Philanthropy is a guest at other people’s tables … but is it time to play musical chairs?

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Are we doing enough? And are we doing enough of the right thing?

Writing this blog, I began to reflect on the passage of time – how much changes, how much stays the same. Thirty years was enough for 17th century Europeans to fight an extended and disastrous religious war, at a human scale it is short enough to span much of my career. In 1989, the year that the EFC was founded, Peter Brook was awarded the Europe Theatre Prize and in 2019 he was awarded the Princess of Asturias Foundation Award for the Arts. Bookends to remind us that wisdom, universalism, and creativity − the hallmarks of this great Englishman in Paris − remain steadfast across turbulent times.

And what of our “little world of philanthropy” during that time? What new challenges do we face and what is our responsible role? There are three overriding areas to focus on: power, democracy and the citizen; the digital and data revolutions; and the destination of funding – who gets what?

I began my career in the world of corporate support for the arts during the 1980s. At that time this was a controversial subject for cultural practitioners who, almost universally, felt the state should pay for the arts, not the private sector. And here we are 30 plus years on and the ethics of power are as present now as then, but in different form.

Power, democracy and the citizen

Then the state was all powerful, leaders were drawn from a relatively narrow band of mostly men, and the northern hemisphere ran the show. Now, the wealth and influence of philanthropists has waxed as that of the state has waned; funders are to an extent more diverse, and innovation, energy, and creativity is to be found in different places. This is not to say that philanthropic wealth is diversified – it clearly isn’t, but citizens across the world are increasingly finding their voice to hold wealth to account: And to challenge the apparent authority money brings, witness the discussions about West Coast Tech philanthropy, or venture philanthropy. At the National Lottery Community Fund in the UK we are supporting Ten Years’ Time which aims to diversify the talent pool of foundation staff, alongside developing a programme for supporting Leaders with Lived Experience. This is all part of our funding philosophy that when people are in the lead, communities thrive. Where telling truth to power used to be directed at politicians and governments, more recently it can be seen to apply to funders. We funders must recognise that we are the guests at other people’s tables.

The digital and data revolutions

We are also 30 years further into a technological revolution, which, together with the growth of global capital, can seek return across a world which has out-run a social revolution that could ensure society and citizens can all benefit from these changes. The agricultural and industrial revolutions that were spawned two centuries ago in Britain, were followed by hard-won social revolutions, with our philanthropic forefathers and mothers both urging reform and supporting charitable acts. Once more we have some collective catching up to do as inequality within societies grows. It is not clear where philanthropy will sit – enabling the technologically adept to cherry pick systems, places and people for support; utilising data analytics to identify need and demand; or supporting self-determination for communities? Perhaps a mix of all of these.

The destination of funding – Who gets what

Where the money goes, and how it gets there, is the crux of the matter. It is noteworthy that in the UK the majority of major donors concentrate their giving on elite cultural institutions and universities. The growth of community foundations, interest in diaspora funding, and the shrinking of the state, have not led to a significant re-balancing of philanthropic intent. Donors in the UK, and in Europe more widely, remain nervous about taking on responsibility for activity that for the second half of the 20th century was the domain of government, and yet social welfare funding is, of course, the cornerstone of charitable giving in western Europe – think no further than the Good Samaritan.

Poverty and loss have always been part of our human story, as have acts of love and charity. They will be with us for some time to come, but we now face the urgent and very modern issue of climate change. Leaders like Greta Thunberg cause us all to look in the mirror and ask: “Have we done enough? Are we doing enough?” We all have to step up, philanthropy included, and here philanthropy has the opportunity to play for extra gain – by utilising its access to wealth management and impact investment. The link between generating wealth and backing good causes is another development that has gained pace in the last five years, and one that could materially accelerate our global collective response to the threat of climate change.

At the end of the day, however, I am reminded of a much more radical and challenging question for foundations and philanthropists – spoken to a group of foundation trustees by an individual seeking funds “I don’t want to ask you to give more, grateful as I am. I would like to ask you to take less so that others may have more.” Now that is a challenge.

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