent goes to Asia and the MENA region combined. Why, even where the field has a long history and is well developed, does it face issues such as untapped potential for synergies, unnecessary competition and a history of networks and other support organizations that flourish briefly, then wither for want of support? In each case, it is because the field has seldom been considered as a strategic area by funders.

Contributions from Yanni Peng, Ridgway White, Vladimir Potanin and Oksana Oracheva show how visionary funders from different regions understand that this support ecosystem is central to their mission and there are some encouraging signs that a growing number of funders, including individual philanthropists from emerging market economies, but also non-philanthropic funders such as development aid agencies, are strengthening their investments in this field and integrating them into their core strategy for tackling the SDGs. The story of Laurence Lien who dedicates his philanthropic efforts to encouraging the wealthy to give better and more collectively for increased impact is just one inspiring example.

Three good reasons
Even without thinking too hard, there are three good reasons for supporting infrastructure along the lines set out in this special feature. First, achieving the SDGs will require an estimated $7 trillion. The Foundation Center calculates that institutional philanthropy’s contribution will be around $365 billion. We need to grow resources and spend that money well. Both will require a sound support ecosystem. We must address the civil society and philanthropy infrastructure piece consistently if we want to be serious about achieving the SDGs.

Maybe we should consider philanthropy as a cause in its own right, understanding that the act of giving is a key element of democracy.

Second, the global context calls for a new aid paradigm whose cornerstones are local hubs and more local leadership for development initiatives, and more collaboration across sectors. Again, all of this can only happen with strong domestic infrastructures. Finally, maybe we should consider philanthropy as a cause in its own right, understanding that the act of giving is a key element of democracy. It builds trust, relationships and represents an important way for citizens to engage in society.

That’s why, here’s how…
In concrete terms, how can philanthropists support this field? First and foremost, funders should contribute to building a strong ecosystem in their own countries. In addition, there’s lots of scope to draw on existing areas of interest. For example, are you supporting rural communities in Africa? Help them tap into local private resources and improve their fundraising skills. Working to combat climate change? Invest in networks and organizations that will increase the awareness of this cause among the funder community. Highly involved in supporting the development of poor countries? Support the emergence of local philanthropy associations and assist organizations that will boost domestic philanthropy.

Whatever the answer, what matters is to think holistically about how to develop philanthropy. It is about looking at this field from different perspectives, moving from the contractual (‘I need service, I pay for it’), to the ‘good citizen’ (‘it is my responsibility to contribute to the field’), to the strategic (‘I want to leverage more, mitigate risks and strengthen the sustainability of my work’).

This is not only a question for funders individually. If this field is an ecosystem, it needs to be developed with intelligence and to be interconnected, and it needs to be locally relevant. It is therefore essential to coordinate the approach among funders and do so ‘upstream’. The International Meeting of Funders of Infrastructure co-hosted by WINGS and La Caixa Foundation in March 2018 highlighted this potential and led to the launch of a global effort to foster strategic discussions in different regions. We hope a growing number of actors will join the movement, #LiftUpPhilanthropy, and engage in strengthening the field. We believe this is the path to follow if we want to draw on the huge potential of all forms of philanthropy and giving.

Benjamin Bellegy is executive director of WINGS.
Email bbellegy@wingsweb.org @BenBellegy @wings_info


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