My Mexico learning – WINGS Forum 2017

by Esther Thompson

As I boarded the plane to Mexico City en route to the WINGS Forum 2017, it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Would I go all that way and find it useful? Would anyone show up for the workshop I was running? Would Mexico City be as polluted as the media would have me believe? The answer, my friends was a) absolutely b) they sure did and c) quite the opposite. I had a great time, learnt a lot, delivered something people said they found useful (the 4Cs Framework that aims to establish a common language to describe the work and value of philanthropic infrastructure organisations around the world), and discovered a great city that I’ve been eulogising about ever since I got home.

Views from the conference

Not business as usual. The significant feeling at the conference was that it wasn’t business as usual: we are absolutely in a time where world events are turning things on their heads and it is more important than ever that as philanthropic infrastructure bodies (we need a catchier description), we come together and share practice to enable us to support our members as best we can. 

Advocacy. As philanthropic infrastructure organisations this is often our USP. It was argued from the stage however, that we’ve forgotten how to do it in the UK and we need to do it differently. I sat up. They were talking about where I come from. Did I agree? The speaker argued that politics has become a pejorative term and I thought he was right: political engagement is what civil society does well. 

Collaboration. ‘What we achieve through working together, is greater that want we can achieve alone’ – nothing new in that message – but there was more significant discussion when it came to risk and how collaboration can help to share risk. This was felt to be especially pertinent in the current climate as we have to do things differently i.e. the environment we are working in requires a new response, and this can mean taking greater risks, and collaboration can help diffuse that risk. 

Three calls to action from the conference floor

  1. i) Philanthropy needs to go back to its original purpose. Trump, populism, Brexit, growth of nationalism… philanthropy is well placed to break through the ‘them and us’ barrier.
  2. ii) We should not to work in silos.

iii) And on a more practical note: we need to reduce transactional costs for grantees

There was some advice from a funder of philanthropic infrastructure organisations which was food for thought: Don’t be static; build your brand and be rigorous in building quality; drop what you are not good at and others are doing better (be honest with yourselves); be a network of trust; think about opportunity v. capacity; horizon scanning is important; be flexible but stick to your core values; and be aware if you are catering to donor interests or member interests.

Other discussion points at the Forum that piqued my interest included:

  • Change doesn’t happen because of philanthropy; change happens because of commitment and passion of organisations and people on the ground.
  • A new world: ‘organising without organisation’: we need to recognise this as a complement to our work; and ‘breaking the cognitive dependence path’ – doing things without resources.
  • ‘Governments like philanthropy that provides services but don’t like the rest of what do’ – food for thought.
  • The space we can take because of our independence that others can’t, is advantageous and we can use this to talk openly and more about those who get government grants and feel they can’t get political (with a small p).
  • We need to document and learn from failure.
  • The old adage: form should follow function i.e. you work out what the function of something should be first (i.e. what you are trying to achieve); and then you work out what it should look like (the form it would take).
  • A way of working: We need to propose new solutions instead of giving negative responses.
  • Be less ‘wonky’ and use a different language.
  • Democracy: the ballot box is not enough – there needs to be support and respect for citizens.
  • Brokering: Where does our brokering role sit between members and charities? There was discussion that an organisation like ours can provide a healthy, non-partisan, rationale voice that neither takes the side of members nor the VCS.

Definitely worth going to. See you in 2020, Nairobi!


Esther Thompson is Head of Learning and Events at Association of Charitable Foundations, UK

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