Reflections on the philanthropy support ecosystem and how to #LiftUpPhilanthropy

By Benjamin Bellegy

The positive echoes from this year’s United Philanthropy Forum conference have spread beyond borders as an exceptional peer-learning opportunity for organizations serving philanthropy in the US. The conference was also a source of global inspiration and call for infrastructure organizations to play a more proactive public role. It is time for philanthropy support organizations to engage with their constituencies around the critical social issues facing the philanthropic sector.

This was also the vision behind the last WINGS Forum in Mexico City, where we explored multiple dimensions of what we called “Critical Philanthropy” — how philanthropy support organizations (PSOs) are poised to play a critical role within the philanthropic sector, encouraging or challenging current practices and concepts. At the same time, how can philanthropy actors become more self-critical in order to avoid contributing to the problems they are trying to address and improve the effectiveness of their approaches. Finally, how can PSOs play a thought leadership role in engaging donors and foundations to address the critical social issues of the day, look for root-causes and follow a systems-change approach.

This confluence of interests at both two meetings illustrates that the role of the philanthropy support ecosystem, or infrastructure, goes well beyond service delivery. While by definition it helps build the sector, at times it must also deconstruct and disrupt accepted practices.

From service to thought-leadership: how independent philanthropy infrastructure can strengthen its added value and stay relevant

As new actors are coming into the field, private resources are being deployed for common good through new and changing forms – from online giving to impact investing.  As social issues are becoming increasingly complex and global, this function may be one of the key ingredients in the way forward to a 2.0 infrastructure. As the global umbrella network for philanthropy support organizations, WINGS is observing the trend to shift from service to thought leadership in different regions, especially where the sector is more established and has grown over several decades, like in the US.

In a sector which has become increasingly competitive, this is a way to keep a distinct added value for wholesale collaborative structures of support in front of newer support actors, for instance bank advisory services.

This thought leadership role also helps highlight the philanthropy support ecosystem as a critical element of civil society, not only “serving” but also pushing, challenging, moving agendas. It makes independent social-purpose organizations irreplaceable in supporting philanthropy.

Of course, PSOs are here to serve their members or clients and they should not abandon that role. But in following a thought leadership approach they will be constantly readjusting the balance between services and influence.

If we only focus on delivering services to our constituencies we may become obsolete sooner than expected. With new developments- such as the advent of tech-led philanthropic behaviors – including what Charities Aid Foundation calls “philgorythm” and “cryptophilanthropy” — and with the rapid growth of new philanthropic actors and organizers, traditional infrastructure as we know it could, at least theoretically, simply disappear or become redundant.

Infrastructure is not an end in itself. Our eventual demise is a possible destiny we could actually embrace if we believe PSOs are only worth the services they deliver. But if we believe that they have a more proactive and critical role to play within civil society, we should counter that scenario by

  1. positioning ourselves as agents of change and influence,
  2. acting as elements of a broader support ecosystem through a high level of collaboration and a focus on the field’s needs rather than on our strict organizational development, and
  3. raising funders’ awareness of the impact of our work to increase the volume, effectiveness and diversity of philanthropic resources.

Reframing the narrative and raising the strategic importance of the philanthropy support ecosystem

The latter is essential because according to WINGS research, 89% of PSOs rely at least partially on grants while 72% face sustainability concerns.  Knowing that if we want to protect and expand a thought leadership role, grants are a key ingredient to provide leeway and autonomy. This requires funders to understand the value of the field and invest in it, going beyond the direct services and benefits they can get from it.

However, it seems like winds are blowing in an opposite direction in North America and Europe, where the infrastructure is older and more developed and where the sector appears to be at a crossroads. A certain degree of ‘funder fatigue’ is being expressed by some of the oldest donors to the field. Criticism of our field includes claims that we are sometimes duplicative and have not found new ways to become a sustainable sector.

In the US this is reflected by the recent report published by the Foundation Center which shows that while overall giving by U.S. foundations grew 66 percent from 2004 to 2015, infrastructure-related giving grew just 25 percent, and it decreased 43% for infrastructure organizations based outside of the US.

It is essential to address these points at three levels:

  • we must engage funders in thinking strategically about investing in the development of philanthropy;
  • we need to rethink our sector, its added value, and be better at assessing and communicating our impact;
  • we need to increase synergies within the sector, work with complementarity and act as a proper ecosystem which gets its strength and resilience from our diversity and connections.

These aspects are interdependent: without funders engaging strategically, investment in the field will remain piecemeal, based on short-term or immediate benefits considerations and generate further duplications on the one hand while leaving unfulfilled functions on the other hand; but without a new narrative for infrastructure, a better assessment of its impact and a shift towards a collaboration paradigm, it will be challenging to raise the interest of funders to invest in the field.

Joining hands to #LiftUpPhilanthropy

Here is a global initiative WINGS would like to engage United Philanthropy Forum’s network in that can help our sector address some of these challenges:

#LiftUpPhilanthropy is an open campaign launched by our members; we welcome any organization that wants to promote the importance of strong philanthropy support ecosystems. It proposes a new narrative to explain the importance of the field and the huge potential to develop philanthropy at community, geographic and thematic levels. It works closely and shares inputs with funders.[1]

This narrative is based on the idea that investing in the support ecosystem is a strategic and impactful investment that leverages impact, mitigates risks, and increases the sustainability of the work. Philanthropy’s development should be considered as a cause in its own right, as an essential element to nurture healthy and democratic societies.

Donor organizations are called upon to lead these conversations internally and among their peers. Likewise, PSOs have a critical role to play in raising the topic within their own networks and among partners. I hope we all take the opportunity of this global conversation to raise the issue wherever you are active. Include the topic at conferences, post articles about the importance of the field, share concrete cases that illustrate the impact of our work, use the hashtag #LiftUpPhilanthropy to talk about these issues. If you are a donor educator, include the topic in your trainings and curriculum for effective grant-making. Most especially, stay in touch with United Philanthropy Forum and WINGS so we can amplify your voice.


[1] If you are interested in learning more about this new narrative for the field that we are proposing, refer to the Funders Guide “How to unlock philanthropy’s potential”


Piece originally posted on the United Philanthropy Forum’s blog.


Benjamin Circle Picture


Benjamin Bellegy

Executive Director



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