Rethinking “Radical”: Change, Generosity, Imagination

By Asha Curran, CEO, GivingTuesday and WINGSForum 2020 Planning Committee member.

As we approach the WINGSForum in a time of uncertainty and upheaval, how can we use this moment, and one another, to rethink, reframe, and refresh the work we do in the world? 

Our sector often looks at generosity through a narrowly defined and geographically-bound lens, and continues to rely on longstanding structures and strategies to reach communities and deliver solutions. Those structures are based on the pyramid-shaped, highly hierarchical power structure that is being challenged and critiqued from multiple directions, rightfully so. The opportunity we have in this moment is to challenge ourselves to transcend those limitations, to think in terms of exponential rather than incremental change. It’s time to think radically, in the sense of the etymology of the word radical, “from the root.”  It’s time to re-plant.

The work of WINGS is so important because it reinforces the idea that philanthropy is—and must be—the work of a global community, that collaboration is crucial, and that the learning we bring from our own localities enables others to do better, and vice versa. We are interdependent, so we must be interconnected. During this time that we are physically distanced, keeping these conversations—and debates—alive at a global level is more important than ever. 

Taking a global view challenges us to think about generosity (and power) in a much more expansive and inclusive way, taking in the broad spectrum of manifestations of this most universal of values within cultures and communities not our own. This is particularly relevant and instructive now, given the extraordinary grassroots generosity we are seeing all over the world. These actions are proof that those within communities know best the needs of those communities. They are also further examples of bottom-up power. 

Throughout the world, cultural traditions around giving show the amazing breadth of generosity, as a value, not an action; a community bond, a mutual accountability, an equal relationship between giver and receiver. This value drives behaviors that create a culture of generosity, kindness and empathy which in turn lead to greater equity and justice. The power and possibility of this has been too long discounted, but it is asserting itself now in ways that demand to be respected and responded to—and supported. In re-examining “power,” can we challenge ourselves to push agency outward?

We have learned so much from GivingTuesday’s own global community of leaders. In 72 countries and hundreds of local towns and cities and provinces, they embrace generosity in all of its hyperlocal manifestations and global implications. They are working with a unified vision toward a more generous world, while celebrating the unique ways that giving shows up at a grassroots level in their own regions. The movement’s distributed model, lack of hierarchy and bureaucracy, and culture of transparency, trust, and sharing promotes rapid adoption and replication of innovations and best practices across the globe. In the sprawling but highly interconnected ecosystem that is GivingTuesday, the least important things are individual organizational brands, who raises the most money, or who gets the most credit. The impact of this collective work is profound, yet represents very little that is reminiscent of traditional philanthropic power structures. 

In the United States, conversation about philanthropy centers largely around what is happening philanthropically almost exclusively within the context of our own borders. Further, our common understanding of “philanthropy” mostly relates to big money being transferred to nonprofit organizations, and all the infrastructure, institutions and people that facilitate that transfer, or the use of private wealth for public benefit: definitions that are not incorrect as far as they go but are a narrow slice of the true meaning of philanthropy, “love of humanity.” As a result, our view of philanthropy—what it really is, what possibilities it holds when viewed by its most expansive definition, which power imbalances it reinforces when defined by its narrowest definition—can be myopic, transactional, and self-reinforcing. 

For example, the US has been noted as the “most generous country,” because its donation levels are the highest—because the culture so often defines giving solely in terms of financial transaction. (We then judge financial acts of giving as good, bad, or worst, against metrics we arbitrarily create.) Among other things, this dismisses the many meaningful ways generosity manifests at grassroots and non-monetary levels all around the world (including in the US) in ways that are not simply “nice” but are deeply impactful, furthering the strengthening of civil society, community building, kindness, collaboration, or simple human connection. 

Any act of generosity driven by a love of humanity is good, worthy, and generative, full stop. Generosity gives people a greater sense of their own agency, which they are then inspired to exercise more and in more ways. When those actions are connected to the actions of others around the world, they become even more powerful. No act exists in a vacuum, or in a singular moment in time, to which a value judgment should be attached. Placing a value judgment on another’s act of generosity is simply one more assertion of power.

We cannot hope to have an honest reckoning about power—the purpose of our gathering—without examining the roots of all of these assumptions and old habits, without recognizing the people and behaviors we have failed to acknowledge in our conversations about generosity and the primacy we place on our own definitions. 

People are suffering, there is widespread threat of social and economic collapse, and a laying bare of inequities and human rights abuses. At the same time, there is opportunity, and there is hope. What will get us, as a world, through this time is caring for one another. Radical generosity is the idea that the suffering of another is as intolerable to me as my own suffering, and the idea that people deserve not just to barely survive, but to thrive. This is a time of movements, broad groundswells of collective action that demand change—and change now, not later–and a time for us in the philanthropic sector to respond in kind, in the language of movements, acknowledging and supporting grassroots power. Throughout the sector, we need to transcend our own brands and boards and budgets and work together, laterally, openly, transparently, and generously, through risk and reward.

Lastly, this is a moment that calls urgently for one more “radical”: radical imagination, which is the thing that all movements share: the creation of a shared space where we imagine the world that we want to live in and then work to co-create it. Upending our traditional structures and notions of power may be the thing that allows us to agree upon what that world should really look like.

Our first step in creating this shared space will be an open online event taking part on 24th November to explore the topic of Power and Philanthropy. Together, we will begin the work to imagine and co-create the world we want to live in. To find out more, sign up here

By Asha Curran, CEO, GivingTuesday and WINGSForum 2020 Planning Committee member.

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