We engage, we learn, we share: Benjamin Bellegy, WINGS

Alliance in collaboration with WINGS has been commissioned by Propel Philanthropy to conduct a 10 part interview series on the work of Social Impact Infrastructure Organisations and the benefits they bring to the sector. Over the course of the coming weeks, these interviews will be published here and we begin the series with a conversation with Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director of WINGS.

AM: Benjamin, obviously, WINGS is a network body. What do you tell people when they ask you what you do?

BB: WINGS is a unique and I would say a critical piece of the philanthropy ecosystem globally, in the sense that it’s the only network that, at the global level, brings together all sorts of actors that are helping the philanthropic and giving sector to grow, to be more collaborative, to be more transformative. We also have a unique and very diverse constituency because we cover the entire spectrum of philanthropy. Some of our members are supporting retail philanthropy, some are supporting grassroots community philanthropy, and we have others helping corporate philanthropy, family philanthropy. They each have different perspectives on the sector and how to create change. Geographically, we have more than 200 members based in 60 countries, but because we are a network of networks and other field builders, who we also indirectly represent and reach more than 100,000 foundations and philanthropy actors across the globe. That is potentially very powerful in terms of how we influence our own sector, how we ignite collaboration within it and with other actors including governments.

And how do you describe yourselves?

Definitely a network, but not a service-based or contractual organisation. We really see ourselves as changemakers, and we work with our members to create change in different areas including policy advocacy, thought leadership and building ecosystems.

You talked about your broad constituency. What are the challenges of managing the expectations of that range of members? 

When we engage with potential members, we try to explain clearly the idea of WINGS as a platform, an orchestrator, a movement builder. We engage, we learn, we share. As I said, we’re not a service organisation where you are mainly focused on delivering a series of benefits and going wherever there is service demand. Although we of course offer a range of concrete benefits to our members such as global visibility and communications support, facilitated connections within the network, or access to scholarships, among others, it’s a different offer. The first benefit is really the ability to shape the global agenda, to collaborate with others towards a change agenda. Among the range of members, there are foundation networks of all sorts, online giving platforms, academic centres, individual foundations, big and small, interested in building the sector, so obviously we cannot remain narrowly focused on that service provider role. What we can do is connect them and create change together. So far it’s working well. We’ve been growing substantially in the past few years and the diversity has increased even more. We’ve created sub-groups on different issues so our members can also come together on particular interests. Some of these groups are ongoing and others are more like task forces working on specific publications, research or on a specific international event like COP. There are many different opportunities for members to really focus on what they care about. They don’t necessarily need to engage in everything.

If someone asks you what your main work and aims are, is there a simple answer?

I think there is, and that’s growing philanthropy and making it more effective and transformative around the world. But more specifically, we design our work around three key areas of impact which correspond to the three big challenges we all face. If we want to really create deeper change, we think philanthropy should not remain simply a sector that fills gaps left by government or market, but actually helps trigger transformation. If we want that to happen, we need to influence the norms that shape the practice of philanthropy around the world. The new Philanthropy Transformation initiative and the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement are part of this effort. The second area for unlocking the potential of philanthropy is talking to other actors, especially governments. We see a growing trend of shrinking civic space. The sector is ill-equipped to address that and to push back against it. We believe, on the positive side, there is an untapped potential for collaboration between philanthropy and government which would have an incredible impact if we were able to influence policy to a greater degree, because that’s where the levers for social change at scale are. We want to create more collaboration with government, and to ask them to create favourable conditions for philanthropy to be able to contribute to their agendas, to the SDGs and so on. So the first area of impact is influencing ourselves, the second is influencing other actors, especially policy-makers, and the third is building ecosystems. It’s more transversal and it’s linked to our DNA as a network of field builders. The idea is to focus some interventions on specific regions and countries, especially in the global south, to bring more investment to local philanthropy support ecosystems to generate and harness private resources for local civil society and bottom up development. Almost nobody is investing in these local ecosystems, so we’re starting to create mapping projects and engage partners on the ground to generate more synergies and more support for those ecosystems. I say that’s transversal because, if we want effective collaboration within our sector, more progressive norms, if we want better regulation, etc, we need organisations who are going to do that on behalf of the sector, and of course we need investment for them to do it.

We now prefer to talk about a support ecosystem rather than a static infrastructure, as it better captures this diversity of players and the need for them to collaborate.

It seems to me there’s been a step up in WINGS’ ambition in the last few years.

We have definitely repositioned WINGS as a changemaker rather than as simply a space for grantmaker associations to learn from each other and do a bit of capacity-building. I think that the change comes from the acknowledgement of the global situation which requires all actors including networks to rethink their role in a more intentional and more values-led way, and to try to leverage all our assets to create change. In the case of WINGS, there is this incredible network covering the entire spectrum of philanthropy, so there was almost a duty for us to do more than we were doing. So we became the collective voice for philanthropy at the global level, which was a role nobody was playing, because there was a crying need. We also linked advocacy for investments in the field’s infrastructure to the global debates around localisation and were successful in promoting the idea among development funders that if we want bottom-up  development, we also need to localise funding and resources. So we developed all these areas of works because we see there is a huge need, and a fantastic potential within this network. These past few years have been very much focused on laying the foundation for that, and now we just launched a new strategy. The next phase is to consolidate our impact and we’re trying to find partners to help us deliver on all these big goals with our members.

WINGS has always been the network of networks. Is that still its bedrock constituency?

Yes, but we have also diversified a lot because our understanding of the infrastructure for philanthropy has diversified a lot, with non-traditional players playing a critical role – social media or even private family offices and other types of players are critical enablers for giving and for philanthropy, so we’ve tried to be agnostic in terms of who could join as long as they are about building the field. We also encourage funders to join us – foundations, rather than just networks – who are curious and interested in field building. The main idea is to bring together all the field builders and influencers and the catalysts of change in the sector. And that’s why we now prefer to talk about a support ecosystem rather than a static infrastructure, as it better captures this diversity of players and the need for them to collaborate.

Do you see that as your most important contribution?

Yes, that’s our DNA and that’s theway we work. At the moment in philanthropy, everything is very siloed. We’re trying to influence the norms and the practices bringing together a task force of our members to combine their knowledge and  their perspective, then we advocate together, everyone at their own level and as we’re doing that, we’re building the field at the same time. It’s both an end and the means to change.

You talked about being the representative body for philanthropy. Do you consciously see yourselves as an organisation that can get around a table with say, the UN, or government bodies?

Yes, absolutely, that’s what we’ve been doing for a few years and we’re now in position to strengthen that, because we have just signed a framework partnership agreement with the European Union. It’s going to support a lot of our work and it has helped us build the capacity internally to play this role. We are already present in different spaces at the UN, the EU, the OECD, through our member Philea at the Financial Action Task Force, among others. We start to be invited by governments to provide advice on how to create an more conducive environment for the field. Even more importantly, as well as representing the sector globally, we’re helping our members to do their own advocacy, because most of the policies and regulations for philanthropy and the partnerships that can happen between government and philanthropy are at the national level, rather than global. So when we say, we’re at the global level, it means our members are because we bring delegations so that we really can reflect their different perspectives in these spaces. That’s already the case, but it’s just a start. We need to reinforce that because there’s massive potential to leverage philanthropic money, which is very small, to influence governments who can create a difference in society at a much greater scale than philanthropy can.

Was the ability to engage with governments the main missing piece of the puzzle for philanthropy?

Most foundations are focused on their specific areas of work, they often lack both the incentives and the support ecosystem to engage with their governments. Growing this culture of collaboration and building the ecosystem for that to happen both locally, nationally, regionally and globally will open incredibly exciting opportunities for our sector. For instance in Kenya, the creation of a SDG Partnership Platform has helped coordinate efforts from business, philanthropy, development funders and government and generated a pipeline of funding of more than 150 million USD in just 3 years.

Our most pressing problems – climate change, inequality – how do you support your members to address them and how effective do you think that support is?

One of the newest things that WINGS has engaged in is trying to build global movements to influence our field’s norms and practices, through the Philanthropy Transformation Initiative and the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement I mentioned earlier. There has been a lot of reflection and constructive criticism of the sector for many years, but there was no place where it all comes together. You have people working on trust-based philanthropy, on impact investing and how to use and leverage resources differently, and on many other cutting edge issues, and we believe something needs to be done to bring all that wisdom together – good practices, frameworks, tools, data –  and make it easier to access for the mainstream sector and not just for small circles of convinced funders. That’s what the Philanthropy Transformation initiative is for and that’s also going to be the focus of WINGSForum in Nairobi in October this year. Through these kinds of initiatives, we’re able to help our members embrace big issues in a more structured and sustained way and that’s urgently needed because we have a global polycrisis to deal with– climate, geopolitical instability, biodiversity extinction, etc., all rooted in our economic and governance models – and we can’t continue with ‘philanthropy as usual’. These are existential threats which should trigger a realisation that we can’t just incrementally improve the effectiveness of our interventions, we need to deeply rethink and have more of an all-hands-on-deck approach. As I heard it once from Sanjay Purohit from Societal Thinking, we can’t fight the multiplication of issues with the addition of solutions. That’s also true for networks and support organisations. We have the power to push our sector to embrace issues like inequality and inequity, economic models, the climate emergency or the massive risks of exponential technological advancement and we should leverage it.

We’re stuck in an old-fashioned way of thinking about infrastructure as a group of organisations that deliver services, but it’s much more than that. It’s able to create more and better resources across the board.. It’s able to fully unlock the potential of philanthropy.

You talk about being a changemaker, but WINGS is a long way from the ground. Is it frustrating that you can’t be more directly involved?

Well, … where is the ground? I think the ground is everywhere, the ground is people and we are about changing people. Of course the kind of change we’re able to bring is different from that of an NGO when they build a school in a specific location for instance, but the potential impact is enormous. There’s an incredible multiplier effect working through networks. It’s true that it’s challenging to harness, but that’s because we’re not used to collaborating. You need time, you need people to build global movements, to influence others, to partner with government, etc. and the investment for that’s lacking. It’s really exciting to see how we can work with umbrella bodies and have that ripple effect over an entire sector, but we need to find ways to make that impact more visible to a broader audience because it’s really important.

In your time at WINGS, which of the initiatives that you have been involved with do you see as being the most successful?

One of them is the climate movement that was launched by Philea and a number of national networks in Europe, then WINGS supported them to take it global. I think that’s a successful initiative, although it’s still at the beginning. 634 foundations have already signed the climate commitment and we are starting to build a community to share and document practices, and to monitor how those who sign evolve in their practice. And we’ve started bringing together philanthropy at global events on climate such as COP. Forty-four networks were engaged in developing the international commitment, so that’s potentially really powerful in terms of influencing the field. But how do we make it stronger in the global south, in emerging economies? That will take investment and supporting networks in these countries. We’ve also significantly contributed to elevating the importance of the philanthropy support ecosystem in the global development space. We’re in discussions with USAID, the European Union, the French Development Agency and other major development players who are very interested in the idea to invest in a strong local infrastructure that can harness local giving and philanthropy for bottom up development. We published a policy paper on localisation and the potential of such ecosystems, or infrastructure, to generate more and better resources on the ground. We’re already seeing that work translated into action through the partnership with the EU I mentioned earlier.

One of the things that the sector struggles with is measurement of effectiveness. Is that particularly the case for WINGS?

There’s definitely a need for more. The starting point for us as philanthropy support organisations is to shift our mindset about our role. For a long time, we were focussed on the needs of our clients and constituencies and we haven’t learned so well how to think of impact and to articulate and evaluate it. So the first thing is that we need to consider ourselves as impact organisations that are here to make things move and, based on that, to define our own indicators of change. In our case, it’s collective impact. It’s not about attribution, it’s about contribution, and it’s also long term. Policy change, for example, can take years. With DAFNE, we developed the 4Cs framework a few years ago and its purpose is to help these kind of organisations articulate and assess their impact around four areas – connection, capacity, capability and credibility. We have also tried to document that impact, so we’ve done country case studies for Kenya, India and Russia to better highlight what kind of impact the sector is having. When it comes to WINGS specifically, a lot of what we’ve done in the past few years was laying the foundations, because being the global collective voice for our field and helping governments create a favourable environment, for instance, started only two or three years ago. It will take some time to consolidate our action in these new areas and be able to measure policy change or ecosystems growth and impact, but that’s the goal. Measuring impact is very intentional in our new strategy which was just launched. It elevates evidence-based approaches, data, organisational strengthening and accountability as central to the achievement of our mission.

You mentioned a couple of initiatives that you saw as successful. What do you think are the elements that made them successful?

Every initiative is different. I think collaboration has been key, because these initiatives have not been a single move by a small group of people called the WINGS team, but an articulated effort of different organisations working together. #PhilanthropyForClimate is a great example of that. So collaboration is one of the key ingredients. It also takes vision and ambition and going beyond the status quo. No-one has asked WINGS to build a collective voice for the sector. It wasn’t a question of thinking what is the most obvious thing for my organisation to do, but what is the most crying need and is there something my organisation could do to address that? In terms of field needs, we need to think big, and then figure out how we can work together with others to fill these gaps.

Which of your initiatives do you see as having been least successful?

I don’t know if I could point to one initiative because whatever we do and whether our initial targets are fully reached or not, we contribute to building the field and there are always some unexpected outcomes. I think in some cases, change has been too slow. It’s sometimes been difficult to engage organisations as we’d like, it’s been challenging to resource some of the projects and if you don’t have the right level of investment, we can’t really make change happen at scale. In most cases, it’s about phasing out and recalibrating expectations and thinking: ‘okay, we made some progress, maybe not as tangible as we wanted. Now we need to think about a second phase and adjust.’ That would be the case for the new pilots we started in East and West Africa in the past year and a half, which has been a really exciting process of mapping the philanthropy support ecosystem in these regions with Trust Africa and East Africa Philanthropy Network. We’ve learned a lot. For instance, what we imagined initially as being the ecosystem for philanthropy was even broader than we thought. It has also generated awareness and momentum on this issue. Now, it will take more research and engagement to figure out what’s needed to fill gaps in the ecosystem – maybe it’s a giving platform for the diaspora here or a network to work on advocacy there. We have some of that in the initial roadmaps but we can see that it will take more time to get to operational plans and to attracting domestic funding to implement them, which is one of our key goals.

It’s very often the case that funders are reluctant to support infrastructure organisations. What would you pass on to them from your experience to help them understand what kind of an impact infrastructure organisations have?

One of the key messages of the Philanthropy Transformation initiative is that the whole sector needs a mindset shift from seeing us as “achievers”, to seeing us as enablers. We still have the mindset that we are organisation X and we’re going to deliver Y. As an enabler, you aren’t attributing change to yourself alone, you understand that you’re contributing to a much broader change and that you’re not going to have full control over it. But the counterpart is that you will have a much greater impact because there will be a multiplier effect. As said earlier, global issues are growing exponentially, but the solutions and the way we define roles are additive. We’re not going to address the global polycrisis in time if we keep working like this. We need to move to a multiplier mindset and that takes investing in networks, trusting others, taking risks, building bridges with markets and with government or helping social movements. That’s how we can generate the kind of change that the world needs now. Once we’ve had that mindset shift and we can start supporting in new ways, we will see that we can contribute to powerful change. I like to give the example of Giving Tuesday, because it’s very tangible. Gates has been one of the very few donors to invest in this campaign since it’s early days. With relatively limited amounts invested in this innovative campaign that leverages the power of movements and social media, they have enabled the generation of billions and billions of dollars of support to civil society in the US and around the world. From a funder ‘return on investment’ perspective it is absolutely massive! We’re stuck in an old-fashioned way of thinking about infrastructure as a group of organisations that deliver services, but it’s much more than that. It’s able to create more and better resources across the board.. It’s able to fully unlock the potential of philanthropy. Let’s take the example of Covid-19. It was very clear that the countries that had a strong philanthropy infrastructure were able to advocate for the sector to be included in the response from the government. In countries that did not have such an infrastructure, such as India for instance, philanthropy was often left out, and sometimes even hindered in its operations and wasn’t able to play its role in responding. So it’s not just something good to have, it’s critical and can generate change that can transform societies, because if you have a strong ecosystem, that means you can foster giving at all levels of society and strengthen the social fabric of that society

Do you see support organisations having their own particular challenges that perhaps aren’t visible from the outside?

As we said earlier, the kind of impact we have is long-term and collective, and sometimes less tangible. That’s a common challenge to all of us. Others are specific to the kind of organisation you are. One of the challenges and one of the beauties of WINGS is its global nature. We have a global team and board and of course, our members themselves are scattered across the globe. That’s incredibly rich. Of course it’s also challenging because bringing people together in person is really important to create change. With the pandemic, we learned how to do it remotely, so that’s good, but still we have the challenge of making sure that everything we do continues to speak to all these constituencies in all these different contexts. I know a lot of our members have to deal with complexity at their own level, sometimes in terms of diverging expectations and political views within their constituencies.

Generally speaking, our field tends to be to be slow to move and the world we live in does not allow for that any more

What’s your biggest source of satisfaction from your work at WINGS?

Having been able to work with the members and with the board, with our partners to redefine WINGS and to position ourselves as a much more values- and change-driven organisation than we were. That’s something that I’m really happy to have been part of. It’s also been exciting to be able to grow and diversify the network in this way and to start reaching beyond traditional circles of infrastructure organisations and to create new, really important alliances and partnerships, such as that we have with the European Union, and having the WINGS network being recognised as the legitimate and collective voice for philanthropy globally. What we’re going to do next on this front is provide technical assistance to governments on how to create enabling policies for the field and how to partner with us. If we’re able to create a group of champions among government and administrations, and we’re able to work with them to create favourable environments, that will complement very well the work we do to support our members on the ground and that can really have a great impact. So, that’s a source of excitement. The Philanthropy Transformation initiative is another thing I’m proud of as it reflects the wisdom and perspectives from all kinds of philanthropies in all regions of the world on where our field should go to multiply its impact. We’re now able to source inspiration and examples beyond the usual centres of influence which are traditionally located in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is critical if we want to reinvent ourselves as a global field, something which I believe is urgently needed.

Turning that around, what’s your biggest disappointment?

I don’t really have a disappointment. There are frustrations that things don’t move as fast as we hoped. Generally speaking, our field tends to be to be slow to move and the world we live in does not allow for that any more. We need to do everything we can to change very quickly to multiply our impact and to help transform society.

In addition to this article series, Propel Philanthropy collects stories demonstrating that modest grants can drive but results. You can learn more here.

Andrew Milner is special features editor at Alliance magazine

Comments (3)

Beth Garry

Thank you for this informative interview. I look forward to reading the other interviews in this series. In my opinion, the members and leaders at the Network of Engaged International Donors have set a remarkable, but achievable standard for global philanthropy.

Peter Brach

Catherine, I love your presentation of a vision that can inspire all of us. And with that vision comes a recognition that to get from 600 organizations pledging to take action on climate change to 100,000, it will involve funders investing in WINGS's infrastructure and programs. That is how some of the largest changes we want to see will happen. (My response is part of Propel Philanthropy's Collaborative Media Campaign to increase awareness and appreciation for social impact infrastructure organizations.)

Ina Breuer

I love the way Benjamin and WINGS is supporting and connecting philanthropy actors world-wide and the new vision for WINGS through the transformation initiative articulated here. Benjamin articulates something very important here about the role of social impact support organizations such as WINGS and NEID Global (Network of Engaged International Donors), namely that our role is not just one of service support to donor but of supporting and facilitating change. As organizations we need to understand ourselves as change makers that support and eco system of actors to collectively address important issues adopt new norms and act in new ways when needed. This is the key quote I take from the article: ".....the whole sector needs a mindset shift from seeing us as “achievers”, to seeing us as enablers. We still have the mindset that we are organisation X and we’re going to deliver Y. As an enabler, you aren’t attributing change to yourself alone, you understand that you’re contributing to a much broader change and that you’re not going to have full control over it. But the counterpart is that you will have a much greater impact because there will be a multiplier effect. As said earlier, global issues are growing exponentially, but the solutions and the way we define roles are additive. We’re not going to address the global polycrisis in time if we keep working like this. We need to move to a multiplier mindset and that takes investing in networks, trusting others, taking risks, building bridges with markets and with government or helping social movements. That’s how we can generate the kind of change that the world needs now."

Catherine Brown

I very much enjoyed reading this article. Benjamin is doing great things at WINGS and I love the fresh approach to the role of philanthropic networks. Being enablers, leading initiatives, speeding things up. Imagine if the network of networks of 100,000 foundations all committed to working collaboratively on achieving a climate resilient and inclusive world. Then governments would sit up! For example, Philanthropy for Climate is an opportunity for everyone to get involved.

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