Philanthropy: Creating impact in a constantly changing, interconnected world
As we contemplate the future of effective philanthropic work, one of the main obstacles that the sector must navigate is, paradoxically, the good feeling that the work of helping others can create. In addressing serious challenges at home and abroad, we need to look beyond what feels comfortable based on traditional models or precedents, focusing instead on impact-driven strategies and collaborations.
Looking back, a number of indicators point to a consistent progress over the last few decades globally. However, many societal issues persist in spite of significant efforts to address and contain them, and new issues continue to emerge. Global poverty rates have dropped by more than half since 2000, but one in ten people in developing countries continue to live below the poverty line and millions of others live on slightly more. In parallel, inequality has exploded in many places. Millions of people, mostly children, die from diseases associated with polluted water supplies and inadequate sanitation and hygiene, services that most of us take for granted. One in nine people are malnourished, and climate change will further threaten food production, while the EU alone wastes approximately 88 million tons of food every year. An unprecedented 60 million people globally have unwillingly abandoned their homes, including nearly 20 million refugees, half of them under the age of 18. Today, more people than ever before live in a country other than the one in which they were born. This mass movement of people has resulted in unprecedented social inequality, with millions of children getting no fair chance for the future because of circumstances beyond their control.
These issues, however, do not concern every society equally. Looking closer to our own neighbourhoods, where lack of access to basic goods is less prevalent, economic anxiety still lingers. The population in virtually every European country is ageing, work forces are shrinking, and 16 million people are currently unemployed. Europe has received huge inflows of immigrants and refugees escaping from poverty and war. These factors, compounded by the lack of a broadly shared vision, appear to be driving factors in rising populism and nationalism trends and lead to disregard for core democratic values. They have resulted in severe integration challenges that strain national welfare, education, and housing systems, challenge solidarity, and create significant divisions across European societies.
Modern philanthropy, in its myriad manifestations, has had an immense positive impact on society at large. Current global issues and challenges indicate that the role of philanthropy continues to be significant. However, as our interconnected world continues changing, we need to put our energy into developing philanthropic approaches that keep up with our current needs. We need to reach beyond our comfort zones and question outdated modes of thinking that perhaps were useful in earlier times and contexts but are outdated and ill-equipped to meet today’s complex issues.
Philanthropic organisations often focus on providing relief, treating symptoms, and covering public sector deficiencies. However, many of the issues that the philanthropic community seeks to address require proactive thinking and action, in order to address underlying conditions that generate unacceptable results. Philanthropy needs to find the right balance between offering immediate assistance to those in urgent need and maintaining a long-term approach toward addressing underlying issues. In order to achieve the latter, philanthropy must embrace calculated risks and test new models, which, if successful, the public and the private sectors can adopt, replicate, and scale up. Philanthropy needs to question tendencies to react based on emotion or personal preferences and become strategic and outcome-based. It needs to move from isolated initiatives towards collaborative solutions that address the root causes of social challenges in a holistic way, enable empowerment, create employment, and reduce inequality in its various forms.
As philanthropy prepares for the future and works to maximise effectiveness, it is important that we harness key developments that have taken place in the NGO sector in the past thirty years.
Technology enables members of the philanthropic community to connect with partner organisations and beneficiaries around the globe faster and more efficiently, making giving easier, more transparent, and more accountable. Social media and mass communication enable sharing stories and building visibility in support of societal interventions in ways that have never previously been possible. The quantity of data captured around the world is increasing exponentially. Data is, of course, no panacea. We need to be cautious about relying too heavily on data, being misdirected by it or neglecting non-measureable elements. However, there is no doubt that conclusions stemming from accurate and informative data analysis should increasingly guide decision-making. This will enable us to become more proactive and impact-driven, and can help promote transparency and instil confidence about the effectiveness of our work.
To conclude, in order for philanthropy to become a more effective agent of change, all stakeholders need to forge and maintain long-term, open collaborations. Philanthropic organisations, the private sector, academia, and the public sector need to work alongside NGOs and civil society. Everyone involved needs to shift away from operational silos and one-way partnerships to more collaborative and co-creative approaches. Strong philanthropic collaborations require openly sharing knowledge, data, best practices, successes and failures across disciplines, sectors, and geographic boundaries. Building stronger connections between philanthropic and beneficiary organisations requires increased engagement and communication, in order for all parties to understand one another’s needs and priorities. Philanthropic organisations must also seek to build trust in the communities in which they operate acting in full transparency and consistently demonstrating integrity, reliability, and competence.
The European Foundation Centre, as the leading platform in Europe for Institutional Philanthropy, must increasingly play the roles of catalyst and convener in this complex equation. As part of its priorities, the EFC must nurture an environment that intentionally cultivates interaction and dialogue between stakeholders. It needs to constantly assess current practices and disseminate ideas, models, and information that can enable philanthropic organisations to make better and more informed decisions, producing far-reaching solutions that enable the narrowing of critical gaps in our societies.
Poster for the SNF/SVA Philanthropy Poster Project exhibition, Athens, 2014
Design & illustration by Viktor Koen