By Benjamin Bellegy, WINGS Executive Director
At the time of writing this note, more than half the human population is under lock-down and a huge proportion of all human activities have halted, generating a deafening silence and propelling humanity into the unknown, placing strain on the global economy and raising deep doubts about our fragile societies. Just like me, you are probably reading this Covid-focused note from your home and pondering over your response. More than ever before, this unique situation forces us to adopt a holistic view to make sense of it all.
If this crisis had not broken out, I would be at my office in Sao Paulo, mainly focused on the organization of WINGSForum 2020 Imagine, scheduled for this November. Although we are hopeful the situation will start improving over the next couple of months, allowing us to proceed as planned and celebrating our network, we continue to keep an open mind and the option to postpone this event remains a possibility. Yet, in a sense, the events that envelopes us also forces us to begin that process of anticipation and shaping of ideas that we will flesh out at such a gathering. It is as if we are being urged to engage in radical reflections and a forward-thinking exercise on the three intricate dimensions around which the Forum is structured: the philanthropic sector we need, the society we want, and the selves we must become.
“Many funders have adapted their frames, loosened their grant agreements, launched special emergency funds, transformed project grants into core funding”
In this first part of a series of blogs, I explore one of the issues that I point out: what the current crisis tells us about the philanthropic sector we need.
As a philanthropy stakeholder, the first thing that strikes me about this crisis is a positive one- the responsiveness of our sector. This special newsletter feature and our new resource page give us a glimpse of the incredible movement of solidarity that is taking form. Our member in China- Yishan- has tracked more than $4 billion of donations since the crisis began in that country alone. Many funders have adapted their frames, loosened their grant agreements, launched special emergency funds, transformed project grants into core funding, and encouraged others to do so through pledges and calls to action. It is a welcome indicator that our sector is garnering trust, open to building new relationships, and rising above the limitations of organizational mandates and usual priorities. As this crisis evolves, these are signs of early lessons. It has also created new momentum, which we must build upon and not let it fizzle out as dawn breaks over this situation- as it surely will.
Interestingly, the current situation also highlights shifts in the global philanthropy landscape, with new global leadership emanating from major private donors in emerging economies. It is notable to see Chinese philanthropist Jack Ma has taken a leading role in providing support to the US and rest of the world.
“Wonder if the wonderful flexibility and openness that we are seeing in this crisis situation will stay as new norms or will they vanish?”
But coming back to the core lessons from the pandemic, I am amazed at how it is able to reveal society’s structural inequalities and interdependence, and at the same time, allow us to have a mirror-view of how those tensions exist within our sector. Although we rightfully recognize our sector’s immense response, it also operates alongside a sinister narrative. Consider the rumors that are tinged with conspiracy theories- including around the intentions of many players in our sector. Articles linking Bill Gates’ investment in health and vaccination abound in shared and social media. This reality, however sad, pushes across two important points: one is that we urgently need to address the trust gap which is undermining our effectiveness, legitimacy and sustainability. And the other one is around narratives- where we urgently need to share stories about each other to amplify and demonstrate the role we play, while also embracing new norms of greater transparency, accountability and a broad-basing and democratization of philanthropic actors.
On my first point: trust builds through humility and a certain vision around which we want to build relationships and engagement. The kind of crisis and the uncertainty that accompanies it demands more agency, transparency and mutual accountability. And in the practice of it, we need to move beyond good intentions to create new standards, even pushing the boundaries of what we accept as good. I ponder, as many others probably are, if this crisis is what was needed to shake us out of our stupor. And wonder if the wonderful flexibility and openness that we are seeing in this crisis situation will stay as new norms or will they vanish? I hope that some of the areas where we could move from talking to real action- including and for example- on the need for general operating support, long term partnerships and participatory grantmaking approaches would eventually find broad and systematic application.
“[…] Philanthropy networks and support organizations are playing such a critical role in gathering data and information on what to support, thought leadership on how to adapt, and maybe above all, a much-needed sense of togetherness and spaces for dialogue.”
To my second point on the need for a new philanthropy narrative: for long there has been a myth around philanthropy and its association with the wealthy. Even for those who work in the sector, we tend to think of philanthropy as a diverse field but it still largely one that is mainly about concentrated and institutionalized resources, whereas we know that, both in terms of numbers and legitimacy, individual giving and local solidarity are the most prominent and significant forms of philanthropy globally. And to drive home the point, the human response is currently showing us new visions around the courage of volunteer doctors and nurses on the frontline, the support of millions of individual donors, or the dedication and creativity of local groups. One may ask are they less significant, meaningful and impactful than that of more visible and concentrated sources of private support? How do we build a narrative that encompasses the true diversity and power of our field?
I don’t fully have the answer, but again, I suspect this will require some humility and an honest introspection. For instance, this could come from our institutionalized forms to recognize and harness the power of distributed philanthropy, our willingness to collaborate with those that regroup and support some of these scattered players, and maybe above all, our commitment to invest in and help developing all forms of philanthropy whatever our missions and focus areas may be. This will require thoughtful investment in the philanthropy and giving infrastructure. It will also take more collaborations and connections between the networks and support organizations that represent and support both sides of the spectrum and that we are proud to unite in a network like WINGS.
“Appearing as an essential driving force in such a major crisis can help us make the case for a more favorable environment and enabling policies for civil society and philanthropy on the long run.”
The critical role of the infrastructure, or support ecosystem, has also shown use and great value in response to the crisis that we are in. As this special feature illustrates, philanthropy networks and support organizations are playing such a critical role in gathering data and information on what to support, thought leadership on how to adapt, and maybe above all, a much-needed sense of togetherness and spaces for dialogue. They also allow foundations and donors to play a critical policy role in advocating to make sure that civil society is part of governments’ response plans. And then there are critical watchdogs to identify and denounce attempts from governments to use the crisis to further close the civic space or reduce civic freedom. For instance, ICNL is currently developing a tracker of emergency powers and their impact on civil society which could be a critical resource. In many quarters, there is alarm over states enhancing their surveillance over their population under the pretense of health and safety. Must it be one over the other?
In the outcome, I hope the Covid-19 outbreak provides an opportunity to increase the recognition of philanthropy as a key actor and a complimentary partner to governments in facing the crisis, and tomorrow, in rebuilding livelihoods, social bonds and hope. Appearing as an essential driving force in such a major crisis can help us make the case for a more favorable environment and enabling policies for civil society and philanthropy on the long run.
“Covid-19 crisis helps us understand the importance of a strong articulation of the needs and impact of the sector at the global level.”
Finally, I hope the Covid-19 crisis helps us understand the importance of a strong articulation of the needs and impact of the sector at the global level. Along with other issues such as climate change, tech and bio ethics, migrations – Covid-19 brings an urgency to gather actors to act globally. Through the response we have seen thus far, I see the role for WINGS and other global initiatives to turn this into a reality like so many (if not all!) other sectors and industries that have a global footprint and stakes. There is no doubt that a lot of support, effort and resources will also be needed for that. For now, my hope is that our collective awareness on this critical need will increase as there is so much more we could achieve together.
This reflective piece forms a part of a series that will draw on the lessons from the crisis and how the philanthropic community may accelerate the necessary transformation it requires. The next issue will continue exploring an unfinished reflection on what it may tell us about our societies and consider the society we want. The crisis has led us to reflect on deeper questions about our society, the local/global articulation, connectivity, existential threats to humanity, time, to name a few- which in turn our sector needs to consider. More on the next newsletter.
WINGS Executive Director