Philanthropy also needs ventilators

By Fábio Deboni, Executive Manager at Instituto Sabin

This blog piece has been originally posted in Portuguese here.

Watching from our computer screens during the quarantine, philanthropy players are overcoming barriers and communicating with a lot of ease, exchange networks are being created, solidarity-based billion-dollar brands are being mobilized. And a clear common purpose to help people, communities, and organisations facing higher social, economic and health vulnerability is emerging. That is why we are here, isn’t it?!

I believe that most of those who, like me, work in the sector bring that with them and that is what moves us every day. In that regard millions of reais, dollars, euros, etc are being mobilised, compliance rules are being relaxed, stages are being simplified, a higher purpose and sense of urgency to act in response to the crisis is being placed above any lesser important issues- yet another great move by our sector! But…

… Why have we started acting this way only in contexts of ‘war’?

… Shouldn’t we have acted this way as a philanthropy sector as a norm from before?

And when will the dust of this terrible crisis settle?

Will we go back to our little institutional worlds?

To our old ways of bidding, legal systems, process?

To our useless meetings, unachievable targets, boring forms that take up so much time and  energy which takes us further from this higher purpose which apparently, we all share. In the context of the current crisis there are some clarities visible to the naked eye, and that is good!

  • There is little doubt in relation to whom we serve and why we exist.

But not everything is roses in our sector. And human nature is such that it means we show off these actions- after all we must show the market, the sector, our peers, the Boards that we are doing good at the moment as this makes us stronger internally and externally, doesn’t it? 

And as part of the package there is our inability to supply for the unending demands, having to prioritise what is essential and not being able to choose what problem we are going to tackle at other times.  This has meant unanswered e-mails, slip-ups, and mistakes and our frailty as transformation agents is on show. We also have our limits even if we try to sweep them under the rug. To complicate things a little more, divergent views on ‘how to put out a fire’ are not very welcome, it sounds as if you are whining or as if you are playing in the opposing team. Our sector finds it extremely difficult to deal with self-criticism after all, everything we do is wonderful, isn’t it? However, in the end it is worth remembering that:

  • Not all foundations have reserve/endowments funds or budgetary policies that ensure cash flow to continue with their operations.

In other words:

  • We rely more than ever on our sponsoring institutions who to a higher or lesser degree, are suffering in the current context (will anyone manage to weather the storm undamaged?!)
  • Some philanthropists have actually revealed their ‘fundraising’ side trying to identify fundraising opportunities based on the mobilising of several types of donations. This is all part of the game… although there is already a classic classification in the sector between grant makers and grant seekers
  • On the other hand, others follow on with no guidance on which paths to take, with no reasonable context analyses that really make sense in relation to their institutional purposes and budget size. All the while also squeezing themselves in calls, webinars and looking for articles, opinions and reflection on the current setting. But what seems to work best is the exchanging of contacts and unilateral institutional communication like ‘our institute is doing this or that, look how beautiful it is’. I know, dear reader, I am being a bit of an acid here but that is the aim of this piece.

But how else do we build context analysis vis-à-vis a totally volatile scenario without exposing brands, institutions and harsh tackles?

Why do we not show that philanthropy also really needs ventilators. After all, has our sector not lacked new oxygen?

So much so that coffee and hallways at events were the best moments of exchange between peers but at this moment of crisis how do we make ourselves grow stronger as a sector.  How do we reinforce the relevance of our foundation from falling into the stampede without going around trumpeting and constantly releasing information of our initiatives all the time to show everyone that our organisation also has its own cool initiative to show off.

Is that the way in which we show our value vis-à-vis sponsoring institutions and boards Vis-à-vis society? How sad… and what legacy will this wave leave in our institutional DNA? It is difficult to predict? I could list a couple of items here that are personal and aspirational. 

  • That we rethink our modus operandi

Being less bureaucratic, more agile, acting more in network and in a cooperative manner (for real!) financially supporting civil society organisations operating in the front (yes, they also need funds to pay wages, rent, without having to take it out of earmarked items in projects) resisting pressure from sponsoring institutions to follow the branding trend, revisiting governance models in light of agility and the virtual setting.  In short, we should be more agile, more accessible, more available and have our foot more rooted in reality.

  • That we rethink our own projects, which only attack the symptoms 

To do this, we must start seeing ourselves as political players (non-partisan) and seeing us as relevant players on the so-called public sphere which goes much beyond the city hall of the territory where we operate, beyond the rather swampy terrain. Isn’t it?

I have been taking part in a number of calls and virtual conversations between philanthropists and I have left with a mix of motivation and demotivation (because of the reasons explained here)

Sometimes I ask myself what am I still doing in this sector. Other times, it is very clear that my place continues to be here more because of the potential I see to transform, transforming our elitist, bureaucratic, not very emphatic modus operandi – all of which run against the discourse we are trying to say which is quite the opposite.

What seems to keep me up at night – making me happy or disgusted – seems to keep many others up at night as well. Especially those who have yet to migrate to the operation area at least for now…



Circle Picture (1)



Fábio Deboni

Executive Manager at Instituto Sabin



Instituto Sabin mission is to promote the improvement of the quality of life in communities where the Sabin Group operates, in the areas of health, sport and social innovation. Read more on their website:

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.