Does the World Still Need Philanthropy?

Earlier this year, I participated in an academy on “Solidarity as Practice” hosted by Thousand Currents and Resource Justice. It was a captivating, unconventional and at times uncomfortable learning experience grounded in how to enact solidarity while mobilising resources in support of social change.

The academy was a week-long exploration of solidarity as a philanthropic principle rooted in political analysis. It involved a lot of deep reflection on traditional philanthropic and grant making practices employed by funders, particularly those in the Global North. It was unlike any learning process we are accustomed to in the Global North. Through a practice-based learning model led by a faculty of brilliant grassroots leaders, the academy helped participants to start taking small steps towards unlearning some of the behavioural norms in traditional philanthropic practice.

Having always had a passion for social and economic justice, at the beginning of my legal career, I became somewhat enamoured with philanthropy and sought to integrate it into my professional practice as a private wealth lawyer. Over the last decade, I have come across many admirable individuals who dedicate their time towards distributing capital and/or income to non-profits, social change organisations and social movements. Gradually, though, I realised that for all its benefits, there is no escaping the fact that philanthropy is still part of a problematic economic system in which wealth can be accumulated in a manner that produces structural inequalities. Those same structural inequalities can be reproduced in the context of philanthropic activity. In particular, traditional philanthropic practices can actually be a hindrance when specifically seeking to dismantle social injustice.

Many philanthropists are naturally very concerned about how to give away their money in a way which maximises impact. It’s fair to say that redistributing large amounts of wealth is a significant responsibility. It’s critical for philanthropists to acknowledge openly that there is an inherent power dynamic between themselves as funders and social change non-profits and grassroots organisations as grantees. More often than not, this power dynamic is replicated in grant making principles and practices.

When reflecting on philanthropic practice we need to talk about positional power, especially in the context of social justice philanthropy.

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

The pandemic has served to highlight the critical importance of unrestricted grant funding, which has been a lifeline to non-profit organisations and social movements. Ordinarily, a high proportion of grants are awarded on a project-based model, with funders committing support for one year at time, often accompanied by strict metrics for desired outcomes and impact. Instead, philanthropists need to adopt transformative practices which are rooted in solidarity, defined by Thousand Currents as: “a commitment to using one’s power and privileges to support others’ struggles for self-determination, freedom and justice that is backed up with consistent, visionary and bold actions to support them”.

A key indicator of operating in the spirit of solidarity is building mutual trust. In practice this might look like unrestricted multi-year funding, which affords grantees the flexibility to determine how best to spend a grant depending on their circumstances and provides scope for innovation. Leaders of grassroots organisations both in the Global North and the Global South consistently speak of a need for unrestricted funding as opposed to restricted project-based funding: we need to listen to them. Similarly, measuring success by certain metrics within prescriptive timescales, as imposed by funders, can put unnecessary pressure on grantees and result in time consuming reporting requirements. Philanthropists would do well to work in deep partnership with social movements and develop close relationships with grassroots leaders who know what success looks like for their communities.

Through decades of philanthropy, it seems we have succeeded in redistributing resources somewhat, but we have not shifted power adequately. Philanthropy still has a valuable place in the world, but if we are to pursue social justice we must move towards a trust-based model based on radical redistribution of power as well as wealth. Philanthropists and their advisers need to do the work of addressing their positional power and consistently committing to operating in a way that democratises power and enacts genuine solidarity with the communities most impacted by the work philanthropists are funding.