by Joanne Harding
Firstly, Mexico City left me with so many impressions that I can still see, taste, hear it which was so wonderful. It was an amazing experience to be in such a different environment to South Africa but also to see some similarities. It was far to travel and for South Africans was almost 40 hours in transit but was worth the experience. I am just sorry I did not take more time to explore the city and surrounds after the conference. It will remain on my bucket list of places to go to.
When there are so many lessons and connections it is hard to identify the most impressionable. The most overriding impression was the people I met and the work which is being done in some of the most challenging environments. At the first session, I attended which was a pre-conference session I was challenged by contextual factors which affect philanthropy in some of the countries where we work and how when challenges are overcome new challenges are faced. It made me realise that even when we find it hard in sub Saharan Africa and South Africa (the country I come from), there are other countries and regions where it is harder.
With some of the global developments it also seems that there has been a renewal of energy to fight for justice and a coming together in a way which there has not been in countries where justice and fairness were taken for granted. These developments affect all of us in different ways. For some it is fear for our colleagues and for others it is the possibility that these developments will spill over into our own countries and regions. Closing civic spaces affects us all and of concern to us all in this sector is the clamp down on environmental and human rights work across the world. In our region, it is easier to raise funds for charitable work than it is to raise money for strengthening democracy and human rights. These are interconnected and both necessary and support each other but the latter is risky for donors especially corporates in terms of reputations and maintaining relationships with government especially where governments are conservative or may be transgressing people’s rights.
Again, we were challenged for it not to be business as usual and to think out of the box. I found myself trying to see the opportunities in our context where it often seems there are many obstacles and to think about how to work differently. There was a strong focus on the need to build infrastructure for philanthropy which is a struggle we face in our region. At times, I think infrastructure for what purpose. Infrastructure and support organisations require effort and money and it is usually only when there is a crisis or when it feels like the spaces for civil society are closing that there seems to be energy for membership organisations. One of the participants said that organisations should be allowed to exist for a short time and for a single purpose and I found that an interesting challenge.
There seems to be more success in some regions than others in building infrastructure for philanthropy and I would like to have had more time to delve into what makes some infrastructure work. It was great to see so many young people participating in the WINGSForum and I think my own network must find ways to ensure participation of young leaders in opportunities like this without losing the valuable insights and perspectives of the elders and those who have been in this sector for a while. Attendance at these conferences is expensive both in terms of money and time but it is necessary to have a balance in terms of participation of young and old, new and experienced. It is also good to hear new voices emerge and create opportunities for these voices to develop.
Another impression I was left with from the WINGSForum 2017 was about infrastructure organisations and that the demands and expectations of the members often outweigh the size of the membership fees and the contribution made by the members to sustaining the membership organisation. Infrastructure organisations must raise funds to meet these expectations which can puts us in competition with our members especially in regions were the same funders who fund philanthropy are the ones we approach to fund our infrastructure organisations. Fundraising for infrastructure organisations is hard to justify to donors outside of the sector because messaging the correlation between the role of support and infrastructure organisations to the impact on the ground is not always clear. Infrastructure organisations must be able to tell the stories of the impact they have made on their members and how this has impacted on poverty, social justice, the environment etc. We need our members to share these stories of impact to justify to funders the value of our infrastructure organisations.
My final impression is that underlying everything is the need for a strong civil society to balance all the other challenges that society is facing. This is a common issue in all countries and even in countries where democracy is strong and vibrant. There is always a need for civil society to be active to protect democracy and hard won freedoms. It is important that we continue to make a case for our role in civil society and that as philanthropy organisations we have an important role to play in strengthening civil society. This means promoting our role among other civil society organisations, government and the private sector. We must keep fighting for an enabling environment for both philanthropy and for civil society organisations because they are interconnected. This is another valuable role that our infrastructure organisations can play.
Having come away from WINGSForum 2017 I am left with a hunger for deeper engagement at conferences of this nature. It would be wonderful if there were more opportunities to focus on issues from the plenaries in smaller groups so that we could come to some conclusions about what has been presented and discussed. I found when there were opportunities for smaller group discussions I got to know people better, could network more purposefully and could follow up on some of those introductions. Workshop sessions could have brought us to some conclusions and even recommendations for the future.
Joanne Harding, Philanthropy Leadership Network