Perspectives on investing in civil society, philanthropic and technical infrastructure.
Civil society – both in its more and less institutionalized forms – has organised extensively to respond to the health, humanitarian and governance challenges unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our space to do so varies hugely thanks to the diverse regulatory, reputational, philanthropic, and technical infrastructures available to those who seek to support their communities through this challenging time.
It is vital that the global recovery effort includes measures to protect, strengthen and sustain civil society itself – and, importantly, investments into the infrastructure upon which we stand. Civil society was not ready for COVID-19. Benjamin Bellegy (WINGS), Chris Worman (TechSoup) and Lysa John (CIVICUS) speak to the actions we must take to emerge wiser and stronger from the current crisis and to be prepared for the crises to come. This collection of viewpoints is the first of a series aiming to assess changes needed to ensure a stronger supporting environment and enabling infrastructure for civil society.
By Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director at WINGS
How do you see the role of civil society in such a crisis and how do you assess its global response so far?
Civil society’s role is critical not only because it can help fill gaps, reach communities that governments are not able or willing to support, generate huge and often under noticed amounts of services to alleviate adverse effects and to rebuild economies, and hope. Perhaps above all the third sector might be the only one still able to generate a vision of, and new models for, our societies. Where political parties and governments are no longer expected to provide vision and hope, and business corporations reveal its structural limitations in producing equity, civil society remains a messy space and creative chaos, in which citizens feel motivated to engage in forward-thinking and acts.
The voluntary engagement in response to the Covid-19 crisis is spectacular. At a time when we face fundamental questioning of our civilisational models built on individualism, consumerism, disconnection of the economy and democratic processes from territories, rationalism, and an outdated idea of progress… beyond much needed services, civil society can provide hope, vision and concrete experiences for a future we need to reimagine. .
Speaking from the perspective of philanthropy and giving, the response has been impressive. In terms of volume: a country like Brazil has seen a surge in donations to nearly 700 million USD. In China, Yishan has tracked over 4 billion USD in donations. This is unprecedented, especially in countries where people tend to rely on the state to address social issues. We have observed a number of pledges and calls to encourage foundations to support their partners in new ways, providing unrestricted funding, listening to their needs, spending down more, thinking long-term, etc.
However, I see two down sides to this positive assessment: first, there is much more that could be done with the adequate support system for giving. In countries like India, civil society and philanthropic actors are struggling to be part of the government’s response plan because they lack infrastructure to raise their voice. A lack of infrastructure and understanding of the role an independent philanthropic sector (including a lack of norms, trust and capacity) leads to private philanthropic support flowing towards non-transparent government funds. This could instead go to grassroots organizations that face severe lack of funding just when they could be making the most difference in their communities.
Second, we need to go beyond lauding ourselves for increased volumes and flexibility in the moment. We need to be bolder and engage in a more radical reflection on both the society we want to rebuild after Covid-19, and on the sector we need to achieve that vision. We need a new narrative, and a “new normal” for philanthropy: how to put trust at the center, how to listen, how to address root causes and engage in systems change, how to stop shying away from policy and advocacy, how to become more accountable, how to leverage investments and non financial assets, how to influence core business, etc.
What could have been different and what would it take?
A strong ecosystem of support able to build trust and transparency, advocate for enabling policies (domestic and cross-border) and build bridges with other sectors, the philanthropic response would not only be multiplied financially but in terms of impact as well.
For such ecosystems to be in place we need a shift of mindset amongst funders, from that of an independent institution/person trying to achieve a specific mission – and therefore limited to investments only directly related to specific priorities – to understanding ourselves as but one element in a broader ecosystem whose real impact can only be unleashed as a collective, through connection and collaboration. Once this mindset is in place we might see more thoughtful reflections on the need for a strong, shared, infrastructure, and more investments, both on the supply and demand side of civil society. Going back to our India example, if advocacy efforts had been made over the past decade, today we might have seen the inclusion of civil society in the response plans that could lead to tremendous financial return on investment for the sector.
The WINGS global network is engaged in the #LiftUpPhilanthropy campaign to raise awareness on this question. The business sector perfectly understands the need to invest in cooperation and collective bodies (universities, research, lobbying, etc.). Why can’t philanthropy do the same? Is it because we have no market pressure that we rarely leave our comfort zones? Our own pressure to make the biggest possible collective impact on society, beyond our specific cause, can be stronger than any market pressure. Increasingly we see funders engaging in such reflections. This is evolving in positive ways and the current crisis could be a turning point.
What is needed to strengthen this infrastructure?
I have covered this in the previous question. I would only add that it will take a coordinated effort and a shared vision of the potential of philanthropy in a specific place. Our coming research at WINGS will propose a methodology to map the support ecosystem and engage funders and stakeholders in building a roadmap to strengthen it. We hope it will encourage many players to engage in this type of reflection and that it will lead to coordinated investments. Support organizations also have a role to play by reinventing themselves and working through a collaboration paradigm and field thinking, so that the infrastructure becomes a proper ecosystem which gets its resilience from diversity and interconnections.
How can the current crisis help change this status quo?
The current crisis has made the interdependence of philanthropic actors and the need and potential for a strong infrastructure obvious. In such an unprecedented moment, people need data, they need a safe space to talk to each other, they need a voice to advocate, and they need a collective space to reflect on their role and on the society they want to help rebuild. Perhaps this crisis, which is a crisis of distance, forcing us towards our individualism, will, by contrast, reaffirm how interconnected we are and how much more we can achieve as a field than as individual elements.
(An abridged version of this reflection, going by the same title, has also been published at Alliance Magazine: Fit for the Future: Can we emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis?)
Executive Director at WINGS