Building a Better Normal: What Now for Philanthropy?

“Our identity comes from the role we play in the narrative we believe in.”
—Trabian Shorters, Founder & CEO, BMe Community

COVID-19 has ripped up the script. The tale of philanthropy, prosperity, and progress, already under revision, is now seriously lacking in convincing narrators.

The social sector improvised, using well-rehearsed lines on “pivoting” and “taking action.” Social investors released emergency funds, which have no doubt relieved suffering in communities across the world.

But these success stories are drowned out by the violent inequities exposed by the crisis. Now just three words reverberate around the world: “we can’t breathe.”   

The question is, what now? What does it mean to be a social investor in the “new normal”? Is it written that we will lurch from crisis to crisis, or can we learn from transitional justice in saying “never again”?  

“We are in a period of transition; but a transition towards what?” 
—David Keller, TPW Member & Co-Founder
Misinformation Kills: COVID-19 and the Importance of Human Rights Fact-Finding

Getty Images | London, UK

From Fixing to Building

“Fixers hate loss, seek stability and control, and are problem-focused. They seek to save from threat. Builders love gain, seek growth and fulfillment and are aspiration-focused. They invest in assets.”
—Trabian Shorters, Founder of BMe Community
Asset-Framing in Emergencies

The model of philanthropy for the “vulnerable” / “low-income” / otherwise deprived communities has failed to build the resilience needed to survive a crisis like COVID-19. The language we use is evolving to recognize that partnering with communities and recognizing their assets is the right approach.

“Women and girls in India and globally are assets in every community. We need to help the government to better understand their full potential—employment, healthcare, education, community leadership and support. Philanthropy can invest in women and girls in the short-term for long-term community resiliency.” 
—Suparna Gupta, Founder & Director of Aangan
Will Gender Equity be an Unfortunate Victim of COVID-19?

Framing the solution in this way leads to systemic, human-centered approaches while acknowledging the urgency of the situation.  

“As a funder, when this crisis began it was hard to know how much to change—what to start doing as a foundation, versus sticking with our existing strategy. We landed on: yes—we need emergency relief funding, but we also have the ability and privilege to think about the medium and long term. When we think about this change, we want to focus on work that builds systems and sustainability in communities, so that when the next crisis hits, systems have been built and can be relied upon, and hopefully increase equity.” 
—Sapphira Goradia, TPW Board Member and Co-Impact Member
Telementoring for Health Systems Change at Scale

Seeing Interconnectedness

If philanthropy’s narrative is changing, so is our perspective of the stage. To decide whether to fund locally or globally is a legitimate question—but avoiding us/them distinctions is essential. 

 “By now we all know we are in a very interconnected world. The virus does not respect national boundaries. The country-based solutions we are currently providing will not work unless you want to build walls around every country. We need a global response. That means thinking of the Earth as the place where we tackle this problem. Improving outcomes and saving lives in one country will save lives all over the world. If we help Africa, Latin America—it will make us all safer.” 
—Dr. Sanjeev Arora, Founder of Project ECHO
Telementoring for Health Systems Change at Scale

As the epicenter of the crisis moves from Europe and the United States to Latin America, and as cases grow in crisis-hit Yemen and South Sudan, it is unclear if globally we have reached “the peak.” Competition for personal protective equipment (PPE) has left community health workers in the Global South empty-handed, and countries are arguing about who gets priority access to a vaccine. The “we” in this crisis has so often been national, and in several countries, even national slogans that “we are all in this together” have dramatically fallen apart in recent weeks. 

“If not all of us are safe, nobody is safe. Because we are a globally connected community. This is the time for global solidarity.”
—Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Global CEO of AMREF Africa
Health System Strengthening

Capitalism is facing a crisis of ethics and identity that could change it beyond recognition. Do we embrace equity and interconnectedness, or withdraw and turn inwards? The winning narrative could decide not only the outcome from COVID-19, but the US election and the state of democracy across the world. 

 “The world is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain…there is no return to anything like normal for any of us without a return to normal for all of us.”
—David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)
COVID-19 in Crisis-Affected Countries: A “Double Emergency” 

Omar Haj Kadour, AFP | Idlib, Syria

Rethinking our Thinking

With this in mind we move to the metanarrative: to rethinking our thinking, and to question our assumptions. Is growth always good? Does being strategic mean being in control? Are my decisions really rational and objective? What does it mean to be an equitable funder in a crisis?

The first step to answering these questions is to acknowledge the importance of information. A logical decision based on bad data is likely to be a bad decision.

“Facts play an essential role in mitigating existential threats.”
—Darian Swig, TPW Member & Co-Founder
Misinformation Kills: COVID-19 and the Importance of Human Rights Fact-Finding

Getting this data will involve radical collaboration between governments, academic institutions, corporate leaders, and social investors with resources and connections to leverage.

“For several years, the best data on public health hasn’t been in the libraries, it’s with the social media firms in Silicon Valley…a healthy ‘new normal’ will have to involve some institutional arrangement between the world’s great libraries, the big firms, and governments.”
—Philip Howard, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII)
Modelling a New Normal: Data, Behaviour & Systems Change

The next step is acknowledging that we have built data systems in an inequitable way. Without an equity lens, we are prone to taking decisions that exacerbate inequality.

“We never ask the gender of an algorithm…but behavior matters when we’re building software. We have built networks that prevent transparency. Philanthropy can guide this in a way that governments can’t.”
—Alexsis de Raadt St. James, TPW Member & Founder of Merian Ventures
Modelling a New Normal: Data, Behaviour & Systems Change

We then have to acknowledge that, as human beings, we are wired to interpret data in a way that is consistent with the narratives we believe in. Science is under siege because we believe in stories more than in numbers. Thinking again, and sharing the power to interpret the problem and find solutions is essential to having a lasting impact. 

“Our beliefs, and the actions informed by those beliefs, are built on how we interpret the world around us, based on the data we receive. To reframe our experiences for more productive outcomes in family, relationships, and philanthropy, we must return to the unfiltered pool of available data and challenge our assumptions.”
—Danielle Oristian York, President and Executive Director of 21/64
Navigating Family Philanthropy During a Pandemic

While sharing control can feel daunting, there are tools and approaches that social investors can use. Human-centered design acknowledges that decisions made by human beings are hugely influenced by subjective experiences.  

“Because philanthropy is so human-centered, every part of it is an experience. Philanthropy is a series of micro-experiences that you can design for.”
—Nadia Roumani, Cofounder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design’s ( Designing for Social Systems Program
Navigating During Times of Ambiguity

Wellbeing in a Crisis

Acknowledging our humanity also means thinking about wellbeing. For non-profit leaders in particular the psychological strain is immense, as the pandemic forces organizations to close or merge, and threatens to reverse decades of progress and undermine entire sectors.

“We need to understand the importance of wellbeing in the social sector. If change is the only constant, we have to learn the skills of adaptation, to be able to keep ourselves and our institutions well—that is key for resilience.” 
—Rohini Nilekani, Founder of Arghyam
Addressing the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Social Change Leaders

Funders see demand for their resources rocket while the value of their endowments and investments falls. At such a time, the temptation to step back is understandable. But being part of a community that shares a belief in a better future can also be immensely empowering.

Finding others who care about the same problems is a joyous experience. Having TPW, Synergos, Dasra to connect us—that is a real opportunity.” 
—Jeff Walker, TPW Member
Addressing the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Social Change Leaders

This is the recipe for success that changemakers are striving for: good data to make decisions and a community to make them with, to challenge assumptions, and to co-create solutions.

“We need to have two pillars to respond to COVID-19: science and community. They are the two pillars that will change the trajectory of COVID-19 in Africa.” 
—Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Global CEO of AMREF Africa
Health System Strengthening

Getty Images | Berlin, Germany

Conclusion: Balance in a New Normal

Building a better normal will mean thinking about balance. A balance between emergency responses and longer-term approaches; local and global interventions; people, planet, and profit. It will mean recognizing imbalance and injustice and moving urgently to put equity at the core of the new narrative.

Achieving balance can be difficult when pivoting and moving quickly. But the principles it is based on are simple and instinctively human.

“If there is one piece of advice I could give to philanthropists, it would be to make your grantees comfortable.”
—Clare Wilkins, Principal: Effective Philanthropy at NPC
Re-thinking Due Diligence under COVID-19 

Building new narratives, new roles, and new identities will take time. But it can also be a joyous experience. With these principles held closely, there is reason to believe that our transition is towards something better.

“As deep as the shadows are right now, there is so much power and good coming forward. We have an opportunity to engage in a radical shift through this alignment that many of us are feeling, to foster a world ahead that will be sane and just.” 
—Roshi Joan Halifax, Buddhist Teacher and Founder of the Upaya Institute and Zen Center
Addressing the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Social Change Leaders

By: Sam Underwood, TPW Staff

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