Healthy philanthropy = healthy society

WINGS joint article from the Enabling Environment Affinity Group*

Civil society and global philanthropy are fighting for their relevance. No longer the highly trusted actors in some countries, they have been targeted and vilified in a growing number of countries with heightened restrictions on their operations being almost universally imposed. While it is true that not all civil society organizations are above reproach, the attacks and restrictions currently imposed are wildly out of proportion when weighed against the societal benefits of an active, engaged civil sector. In particular, the benefits of responsible, innovative philanthropy are threatened by current trends. No one organization can fight the uphill battle for fair treatment alone.

This is why we believe that philanthropic networks and the infrastructure organizations underpinning civil society are vital today. They bring us together to ‘make the case’ for a strong civil society. Few of those who criticize or seek to restrict civil society appreciate the enormous contributions of the sector in the realms of health, education, climate change, and peacebuilding to name just a few. For civil society and philanthropy to overcome the mounting challenges before them, the sector needs to learn from each other, connect, and create shared understandings within and across borders.

The WINGS Enabling Environment Affinity group was set up to bring about a nourishing and enabling environment across our networks, as well as to help build a shared learning and understanding of the common threads that underpin a healthy environment in which philanthropy and civil society can flourish. We call this the enabling environment ‘building blocks’: the policies, tools, resources and processes that can strengthen the operating environment.

Civil Society’s immune system

In the book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken describes civil society organizations as humanity’s white blood cells. As white blood cells are constantly at war with threats to the human body, so too is grassroots civil society constantly striving to limit pain and injustice. And like white blood cells, they are constantly forming and shaping and evolving. But society’s ‘white blood cells’ are also under threat like never before.

Hawken’s metaphor provides a useful frame for thinking about a term like the ‘enabling environment.’ If civil society are the white blood cells, what are philanthropy networks? Are we the bone marrow that creates the cells? The anti-biotics that helps the cells fight off infections? Though these answers may differ across organizations, geographies, and even within our own networks, the building blocks for the ‘healthy immune system’, or more appropriately, the philanthropy eco-system, have common elements.

The Enabling Environment building blocks

We have identified the components where philanthropy support networks engage and are critical for helping to underpin our immune system. They include:

Policy: laws for civil society, giving, association, free speech, assembly; regulatory frameworks for dialogue with the government

Inclusive Infrastructure: e-commerce and e-philanthropy, communications, community building, networking

Knowledge & Support: trainers and mentors, communities of practice, best practices, repositories, organizational development, and resiliency

Tools & Data: resource guides, policy guides, digital tool kits, data, learning and reporting tools and guides, access to technology

Funding: variety of funding types and sources, accessibility of funding; support for innovation and learning re local philanthropic practice including tax incentives and state support, Public-Private Partnerships

What does this mean for our work?

There are far too few countries where all these conditions – the building blocks of an enabling environment – exist or function well. Our networks are constantly working to support and strengthen these core areas of the philanthropy ecosystem.

We believe an enabling environment should be:

• Created, understood, connected to, respected and supported by citizens

• Understood, connected to, respected and supported by formalized civil society and philanthropy organizations

• Accessible for organizations to get the tools needed to design, deliver, monitor and evaluate programs

• Able to provide for itself (endowments, fundraising)

• Able to inform and influence policy

• Considered a legitimate actor, partner, and critic by States and Corporations

• Self-regulated

• Innovative and adaptive to the circumstances

• Transparent and accountable

• Non-partisan

An enabling environment is needed to create deeper impact of civil society and to allow different organizations to achieve their common objectives. Philanthropy support organisations and others in the philanthropy support eco-system can contribute to make this possible and find ways to collaborate with other organizations with similar aims (NGOs, CSOs, etc.).

The role of philanthropic networks

Infrastructure organizations and Philanthropy Support Organizations (PSOs) have a critical role in responding to enabling environment issues across the world. They are helping to shape, strengthen and enhance all six areas of the enabling environment (policy, infrastructure, knowledge and support, tools, and funding).

This publication features eight cases from different organizations: the Association of Charitable Foundations (UK), Council on Foundations (USA), European Foundation Center (Europe), Fondation de France (France), German Association of Foundations (Germany), IDIS (Brazil), Spanish Association of Foundations (Spain), and TechSoup (USA).

As you will see these cases address different enabling environment ‘building blocks’ that range from endowment funds, legal reforms, the use of technologies, data solutions, the professionalization of young foundations, strategies to raise a collective voice, tax regulations, and advocacy, among others. These cases serve as good examples of efforts engineered to reduce barriers to progress.

Where to next?

We all want a healthy immune system both now and in the future. These case studies offer concrete ideas on how relevant the Philanthropy Support ecosystem is to protect, and often grow, the space for civil society and philanthropy. Even though each case is absolutely related to its context, some trends like collaboration inside the sector and cross-sector partnerships, dissemination of knowledge, building a narrative, and harnessing public trust, show how we are shaping and carrying actions on this topic.

If you would like to be a part of the discussion and help our call, consider joining the Enabling Environment Affinity Group and help this community define, delineate, and share practices like those in this document. They present how the members of the WINGS network are working on different elements of the infrastructure for an enabling environment. Each may serve as inspiration as we work to understand and enable the people and processes working toward a more civil society.

Our call

• Growing philanthropy requires investment in the support ecosystem and advocacy for an enabling environment

• PSOs need to learn how to assess the national and regional environment where they act

• PSOs can learn how to advocate, build coalitions, interact with governments and better communicate the value of their work

• It is important to have better collaboration between PSOs: share experiences, data, strategies, and create forums

• We need to come together as a field and also with other actors from the broader civil society to harness our efforts for greater impact


This excerpt can be found on pages 8 and 9 of WINGS Impact Case Studies: Promoting an enabling environment for philanthropy and civil society. Read the full publication here.

*The group is comprised of 46 organizations in 27 different countries of 6 regions of the world. Many thanks to Chris Worman for leading this collective writing effort. For more information visit:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.