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How has the discourse around philanthropy shifted after the events of 2020?

Published Date: 15 February 2021

Introduction

Over the coming months, SIX will be sharing our tracking and interrogation of how the discourse around philanthropy has shifted, or not, after the profoundly impactful events of 2020. We are looking for themes that have been lost in the noise, and trends that have become louder; we are searching for signals about what has already gained, and what may still gain, traction and attention. We are examining, in a light touch way, what the implications of this might be for our funder friends in the SIX’s Funders Node and beyond.
 

January 2020 - Our collective anxiety was rising

 

Alternative Editorial’s Dare to dream up the 2020s set 2020 in the context of a previous decade full of economic and civic unrest: from the anti-cuts protests across Europe in 2010, to the Arab Spring against despotism and corruption, and Occupy Wall Street against the influence of corporate money in politics, rampant greed and inequality. Then in 2013, triggered by the murder of Michael Trayvon, Black Lives Matter grew quickly and furiously and fed a much broader and ongoing movement against white supremacy and colonisation.

In 2014, there was also the Umbrella Revolution which, over several years, continued to bring global attention to the creative activism of Hong Kong youth against China’s attempts to dictate policy and its treatment of dissidents. There was also the “instantly dubbed Latin American Spring” in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru and more riots in the USA in 2015 against police brutality, austerity and Donald Trump’s presidency. Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate drew 7.5 million people across the world, and soon after, Extinction Rebellion shut down the centre of London with their three demands on climate emergency.

What was interesting is how early Alternative Editorial’s piece could sense the collective angst: “our collective anxiety is rising…[we need] a new socio-economic system… a new matrix of human relationships that changes the effectiveness of the wider and grander system.” And although they - like many of us - started the new decade largely positive, they also emphasised the need to develop better coping skills and what they called “response abilities", in order to prepare for the unexpected and to catalyse lasting change.
 

Fair distribution of resources is a preventative not reactive measure

Another article we came across was in the Guardian, and it talked about charities being crowded in affluent areas instead of where they are needed. This was based on a report published by the think tank, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) in the UK, which echoed Alternative Editorial in calling for a critical redistribution of resources.

The “North-South charity deficit” meant that fewer charities are established in poorer areas and also less likely to survive beyond the short term. Local civil society groups were already struggling to keep pace with spiralling demand because of declining public funding and an overconcentration of investment in physical infrastructure. 

Given how COVID-19 panned out across the UK, killing proportionately more people in the North than in the rest of England, this article was once again a clarion call for challenges to come. These were charities, clubs and communities that were dealing with hard and complex issues like poverty, mental health and social care - the very issues that this pandemic only worsened. 
 

Power balance is shifting - local response reigns supreme

In late 2020, the North-South power balance was questioned on a global scale too, with a report by the Cambridge Judge Business School’s (CJBS) entitled, Philanthropy and COVID-19: Is the North-South Power Balance Finally Shifting? The report referenced a famous sociologist, Erving Goffman, who asserted that the best time to understand social life is when it faces disruption.

As a precursor, CJBS highlighted “a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo” in global philanthropy - tensions which had no doubt been simmering just below the surface for decades. Yet even though the pandemic clearly demonstrated that health is an issue best addressed by those with deep local knowledge, it remained difficult to localise the decisions, methods, parameters and language around response, given that a large concentration of funding comes from Global North funders. 

With global portfolios “shifting the majority of funding to local [US] issues… [or] drying up”, the report recommended that global philanthropy would be better placed to build resilience in the Global South by funding core costs, supporting networks to improve infrastructure, building capacity and knowledge, and fostering partnerships between Global South governments and philanthropists. 

Our concept of giving is changing

Both of these North-South reports (in UK and global philanthropy) emphasised that “giving” looks different in different parts of the world, so funders need to better appreciate “how social impact institutions can look very different in [different] countries and how we can support them in their own image rather than in our own.” 

Which leads us onto another article, ‘Giving is changing as philanthropy faces more scrutiny, this time by the editor of Philanthropy and Nonprofits at the Conversation. The author is mainly focusing on the USA here, but also notes that globally there has been a growing interest in philanthropy outside of the nonprofit sector “with businesses, but also governments increasingly opening up liaison offices to deal with or engage with private philanthropists at the same time.”

Our sense of individual and collective responsibility is shifting

As our welfare states have come under pressure, and news coverage and debate was giving more attention to philanthropy, and as access to information grew, so did demand not just for support, but for answers, for accountability and transparency. At one point, the author notes that giving used to be considered a fundamental expression of civic duty and solidarity: “we used to be confident that more Americans gave than voted, but right now it’s probably close and we may not be able to say that any more. I think that’s worrisome.”

Of course, the relationship of philanthropy to democracy is a long debated one (CAF Giving Thought has a great episode on this). Plus democracy is itself one outcome of healthy and functioning public, private and independent sectors. But the efforts of those with wealth and power to help rehabilitate, fill the gaps of, and even strengthen the democractic process remain centre stage in 2021, even in parts of the world where democracy was seen as a pillar.

Many countries on the global stage have publicly grappled with “record wealth inequality, voter suppression, legislative stalemates, outright corruption and threats to the rule of law…” (and that’s just the United States). The reason why this is philanthropy’s concern should not need to be stated: these phenomena create tears in the social fabric… collective atmospheres of mistrust, disinformation, and disengagement. As SSIR’s article in January 2021 pointed out, it’s not about being partisan, or influencing outcomes, “it’s about ensuring that the system is more representative of all… by giving citizens equal access to the political process and ensuring our media and government institutions function well.

Standing on the threshold

One of a flurry of reports published in 2020 around the need for systems change was Ashoka’s report on ‘Embracing complexity: Towards a shared understanding of funding systems change’. This report stated that to create true and lasting change, we need to fundamentally reimagine our systems, and more importantly, ourselves as individuals within these systems. As the challenges of 2020 took hold, redesigning our systems and the role of foundations went again backstage, but in the following months of 2020, we all grappled with the immediate challenges of keeping ourselves afloat, as individuals and as organisations supporting communities through the crisis.

As the report clearly states, “we stand on the threshold of an epochal decade, [and now] we are confronted with an urgent need to find, fund, and support transformative solutions at a far greater pace than ever.”

Lines in Potentis

Indeed, Ben Okri, the Nigerian poet and novelist, describes this well in his poem “Lines in Potentis”, which is plastered along the walls of City Hall, here in London:

“history, though unjust,
Can yield wiser outcomes…

...Tell everyone that the future
Is yet unmade.”