21 November 2011

Philanthropists: Dare to be Different

I’m currently in Bellagio for the Bellagio Initiative on the Future of Philanthropy and Development in the Pursuit of Human Wellbeing, organised by IDS, the Resource Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Foundations spend private money. They don’t have to chase money like us mere mortals. As such they can dare to be different from public sector funders of development. They can afford to spurn fads and be fashionably unfashionable.

They should, for example,

• Help redefine the objectives of development

Public development agencies are more focused on the tangible development outcomes—these are straightforward to explain to taxpayers. Philanthropists can focus on other dimensions of wellbeing: trust, solidarity, self confidence, and freedoms. Wellbeing is important because it a truer way of assessing what it is to live well, but also because the nonmaterial dimensions force us to be more grounded, because to affect the nonmaterial dimensions of living well requires a greater understanding of context.

• Do things that others cannot

What is it that philanthropists have a comparative advantage in?
o Work on unfashionable issues
o Take risks and accept failure as a part of the innovation process—redefine success, don’t get trapped in electoral cycles.
o Reproduce—support the creation of other foundations

• Organise for the long view

Many philanthropists take a lifetime to build up their success and money—why do they expect to be able to effect change in 3 years?

o Get a better balance between delivering services for people in urgent need and building resilient societies, societies with strong organisations and institutions that can deal with unanticipated shocks.
o Build leaders and leadership. We know how important leadership is at all levels—household, community, district, national—in all sectors.

And yet, there seems to be convergence between the taxpayer driven results for development and the philanthropies’ impact innovations work. What is driving this? The private sector backgrounds of the new philanthropists? The need to work with public sector development agencies? The human desire to look good?

I don’t know, but we need philanthropy to dare to be different. The last thing we need is a McDevelopment monoculture of goals, ideas, innovations and actions.

More tomorrow as I try to absorb the exciting ideas swirling around the hilltops.


David Rieff said...

Interesting post, as always. But I was surprised you don't raise the issue that makes many of us extremely wary of philanthropy: its total lack of democratic accountability.

Who decides what Gates or Soros does? Well, ultimately Bill and Melinda Gates and George Soros. Have they done much good? Absolutely, and it would be churlish and ungrateful to pretend otherwise.

But what about when one doesn't agree with their approach. There is, unlike with governments, literally no recourse. And what would you think if you did not agree with their programs at all --- as in the case of much political activism by rich people? Why do you assume philanthropy in development will always be on the side of the angels? Even in the case of Gates, if you were a Right to Food advocate you might think his largely technocratic, patent regime respecting initiatives did harm as well as good and his foundation's disproportionate influence over global food policy a dangerous thing.

Jan said...


Thanks for the interesting post.

Daring for almost three years along the exemplar philanthropy-lines you recommend,
- I have created the http://www.wikiworx.info/ platform (naming only decided after wikileaks became a global phenomenon)
- yet, on (b) while I was perhaps the only one who could have imagined the platform,
- I am eagerly waiting for other foundations to embrace structured wikis and structurally transform their communications to all stakeholders of development.

Kind regards,