Philanthropy for the Twenty-first Century

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When in the early eighties I became part of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind (FPH), then in 1986 its General Director, I had nearly 20 years’ experience in French senior civil service and would share my original community’s cautionary views on philanthropy. How could the wealthy, or even the extremely wealthy, claim to be  definers by themselves of the public good? Was this not the public authorities’ responsibility, under the people’s control?

I was nonetheless stimulated by my new professional and militant adoption. I had in fact discovered a few years earlier the still rather discreet crises of the states and of representative democracies. Facing challenges that were clearly increasingly global, facing the necessity of approaching issues comprehensively with inclusion of all the players, facing the need to design long-term strategies to change the economy, governance, and society itself, given the increasingly obvious deadlocks of “modernity,” which had been forged between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, that had given birth to the industrial revolution, and was responsible for humankind’s increasingly massive impact on the biosphere, states were no longer the proper scale at which to address these issues—their fastidious sovereignty was a major obstacle to taking account of inter-dependencies, and the compartmentalized organization of public policies was a congenital weakness when what was required was systemic thinking and action.

As for representative democracy, even if in the past it had shown its capacity to consider evolution in the long term, more and more often it seemed, under the pressure of public opinion become ubiquitous, to be locked into a short-term logic geared to the following electoral deadlines. In sum, we had a world to reinvent and institutions inherited from the past that were incapable of doing so.

This inclination to be locked into short-term views and the goals of interest groups was not, at that time, exclusive to public institutions. The “neoliberal revolution” symbolized in the early eighties by Ronald Reagan’s rise to power in the United States and Margaret Thatcher’s in the United Kingdom, emphasized the shareholder’s value, which companies were to serve exclusively, at the expense of the long-term strategies that had thus far been supported by the techno-structures.

Finance was undergoing the same evolution. Since the end of World War II, the company-share detention timespan had been divided by five, and financial flows had skyrocketed, progressively breaking away from the real economy in favor of increasingly generalized speculative approaches facilitated by a growing interconnection of the financial markets and by the development of computer science and algorithms. There too, I could see the mounting disconnect between humankind’s needs and the workings of large institutions.

I then discovered that private foundations, though small compared to states, multinational companies, or world-class financial institutions, had two outstanding features: complete independence and the possibility, as long as their capital was wisely managed, of making very long-term commitments. In the institutional landscape, I see no other organization, including within civil society, having these two privileges.

Already then, I intuitively saw responsibility, more than rights, as the backbone of twenty-first-century ethics, because it is the corollary of interdependence, power, and freedom. The idea of universal responsibility, proportionate to the power of each person and each institution, gave rise to a responsibility, in foundations, equal to their two privileges, independence and long-term planning.

My first steps in the world of philanthropy led me from one surprise to another, from one disappointment to another, and these two sentiments flowed rather than ebbed from one decade to the next. In the early eighties, the FPH had the unique opportunity of being able to redefine its goals and vocation. To do so, we took the precaution of asking ourselves what foundations usually died of and identified two fatal diseases: goals irrevocably set by the founder, which had lost their relevance as time went on; and an insufficiently rigorous management of its assets, subsequently melting away under the sun. This led us to give the FPH as vague a vocation as we wished: “to be at the service of humankind, research, and social progress.” This would allow us, over time, within the framework of defining ten-year strategies, to choose, depending on continuously renewed contexts and challenges, to find the best ways to act.

I discovered that the “conventional wisdom” of the world of philanthropy, the one imparted to new foundation board members or program managers, was practically at opposite ends of our founding intuitions. The dominant features of this conventional wisdom seem to be encompassed by some of its keywords: funding per project; niche-oriented approach; emphasis on impact assessment; spending pressure.

First, funding per project. Most foundations develop, in terms of the goal they have set once and for all, prerequisite criteria on the basis of which “projects” submitted by potential beneficiaries, most often closed in on themselves, including outer limits, a beginning, and an end. Is this little piece of social reality, of space and time cut out of an interdependent, ever changing world in any way genuinely relevant? I immediately expressed serious doubts, considering that a thousand “solidarity-based projects” would never build solidarity-based development, that our refusing or being reluctant to fund organizations in the long run by taking charge of their overhead costs cornered foundation “partners” into engaging in exhausting, perpetual “project hunting,” entailing two deviations that can also be observed in public funding: an inclination to scheme, because of the imperative need, whatever the true goals, to pretend to comply in full with the foundation’s prerequisite criteria; and a bonus, not for genuine competence in the matters being addressed but more prosaically for a good command of the procedures and the wording that will condition access to funding.

Second keyword: niche. It is a reflection of both the prevailing influence of the managerial world of private companies on many foundation boards, and of the hubris afflicting any major philanthropist. It includes securing a “market segment”—another fetish keyword—in which one will be able to “make a difference”, and, if possible, solve a problem on one’s own. This hubris, which characterizes someone like Bill Gates, for instance, might make sense when like him, one can put a billion dollars a year on the table. But the great majority of foundations cannot, so they will tend to seek a challenge “made to their measure.” I used to call this “inverting realism and idealism.” For many foundations, being realistic is to take up a challenge suited to their size; but as I see it, this projection of one’s dimension on the world as a substitute for the real world is the very definition of idealism.

Third keyword: impact assessment and measurement. These two terms are usually advanced as obvious requirements. Must we not make sure that we are acting rightly? And how to do it if not by  measuring the impact of our action? We need to stop and think for a second. Is it possible, is it reasonable, in an interdependent world crossed by long-term evolutions, to isolate the short-term impact of a project of a few years? In fact, as a rule, it is impossible. We therefore need to wonder where such a widespread impact-assessment requirement comes from and what its consequences are on the nature of what is funded by foundations. My answer to these two questions, confirmed over time, is that the impact-assessment requirement stems from the ambiguous relations, even mutual suspicions, between those holding the legal power in foundations, namely their board members, and the members of their permanent team, mainly those in charge of the programs, who are in continuous contact with reality and with the partners. The distance between the two worlds is often all the greater as the foundations, concerned with their respectability and notoriety, tend to seek out, for their foundation board, well-known figures from academia or the business world. The downside of this notoriety is that foundation board members devote little time to this activity. Many foundation board meetings are conducted as smoothly as company general meetings. A foundation board will want to make quick decisions based on application files. Relations between the permanent team and the funding beneficiaries are inevitably closer than what transpires from the cold assessment of the compliance of funding requests with the criteria set by the foundation board. But will such familiarity lead to an improper transfer of power from the foundation board to the permanent team? In any case, many foundation boards fear that it will. Requiring an impact assessment is their way of reasserting their power.

Last keyword: spending pressure. This stems from U.S. law stipulating that expenses related to implementing foundation goals must be proportionate to their assets. But as these latter are subject to much fluctuation from one year to the next depending on the state of the financial markets, the annual budget fluctuates in the same proportions, which is very damaging for the continuity of actions in partnership.

In my view, all this “conventional wisdom” is at opposite ends of the objective responsibility of foundations, which as I mentioned, stems from their independence and their ability to act in the very long term. A symptom of this is in fact that at a time when the question of the responsibility of actors is gaining ground in every sphere—scientific research, local authorities, companies, financial institutions, higher education, etc.—the world of foundations has been among the most reluctant to reflect collectively on its responsibility. We get off with the usual trick, whereby ethics are replaced by simple professional deontology—action complying with the bylaws, fair competition among potential beneficiaries and objective decision-making criteria, impact assessment—and voilà!

At the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, action through project funding, which at first was adopted to imitate more experienced foundations, did not even last five years. By 1990 we had become aware that we were rushing forward blindly, through increasingly numerous projects and a mechanical selection protocol, so we decided to stop and make ourselves take a long sabbatical break, of about one and a half years, to review what we had funded so far. We came out of it with a conviction that has remained unchanged for nearly thirty years, namely that what we needed to try to assess was not the impact, but the relevance of our action. Is it covering the right subjects? Is it supporting the right players? Have these latter, often supported for more than a decade, learned as time has gone by to behave as strategists, by combining long-term vision with seizing often unpredictable opportunities? Have we on our side learned from past experience? Do we make the best of our freedom to combine actions of very diverse natures and levels and to fund what is both critical and difficult to fund for other public and private institutions?

This new approach unfolded in two stages. Between 1991 and 2002, we organized our action around seven major challenges that we had discovered to be “orphan” challenges because they could not be reduced to the traditional areas of philanthropic action, such as health, education, agriculture, housing, the fight against poverty, or the environment. The seven challenges gave birth to seven programs: “to live in peace in a world of diversity”; “to achieve people’s empowerment in scientific and technological developments”; “to invent an art of peace”; “to change governance”; “to address the root cause of social exclusion”; “to contribute to strengthening small-scale farming in the context of globalized exchanges”; and “to face major technological risks.” These programs took us far out of our comfort zone, and led us to support in practically every case the emergence of international networks, prompting collective approaches to capitalizing experiences, discovering the need to do better, to question the worldview, and the conceptual and institutional framework that constituted the daily setting of our action.

Then one of the programs, the seventh, took off; through it a question was indeed emerging, which in 2019 is on everyone’s mind but was only just emerging at the time, namely: How can a systemic transition, without which humankind is heading for disaster, be designed to include all the players and all societies, and how can it be led? This is the ultimate question, and it can only be answered through a new kind of dialog among societies that will allow us to find the right answers while we still have time. It is the question that cuts across every milieu and challenges each of them on its responsibilities. It is the ultimate strategic question: How can the efforts of the whole of humankind be federated around a small number of major challenges to be taken up jointly?

For a rather small-sized foundation—with a yearly budget of roughly nine million euros—is not raising a question of such scope precisely a sign of the hubris I was just denouncing? Quite the opposite! We are radically preserved from it by the disparity between the scope of the challenges and the smallness of our size, which forces us to own this disparity, to be just a small player but keen on getting the most out of our independence and our action in the long run. This is what led us, in 1994, to launch and support the Alliance for a Responsible and United World, a both “artisan” and pertinacious approach to inventing a prototype for dialog among societies, among players, cutting across concrete challenges, failing which the transition everyone is calling for will turn out to be impossible to conceive and to conduct.

The culmination of this dynamics took the form in December 2001 of a unique World Citizens Assembly, consisting of 400 attendees, ten days, and quotas per world region and per socioprofessional sphere ensuring, as opposed to major so called “global events” such as the World Economic Forum or the World Social Forum, that “the world was there” in all of its diversity. Thirty-five languages were used in the workshops thanks to several hundred volunteer interpreters, because allowing everyone to express themselves in their own language was an indispensable condition for escaping the illusion of a “world” conference reserved for only those who speak fluent English.

The outcomes of the Assembly were produced from the summaries of the dozens of workshops that were held during the ten days and gave birth to a document entitled “Agenda for the Twenty-first Century.” The Agenda shows that leading the great transition supposes taking up, in the coming decades, four major challenges. The small number is essential to conducting a strategy that requires getting to the heart of the matter. This means: inventing mechanisms for dialog among societies that will bring about a global community of destiny, without which we will be unable to overcome our selfishness, resentments born from history, misunderstandings, and conflicting interests; founding the twenty-first century on a renewed ethics of responsibility, summed up in a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities; conducting a revolution in governance in order to move from the current segmented systems to an overall approach to managing societies; inventing a new economic model, which I call “the great forward comeback from economy to œconomy” because before the industrial revolution, œconomy was the word that was used, with its transparent etymological meaning, that is “the rules for managing the common house,” which requires us to invent forms of organization of the economy and society that will enable ensuring the wellbeing of all within the limits of the biosphere. Ever since, these four challenges have been at the core of the foundation’s strategy.

And in my opinion, dealing collectively with these four challenges should be the common perspective of foundations in the 21st century.

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