Interview: Benjamin Bellegy, WINGS

The latest piece of research produced by the Worldwide Networks for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), designed to help philanthropy support organisations (PSOs) think through their role in changing circumstances has been overborne by the Covid-19 crisis…well, not quite overborne because, as WINGS executive director Benjamin Bellegy points out, it has actually helped networks and associations plan their response to the pandemic. He talks to Alliance about the report, the pandemic and the priorities both signal for philanthropy networks and associations.

WINGS has recently released a report on the role of philanthropy networks. Why did you choose this topic at this time?
It is an attempt to respond to a set of circumstances we see globally: an increased need for networks and associations of philanthropic actors, questions over the relevance of existing structures in a fast-changing ecosystem, and an infrastructure gap with many countries that have no or very limited capacity to come together as a field.

To the first point, there are a number of internal and external factors that highlight the key role of networks and associations. First, there’s a welcome trend towards collective impact. All over the world private donors are looking at new ways to enhance their impact through collaboration. On the other hand, there is the growing criticism of our sector both from governments which are increasing restrictions and from society and the sector itself which is questioning the practices and legitimacy of the sector, especially where big philanthropy is concerned. This also reinforces the need for a collective voice to promote the sector and build a new narrative. Beyond advocacy and communications efforts, there are issues that require self-scrutiny and the sector’s transformation and this, too, can only be done effectively by coming together in some sort of collective body or network. Last but not least, the pace of change, the complexity of issues and the tsunami of information we are confronted with in our work calls for space for peer-learning and for thought leadership that can help navigate the present and prepare for the future.

Unlocking our sector’s impact means helping it to engage in systems change – and we know that kind of approach takes collaboration and some form of advocacy.

On the second point, existing associations and networks are facing questions about their value and the collective effectiveness of the broader infrastructure. As the support ecosystem has become more complex and new actors are coming into the field, our models are being challenged by funders themselves. Can we invent new ways of coming together and become communities of practice as well as platforms for services? Can we rethink our value proposition and focus on where the ecosystem has gaps, for instance in bringing about concrete collaboration with government and other actors? Can we find new ways to collaborate within the broader infrastructure and turn it into a proper ecosystem?

Finally, to the point on the infrastructure gap, WINGS research has shown that the investment in the support ecosystem for giving and philanthropy is extremely unevenly distributed worldwide. Most countries don’t have any form of national umbrella body for philanthropy and in the recent years, a number of philanthropists and field actors from different regions have reached out to WINGS asking for guidance and support on how to create such networks. Grantmaker’s associations were the founding constituency of WINGS 20 years ago and we felt like this was a critical time to look at this key component of the philanthropy support ecosystem and propose both operational resources and deeper reflections.

So has WINGS played in effect a coordinating role in passing knowledge through from more to less experienced networks bodies?
I wouldn’t frame it that way because the more experienced ones are themselves facing deep questions about what value they convey and what their purpose should be. There is no magic recipe for you to follow, where you can say, ‘that’s the way to work’. The answers have to be developed in a contextualised way based on the needs or the vision of those who are trying to set these organisations up or to reconfigure them. What we are trying to do is to ask the right questions and start sharing a variety of possibilities and experiences so that each can decide within its own context and go on its own journey.

And the structure of the report reflects that – it draws on the wisdom and experience of a wide variety of practitioners.
Yes, absolutely, the author of the report, Filiz Bikmen, did a great job of harvesting our collective wisdom through interviews with close to 20 leaders as well as the results of the meeting in Jamaica last year, and her own research and reflections. It was important to bring in as wide a range of experience and ideas as possible so that no matter what stage your network or association is at, it can offer useful resources.

In addition to helping WINGS’ members’ redefine their own purpose, is this an expression of WINGS itself also doing the same thing?
We are certainly permanently questioning our role and position in the global ecosystem to help advance the field effectively. WINGS has evolved from a loose network to become an association and we have constantly evolved in our constituency to make it more inclusive of the ecosystem. Lately, we have decided to go a step beyond an association that delivers a set of services and are proposing to our members a platform where they can engage, influence and learn. That includes trying to build a global advocacy voice for the philanthropy industry – a crying need for which unfortunately we are still struggling to get the necessary attention from the field – and providing thought leadership with reports such as the Global Landscape of Philanthropy, reflection papers like Unlocking Philanthropy’s potential, and frameworks such as the 4Cs for support organisations.

The report has been out for a couple of months now. What kind of response have you had to it so far?
In a way, it has been disrupted by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but at the same, that’s increased the momentum to consider the importance of networks, because all the responses we’ve seen to the outbreak from the field have only been possible to the extent to which the philanthropy infrastructure, including networks and associations, was in place. It has shown what critical players they are in the ecosystem. We’ve also heard from some of our members who’ve discussed what their response should be with their boards, with their staff, and so on, that the report has helped them to position themselves in the current crisis. In the report, there’s a framework for value, voice and impact which helps networks figure out where they want to be – is it more sector-focused or serving their members? Is it more about responding to needs or about shaping the field, being more proactive and engaging in thought leadership? ASSIFERO in Italy, for example, decided to position themselves in the area of responsiveness and with a sector focus, so they quickly developed a project to gather data at the local and national level on philanthropic responses which is serving the national civil society community, rather than only focussing on their members. The framework helped them to make this strategic decision, not because the guide says that that’s what they should do, but because it helped them to think about that in a constructive way. We’ve also had good feedback from TUSEV in Turkey who also used to guide to think about their new strategy and Covid-19 response, and from a few emerging networks that found a useful source of experiences and information. We hope there is going to be an ongoing conversation, beyond this publication, about the importance of collective thinking and action in philanthropy and we hope that it will be wider than thinking just about the work of the institutions themselves to include field-thinking, network thinking, and the development of a network mindset for donors. So, yes, the response has been good so far and we hope it continues and is linked to those kinds of reflections.

Benjamin Bellegy introducing ‘Philanthropy Networks: Creating Value, Voice and Collective Impact’ at PEXForum 2020. Photo: Elo Durand


So, in a sense, the crisis has created an extra stimulus for PSOs to think more critically about their role?
Well, I think it’s the case for any organisation, even any person, so that’s true for PSOs, too. One of the things the crisis is doing is highlighting how critical these actors are. Where you’ve seen a strong response from the philanthropy sector is where the infrastructure was more organised and more developed. That doesn’t mean of course that the response or the ecosystem was perfect, but at least it makes acting in collective ways possible. There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy celebrating how the groundwork done by infrastructure over the past decade has led to the inclusion of civil society in the response plan in the US. The article points out that this is the result of ten years of hard work and advocacy on Capitol Hill, which now makes a huge difference because it means millions of dollars are going to go to the field which may not have been the case otherwise. In comparison to that, some of our colleagues in India have complained that they don’t have an association or network which enables them to organise collectively at the national level, so they’re left out of the response to the crisis. They are key actors, but they are not recognised as such and are not supported. It’s worth underlining that there are many things networks and associations can do in response to crises and I think the frame of the report, value, voice and collective impact is an interesting one – voice, because of course only network bodies are able to advocate on behalf of the sector, collective impact because they are in a position to build bridges to coordinate with other actors in making a response, especially at a time when we are rethinking the relationship between government and other actors in such situations, and value, because there are a number of services networks can provide to members – resources, data, giving them the space to feel united in some way and energised for action.

Endowments are just a tool and when the tool becomes the end, there is a problem

Among all of the above, there is one critical function I think networks can help fulfil: thought leadership. The unprecedented times also offer an opportunity to take a big leap forward towards greater impact, equity and accountability. Moving from toolkits to expertise, guidance and critical friendship is a trend we see and encourage especially in this new disrupted context. As I was saying earlier, the ecosystem is increasingly complex, there are new actors coming into it who are providing an increasing range of services and there’s a question of how much associations are going to need in the long term to provide those services like, for example, legal support, services which are very useful but maybe tomorrow, someone else can do it. Apps might solve that sooner than we think. What networks can most usefully do is more about collective impact and intelligence. It’s not just responding to a set of needs, it’s being more proactive and that’s where as networks, I believe that we need to start considering ourselves as agents of change with a vision. We are not neutral, we are not technical, which is why I don’t think the term infrastructure does justice to our field. We are not only serving, but we can also lead – or more accurately, we can make collective leadership emerge. Even if our main goal is to serve a group of organisations, we also need to take a stand, to be clear on the values that guide us and be ready to take some risks and to say things we think are critical, even if we have not been asked to say them up to now.

Actually, the theme of the WINGS Forum, scheduled for November, is about reimagining the role of philanthropy, how to put agency and trust at the centre, how to contribute to change at scale and to embrace systemic change. This is an area where we really feel there would be value-added for networks to collaborate.

Traditional dancers started the proceedings at WINGS Forum 2017. Photo credit: WINGS.

Talking about the Forum, many conferences have been cancelled this year because of the virus. Do you think it will be going ahead?
The chances that we’ll have to postpone WINGSForum are unfortunately growing every day. We’re giving ourselves a couple more weeks to decide. We are also working to reframe the event around the Covid-19 response and the post-COVID world. This is a natural development as our theme was already about imagining the society we want and the philanthropy we need to achieve it. If we have to postpone, we’ll propose another date for 2021. But whatever is decided, you can expect online activities and communications as we start building momentum and content with our members in the coming weeks and months.

Going back to what you were saying about the changing role of PSOs, it sounds like you’re seeing the balance between serving and leading tilting more in the direction of leading.
Yes, I see that happening and I think that’s what should happen. It’s not that services aren’t important, but we are facing a deep human crisis. We’re facing existential threats and we know that those threats are linked to our way of living, our economic model. Every actor needs to become more political and to embrace the intrinsic political dimension of the work that they do and to transform it into power to have more impact. In the case of networks, I think that translates into not just serving its field, but also challenging it and helping it to ask questions that need to be asked on the role of philanthropy and the kinds of social model that this philanthropy is supporting. Are we going to go back to the pre-crisis situation or try to build new foundations? At a philosophical level, that situation calls in question our way of life, what really matters, what we really need, and at what cost. Even if each philanthropy network is different, we can’t remain neutral and operate as pure conduits. Whenever and however we can, we have to push those questions. Let’s not be naïve, though. First, this is very sensitive and in some cases, board and parts of the constituency might oppose it. Second, we won’t align all funders behind this, and probably we should not even seek to but we cannot simply go back to business as usual without at least trying to generate debates on the way philanthropy operates and on the societal models we are encouraging. Some say networks need to be independent from grants to become sustainable. Maybe, to be provocative, should we say instead that we need to be independent from fees to step up to a new role. The new report also looks at business models and how they need to be assessed in defining value proposition and focus. Certainly, mixed and balanced revenue models can be a way to play our role both for members, for the broader field, and in the end, for the world we are living in.

Obviously, each actor defines its own positioning and role. Some will be more active in such collective reflections, others will put the focus on concrete collaboration, others on data, etc, and we absolutely need all this diversity according to the ecosystem idea that is dear to our heart. But all of us can in one way or another engage in reflection around core values and the type of society and philanthropy we stand for.

‘Build bridges with other sectors, especially government and engaging in concrete collaboration…’

You talked of existential threats and of course, there’s a huge one looming in the shape of climate change. Does the pandemic provide an opportunity to explore how PSOs should be mobilising to face that emergency?
We’re living through critical moments in our history and we need to react to them in a coordinated and effective fashion and if this pandemic helps galvanise the process of doing that, all the better. So, yes, I’m thinking about climate change, but I’m also thinking technology and about how it is not just deeply transforming our economies, but the whole way we live, the nature of our social relationships and possibly even what we define as human nature, and these changes are happening at a pace that does not allow for democratic debate or for reflection. Is it what people want or is it just what is happening? The current pandemic, in comparison with previous pandemics, so far at least, is not that severe, yet we see the impact it’s having on our economies and societies and it’s very likely that other, possibly worse pandemics will occur in the coming decades, so it definitely requires some reflection in terms of lessons learned. But COVID-19 and future viruses are linked to the way we live, to loss of biodiversity, to the type of globalisation we are seeing, which is synonymous with loss of sovereignty and agency, so I think it calls into question our economic models and whether we should be looking towards new forms of localisation of economic and democratic systems to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges as well as coping better with future outbreaks.

The first thing to do is to look at the whole ecosystem, see how we can add value, see how we can work in synergy with others, leave aside our own organisational lenses and priorities

To go back to the role of philanthropy networks and where we can make a difference – personally, I think it is in terms of collective intelligence and vision as I said earlier, but also in terms of collective impact. By that, I mean bringing actors together, building actual bridges with other sectors, especially government and engaging in concrete collaboration and this is another increasingly important role I see for networks, a role which is at the intersection of leading and serving.

If we look at the political landscape, people don’t automatically trust governments to find the answers to the structural issues we are facing, nor can markets provide the answers and though the philanthropy and civil society sector is small compared to those two, it has potentially a critical role in building the future of our societies. So that’s why I feel the current crisis creates momentum for all of us, no matter at what level we are working, to take this role even more seriously than in the past and to have this kind of big-picture perspective on where our future might lie.

So in a nutshell, the role of PSOs going forward is field leadership, visibility for the sector among policy-makers and the rest of society and fostering very material collaborations between philanthropic actors?
That’s both what I see emerging and what I hope to see happening. Unlocking our sector’s impact means helping it to engage in systems change – and we know that kind of approach takes collaboration and some form of advocacy.

There’s been debate about what the response of philanthropic institutions should be to the COVID crisis, with some choosing to increase their grantmaking in support of CSOs who are struggling to maintain themselves in the face of growing demand and limited supply, and others saying they won’t be increasing grantmaking because they need to defend their own assets, their own endowment for the future. What is your view of that?
First, it’s a debate that concerns only a fraction of the global philanthropy landscape because the endowed foundation is predominant in the USA and to a certain extent Europe, but it’s not the kind of question that is critical all over the world. But even in that segment, the endowment should not be the end and I would definitely support those who are encouraging philanthropy to spend now. Wealth creation is not about to stop and there will continue to be opportunities for wealth accumulation and redistribution. Endowments are just a tool and when the tool becomes the end, there is a problem. I was talking before about a sense of emergency and that means we need to think and work differently, and to me that includes spending more if we have an endowment.

On the three elements of the report, value, voice and impact, do you see anyone as more important than the rest or are they linked and inseparable?
I think the report emphasises that they are interconnected and there is an infinite number of ways in which you can balance them. There again, there is no fixed rule. It is linked to this ecosystem thinking and field-wide thinking. I think all the models are possible but the first thing to do is to look at the whole ecosystem, see how we can add value, see how we can work in synergy with others, leave aside our own organisational lenses and priorities and really think about the field’s needs first. That’s also something that the report highlights – the idea of mapping and of looking across the whole ecosystem and working in synergy. We see a lot of that actually growing with Philanthropy Advocacy in Europe, the joint initiative of DAFNE and EFC, and a number of other initiatives and that’s very positive and something that definitely needs to be encouraged. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about the services which networks and associations currently often provide, but it might be that others – consultants, think-tanks, etc – do in future instead, freeing some of the capacity of networks and associations to take a more ecosystem-wide view. It’s important that they define what balance they want between voice, value and collective impact and that they create that balance by considering themselves as part of an ecosystem.

Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance magazine


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