By Christen Dobson
Last month I attended WINGSForum 2014: The Power of Networks in Istanbul—a gathering of grantmaker associations, philanthropic support organizations and foundations representing 43 countries—to discuss trends in philanthropy, swap strategies, and contemplate future directions for our work.
Frequent themes throughout the Forum included the changing nature of philanthropy, including new and emerging actors; the power of data to increase funder effectiveness; and the increasingly diversified set of tools philanthropists have at their disposal to achieve their aims.
In my view, the Associations on Trial session raised the most important topic of the Forum: Are grantmaker associations actually contributing to improving social good? Are we acting in line with our missions, many of which focus on advancing justice, rights, and equality? I would argue that this question lies at the heart of every topic we explored during the Forum.
While the “Prosecutor” Christopher Harris’ argument was seemingly intentionally over-the-top (grantmaker associations cannot singlehandedly be blamed for the failure to address human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nor halt gun violence in the United States) his fundamental accusation should not be discounted: many associations aim to support progressive social change, yet how have we contributed to addressing the most acute problems plaguing our societies? How have we contributed to creating a more just and equitable world?
Grantmaker associations walk a fine line. At our core we are peer-led, member-driven, and member-serving entities. Our core “verbs” are to facilitate, support, and catalyze. We often support very diverse memberships with differing aims and strategies. Our members likely do not look to us to advocate directly on their behalf, nor on behalf of the issues they fund. However, we are simultaneously mission-driven entities. In the case of IHRFG, that mission is “advancing human rights around the world through effective philanthropy.” While our role is not as front-line activists, we have a critical role to play in creating venues for funders to share strategies, learn from one another’s failures, and collaborate to achieve greater impact.
As members of WINGS we are all working to build connected global philanthropy, but to what end? Let’s be honest with ourselves—our memberships are incredible sources of power and influence. Philanthropy exists to leverage wealth to create a better world. Addressing the root causes of inequality is indispensible to this endeavor. Whether our members’ core focus is education, youth, or entrepreneurship, approaching these issues with a structural lens is critical to achieving sustainable change.
As Vikki Spruill, President and CEO of the US-based Council on Foundations, voiced during the Forum, “We spend too much time discussing what a network is and not enough time discussing goals and outcomes.” I couldn’t agree more. Let’s focus more on outcomes—on supporting our members to address the root causes underlying the problems they seek to address. Let’s frequently reflect on whether our programming ultimately leads to more sustainable support for civil society. Let’s endeavor to live up to our goals of contributing to social good and in IHRFG’s case, working to ensure that all people enjoy the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights treaties.
WINGS provides an important venue through which each of our associations, which operate in different cultural contexts and represent diverse types of members and funding interests, can share successful strategies and lessons learned about contributing to structural change. We look forward to continuing this conversation at the next WINGSForum!
Christen Dobson is Program Director, Research and Policy, for International Human Rights Funders Group