How will history books mark this period? As the time when the cracks of social injustice and racial inequity reached their breaking point and gave way against the ravages of COVID-19, and when democracy disintegrated and social divides reached the point of no return? Or as the era when the impact of so many harsh truths finally became impossible to ignore or dismiss, leading to a tipping point that galvanized significant hope and change?
I am optimistic. This moment carries potential for a golden era for philanthropy – a period in which the role of philanthropy is more important than ever in reimagining a future that offers opportunity, equity, and justice for all. After all, among philanthropy’s greatest strengths are its ability to operate with a long time horizon, to rise above – and perhaps bridge – that which divides us, and to serve as society’s “risk capital.”
But what will it take to see with fresh eyes, to build community in ways that evoke our better angels, to bring about lasting social and environmental change? How can funders grab hold of the opportunity to be both bold and wise in finding ways to use philanthropy to make real, lasting change? One lesson seems clear – much work remains to be done to build resilient communities where all can thrive.
This moment offers an opportunity to reimagine and create pathways towards what can be, what should be.
Using the past two years as a guide, there are certainly some bright moments and essential lessons that can accelerate progress towards a more equitable and just society. I would offer five principles as touchstones:
- Engage stakeholders at all levels and build deeper and stronger partnerships. Constructive engagement and partnerships can take many forms. While the power imbalance will not go away, funders who work hard to develop collaborative relationships with their grantees know there is much to be gained from candid, open, and honest dialogue. Make it a priority to listen and learn from others. And going further, consider how you might bring diverse stakeholders together to collaborate in the design of new solutions to old problems. A critical part of the philanthropic journey is to invite input, ideas, and guidance from many perspectives – those on the front lines, other funders, community leaders, and more – and to incorporate this input into thoughtful strategies and actions.
- Be flexible. The term “strategic” implies planning and careful allocation of resources to achieve a specified goal. Effective philanthropic strategies can play a critical role in exploring new solutions to problems, translating research into practice, and leading progress. And yet, some highly effective funders view themselves as change agents and adopt an entrepreneurial, risk-taking approach to philanthropy that may be more opportunistic than strategic. If we are to leverage resources as creatively and effectively as possible, perhaps we need to be opportunistic and strategic at the same time.
- Keep an eye on the long-term: Overwhelming need, not only in times of crisis, narrows the attention of many donors to immediate concerns and challenges. Many of our crises are the result of short-term actions rather than attention to long-term solutions. In the midst of it all, some donors are poised to emerge as leaders due to their ability to dedicate resources and energy towards reimagining the future. The need is greater than ever to go beyond the obvious and think in creative ways about what kinds of changes are most likely to take hold and be sustainable over the long haul.
- Build and support movements. To follow on that last point, many would argue that real change occurs only when root causes – not symptoms – are tackled by social and environmental movements with clear vision, achievable goals, strong leadership, grassroots engagement, and powerful coalitions. Philanthropic resources are critical to these efforts, helping to galvanize, support, and strengthen important movements.
- Help to bridge divides. Our ever-increasing separation from each other is an issue we cannot ignore. What will it take to repair the tears in our social fabric and move toward a shared acknowledgement of our humanity – to begin to bridge the wealth divide, cultural and political divides, and other disparities that push us apart? The work must certainly include a greater focus on civic education, civil discourse, and collaboration – within our communities and beyond our borders – and philanthropy most certainly has a critical role to play in supporting these efforts.
So many of our leaders exemplify these principles, pushing forward every difficult day out of the “love of mankind” that is philanthropy. Today, we mourn the loss of one of these great leaders, Dr. Paul Farmer. Paul had a vision to ensure access to the highest quality healthcare in the world’s poorest countries and communities. He worked tirelessly to build Partners in Health, a beacon pointing the way to a better world, and galvanized so many in support of this vision. The Paul Farmers of the world inspire all of us to work harder to create a society rooted in equity and justice. What more is possible if the world of philanthropy re-dedicates all we know and have to a re-imagined future? Perhaps we can come together in this time of transition and uncertainty to enable a new era to unfold.