Envisioning how to do things differently for a healthier planet and how philanthropy has a vital role led to many discussions at the conference “New Frontiers in Funding, Philanthropy and Investment” in London.
The New Frontiers conference (organised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Cassie Robinson) that I attended last week promised a glimpse into the future of philanthropy. Envisioning how we can do things differently is difficult when we are busy managing the consequences of converging crises like climate change, covid19, and war in Europe. This is true for all social practices, including how we grow our communities, care for our families and the land on which we live, and how people in philanthropy go about their work.
Panellists encouraged us to be as bold as science fiction and provide daring images of a future beyond the status quo of philanthropy.
The most radical image of philanthropy was undoubtedly the idea of wealth redistribution. Jen Hooke of Thirty Percy highlighted that the downward spiral of wealth redistribution enables an upward spiral of empowering communities and partners. Similarly, next-generation philanthropists reported how much effort it takes to forgo their inheritance and work against the structures created over generations to protect their personal wealth.
When we look critically at the origins of philanthropic wealth, we can see why many panelists emphasized that philanthropy should play an active role in redistributing that wealth. Much of the wealth of philanthropists was accumulated through the exploitation of other peoples and natures.
But what does that mean for those of us practicing philanthropy today? For many people in philanthropy, this will mean to talk your asset managers. When they resist change to the for-profit logic of investments, it is helpful to work with that resistance, understand where it comes from and find common ground. Alastair Parvin of Open Systems Lab suggests starting these discussions by defining the six principles that nobody around the table can disagree with.
Beyond managing financial investments differently, the conference showcased how philanthropy can move beyond a reductionist focus on grant-making for impact measurement. Panelists agreed that funders need to become more comfortable with “letting go.”
One way this can be done in practice is to revamp the governance structures of foundations. For that, it is crucial to include people with lived experience of funding issues in decision-making. Alisha Pomells showed how that could work. She is part of the 2027 Programme that prepares brilliant professionals from working-class backgrounds for decision-making roles in the grant-giving sector. The conference led by example: it provided a stage mainly for black and ethnic minority and female voices.
Admittedly, changing the governance structures and reconstituting board membership go to the heart of a foundation and might not be immediate solutions. In the meantime, funders can start with smaller but significant steps such as drawing on creative legal teams, restructuring contracts, or changing evaluation processes, so they become spaces for collaborative inquiry rather than control of grantees. While foundations are figuring this out, moreover, they can use intermediaries to shift money and make a difference right now.
Overall, the conference provided an enormously valuable overview of current debates about progressive philanthropy. Personally, I was also struck by the energy that flowed from panelists with lived experience and by the unlimited support that some philanthropists are willing to provide to the constituencies represented by those panelists. The conference did a fantastic job in convening these voices. As such, it was a necessary step to imaging another world in which philanthropy is more than an institution and rather, as Derek Bardowell called it, a social practice.