Provocations: Living in turbulent times and re–centring the conversation

As COVID-19 started to take hold of countries and regions around the world, we began a comprehensive global scan exploring the most innovative ways in which philanthropic organisations around the world have been pivoting in order to support grantees and communities now and in the future.

These provocations are rooted in the insights and perspectives of over 30 foundations who participated in a reflective global exchange, less about what they were doing, and more about how they were doing it.


Context – Living in turbulent times and recentring the conversation

There has long been talk about the second decade of the 21st century being one characterised by upheaval, and the massive impact of Covid 19 is a powerful example of that disruption. But it’s not alone. From bush fires in Australia, and earthquakes in New Zealand, to economic volatility, persecution of minorities, the uprisings of oppressed people, the impact of the climate emergency, and risks of both more global pandemics and cyber-attacks – it is no exaggeration to say that this decade is already showing both the interconnectedness of our world, and the way in which disruption and volatility affects everything we do – how we operate, how we fund, what we prioritise.  

There are parts of the world that are more accustomed to upheaval, and crisis. The operation of philanthropy in Australia had already been profoundly affected by the impact of the fires at the start of the year. So too philanthropy in more marginal places in the global dialogue, like New Zealand, has particular lessons for foundations newly grappling with uncertainty, crisis, transition and renewal. And doing so at pace and in challenging circumstances. The ways in which philanthropy operates in the global South has lessons for foundations in the North as they start to understand their reaction to crises, and their capacity to cope with sudden change. This calls for a new conversation – with learning from parts of the world with more experience of change.

For most of us in the global North, this triple crisis of a health emergency, followed swiftly by deep economic recession, and resulting social division, is our first experience of change at this scale in over fifty years. While countries have, of course, experienced appalling natural disasters – tsunamis, fires, earthquakes and drought – and others have grappled with the horrors of civil war, sudden regime change, state sponsored brutality and genocide – the scale of this year has been deeply shocking and has forced all organisations  – market, state or charitable – to rethink. 

This re-think is happening at a time of big change anyway for philanthropy. Philanthropic foundations, the supportive infrastructure in so many countries, have been joined by – and in many cases challenged by – individual philanthropists using their own assets for their contribution to public good. At the same time, digital platforms have been developed allowing and enabling more populist forms of philanthropy and rapid fundraising for causes, individuals and activities. As the supply of philanthropic funds has grown, so too have challenges to the ways in which philanthropy operates, with a growing focus on the need for more participatory approaches to decision making, more collaboration between funding sources and more place-based funding. Lively debates are happening across philanthropy. And of course at a time of economic volatility, many are grappling with big strategic choices about the future of their endowment, and their rate of expenditure.

A global scan looking at how foundations across the word have responded could not be more timely, or more urgent.

To sudden change

Sudden change is nothing new for philanthropy, even if the scale and breadth of this shock is the greatest since the end of the Second World War inside and around Europe. There have been other occasions when philanthropy has had to recalibrate, think differently, and contribute in novel ways. Indeed, the origins of much philanthropic endeavour can be traced to upheaval and challenge.

In the UK there are two established mechanisms for responding to major crises. The Disasters Emergency Committee, formed by 14 leading UK charities is able to raise funds collectively, enabling member charities to scale up their operations where needed. Carefully developed criteria help the Disasters Emergency Committee to determine when to launch an appeal. The second mechanism, which is newer, the National Emergencies Trust, was established after the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, but now sees its purpose as responding to the urgent and immediate needs after any domestic disaster. 

When looking at several interventions, whether recent or historic, it is possible to identify some threads which inform the best possible response to our current state.

  • They used the power of pooled funds both to expand the sums available and the expertise to allocate them, and to provide some protection for the individual donors. 
  • They harnessed particular expertise and insight recognising that this was not automatically available.
  • They created new vehicles, with independent identity, to build trust, and also to protect the originating donors.

We’re all about to face a decade of deep uncertainty which will require different behaviours and thinking, amongst foundations and amongst us all. Based on more than 30 interviews for the global scan on philanthropic responses to COVID-19 and its effects, we have drawn out the additional themes that may inform thinking and provoke new ways of working.

Provocation 1: Funding for Resilience

The pandemic and its impact have revealed in horrifying clarity the lack of resilience hard wired into most of our institutions. The charitable and civil society organisations largely supported by philanthropy have demonstrated the fragility of their business models, in just the same way as so many commercial and state-run institutions. The challenge to philanthropy is how to adapt and design support so that it offers more resilience and more certainty in deeply uncertain times.

In building for resilience foundations are challenged to think about: 

  • Their own management of endowed funds, and the way in which they ensure that those funds are available in uncertain times. The ability of foundations to invest counter-cyclically is an important one, and investment decisions determine that capability. 
  • Grantmaking for resilience recognising that the practice and processes of grant-making directly influence the resilience of the funded organisations. The treatment of free reserves, the assessment of overhead costs, and the ways in which organisations are given space to plan and prepare are all part of building, or diminishing the resilience of the funded bodies
  • Readiness for crisis and emergency a focus on resilience requires a state of readiness, with tested plans and triggers. Some foundations who have already had to respond to emergency may have been quicker and more robust in their response to the pandemic. While there are challenges in being ready for any crisis, there are principles, and these go beyond the existing business continuity plans of most organisations.

Provocation 2: Revising Behaviours and practices

The behaviours and practices needed for an uncertain future include foresight and planning, the acquisition and interpretation of both data and less certain signals, and above all a set of tools which can be deployed. They also require an understanding of partnership and collaboration, alongside metrics on trigger levels. 

This can be a challenge for organisations established in a more settled environment with their own working practices, decision making frameworks and strategic priorities. It can also require different internal processes and new and different skill sets. 

  • Processes, and the design of processes, matter. They are designed to make possible the intent of the foundation. And yet at a time of rapid change they may need to operate differently. They still need to allow for proper assessment, and for due diligence, but they may need to operate much faster, and with correspondingly less assurance. This is challenging for institutions and unless processes are amended to deal with uncertainty, foundations will not achieve their objectives. Too often new approaches have been imposed on old processes – and so the desired outcomes have not been achieved. 
  • Skills within foundations. Skills held within foundations will normally align over time with the purpose of the foundation. Getting ready for uncertainty and for crisis may require different skill sets. Skills in gathering intelligence, spotting trends, making rapid interventions, building close links may be different from the skill set of assessment, evaluation and monitoring. Foundations planning for uncertainty may need to amend or complement the skills they hold – otherwise, they may not be able to operate in the ways in which they wish. For philanthropic organisations, delivery is always partly intent, but new approaches to delivery require more than intent – they also require strategic insight, a different calibration of risk, and probably different networks of intelligence. 
  • Strategy is a map not a set of instructions. In the last 20 years or so it has become increasingly common for philanthropic bodies to devise strategies, specify outcomes and have a settled sense of what they want to achieve with their funding. The old model of simply reacting to proposals as they arrive is seen as less effective and having lower impact. It has stood foundations in good stead, and has been reflected in strategic plans, objective setting and an assessment of impact. But in uncertain times these strategies need to flex, values become decision-making tools and knowing what the foundation started for becomes a guide and an anchor in times of rapid change. Do foundations have the tools with which to do this? Will they lose the impact for which they have planned? Or will they continue to pursue particular objectives and hope to see them realised differently in challenging times?

Provocation 3: Finding a role in the ecosystem

Many foundations have spent a lot of time in more stable circumstances seeking to understand their role and their place in the ecosystem of funding. The place identified will be partly a product of history, and experience, the preferences of trustees and senior staff, and will, increasingly, be identified through some sort of strategic plan. Foundations with clarity about their place in the universe of funders – will be better partners, able to respond to rapid change and new demands. 

When the world changes, however, these placings and roles change too. 

We’ve identified three broad categories of activity that foundations have adopted, and we’ve reflected on these categories through the lens of power: 

  • The first responder – moving rapidly to meet emergency needs, and using funding, as well as experience and networks to ensure that there is support when it is needed. Can first responders work in a way that shifts power? Can they operate in radical ways? What do they learn from this activity? How is that learning captured at a time of fast change? And how do they share this learning with peers who may wish to respond at a slower pace whilst building on the learnings (and mistakes) of the first responders who went before them?
  • The stabiliser – protecting and ensuring the survival of organisations otherwise at great risk. Doing so in a way that ensures continued capacity. Can stabilisers support networks and movements as well as they support institutions? How do they ensure that stabilising does not protect only those that are already privileged and known by the funder? We recognise the role of informal mutual aid as engines of social solidarity and yet many philanthropic organisations will not have easy ways of providing funding for them. Equally, while recognising the value of new and emergent networks, some funders will not have the tools with which to assess, and then transfer funds, even while they recognise the importance of providing some stability.
  • The visionary rebuilder – ensuring that there is money and space to plan for a future, focusing on recovery and re-design, allowing people to imagine and design new and different ways of doing things.  Can rebuilders time their interventions right? During a crisis there is little space for people to think ahead, but if the thinking isn’t done well, old habits and ways of doing business are likely to surface quickly. What is the role of philanthropy infrastructure in enabling visionaries to use their funding, knowledge and power to convene to enable voices that are frequently unheard to have a platform? Or do they risk entrenching the inequality that enables those with leisure and some safety from the immediate crisis to lead the planning and rebuilding?


Global crises will affect foundations and other philanthropists differently, but what is not in doubt is that these changes will affect them, and the organisations they support. There is knowledge across the world about the role of philanthropy both in the immediate response to crisis, and in supporting the recovery and the renewal that is essential. COVID19 has thrown into stark relief many of the inequalities and divisions in society. It has shown the best of community and social response, and the worst. For philanthropic foundations, struggling to adapt to life in a more volatile, more confusing environment, learning from others who have been there before provides a rich source of advice, thinking and experience. This global scan brings together experience from across the world – for foundations in the global north there is a great deal to learn from those foundations that have already faced great volatility and social change.