I generally agree with Julian Corner’s article on the relationship between systems change and philanthropy (Alliance, March 2019). Philanthropy is indeed in a unique position to support changing the system by virtue of its independence, flexibility and longevity. However, just because it can, doesn’t mean that it will.
The crux of Corner’s argument lies in philanthropy’s ability to have a longer time horizon for intended impacts, by virtue of its limited accountability to other stakeholders. This ability is limited only by its legal charter and social compact with the community within which it is established. However, the extent to which philanthropy can and will want to change the system is mainly a function of whether doing so will tangibly uphold its social compact. Traditionally, foundations tend to not bite the hand that feeds them and will try to mirror, catalyse and complement funding support from the public and private sectors. Rocking the boat tends to be seen as an approach of last resort.
That said, Corner’s article highlights that rocking the boat is precisely what philanthropy should also include in its funding toolkit to increase its impact in a polarising world and where civic trust is declining. As such, I believe the crucial thing is for philanthropy to acknowledge this changed social landscape, to walk the tightrope between what’s needed to be done and what’s permissible, and to act accordingly.