Why philanthropists need to be brave again
A focus on short-term, measurable outcomes has resulted in conservative giving that favours the status quo. To bring about real change philanthropists need to focus on values – and be courageous
Nelson and Winnie Mandela in London, 1994
Take a moment to think of the figure from history who has most inspired you. Think about the way they behaved, the ideas they believed in, the bravery and leadership they showed. If they were out fundraising from philanthropists and foundations, would they be successful? I’m afraid the answer is likely to be no.
Can you imagine foundations lining up to fund the protests of the suffragettes? The group that may well have done more than any other in history for women’s rights in the UK would have failed at the first hurdle.
When Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison he wasn’t seeking money to help run programmes for victims of discrimination, he was trying to transform the national system of Apartheid. Would he have sat through a three-phase application process, and a meeting with trustees, before undergoing due diligence? I think he was too busy for that.
Again, much of the work of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, such as the hard years of civil society building, would have been seen as "overheads". As neither figure delivered an outcome within a three-year window they too would have had their applications tossed out.
Over the past 30 years we have seen charities attacked as inefficient, duplicative and unprofessional. The criticism has led to a number of well-intentioned models of giving that involve analysing charity "overheads", numbers of people served and quality of performance management.
Philanthropy can lose sight of how change happens
In making these changes, sight has been lost on how change happens in the world. Ask a group of young philanthropists who has most inspired them over history and they will cite the names mentioned above. Ask them what they look for when making a donation and they say "low overheads, measurable short term impact and good governance."
The narrative of ineffective charities is a distraction from the real question: do you want your money to change the world or do you want it to maintain the world?
The challenges we have in the world are huge ones. Climate change and biodiversity loss, young people’s mental health, automation and a loss of jobs, inequality and the rise of far-right nationalism. None of these things will be changed without transformational leadership.
do you want your money to change the world, or do you want it to maintain the world?
The great civil society leader Baljeet Sandhu says that there is a Malala [Yousafzai, the Pakastani activist and Nobel laureate] and a Nelson Mandela in every town, village and city. She may well be right, but they aren’t being funded by philanthropists.
How did we get here?
To suggest that we need major social transformation is not something people who profited from the world as it is tend to want to hear. It is difficult to accept that the systems in which an individual and their family succeed are not entirely fair and just.
Most of the philanthropists I meet want to use their financial power to help change the world – but it is difficult to get far enough away from the status quo to actually do it.
They need to go searching for those people that their grandchildren will read about in history books. When they find them, they need to do everything they can to support them – despite the risks and the challenges.
Look at the civil rights movement in the US. Marshall Field III, whose grandfather established the Field Foundation, provided critical funding to the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
This came at a pivotal moment in the civil right movement. Audrey Bruce, meanwhile, went against her parents’ wishes by making a mammoth $75,000 grant to the Legal Defence and Educational Fund in 1961.
Those of course are just a couple of the major donors in a cause that took thousands of smaller donations week in, week out, from communities themselves – often through the church. People giving more than they could afford inspired by values and bravery.
The suffragette movement was reportedly funded more from major donations than it was from membership dues, but the latter were also vitally important. From Viscountess Harberton to Lady Wolsely, leading female (and some male) philanthropists used their financial clout to support the transformational movement that – in 1914 – ran off the modern day equivalent of less than £4 million per year.
Given that the money was largely managed by just two people – the Pankhurst sisters – this was an arrangement that wouldn’t pass most modern donors' due diligence criteria.
This "high risk" approach is not for everyone. For many people, finding effective programmes in efficient organisations, funding scholarships and funding their old universities and funding other well-trodden paths is the appropriate thing to do.
Certainly for the recipients of those scholarships and those programmes and for attendees at those universities, good will be done – and it will be measurable.
However, whilst individuals will be helped, the world might not be. Changing the world by changing systems requires risk and a different approach, and that is not suitable for everyone. But for those that choose this different path the changes can be incredible.
The world needs leaders, and the privilege of money and the generosity to spend it to do good in the world could bring profound results.
Brave philanthropy may not be comfortable, but it’s what will make our grandchildren proud.
Ten Years' Time
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