From Pain to Abundance: The Power of Community

Why the “fight for the soul of the philanthropy” demands a new way of working together

Note: This blog is based on the learnings from TPW’s European Gathering, held in October 2020. For each quote you can click on the session name highlighted in orange in order to view a recording of the session. All of the recordings are available here.

“In 2020, through COVID and Black Lives Matter, there has been a fight for the soul of the charitable sector, the soul of philanthropy…between people in power who feel like the system should be improved, and people facing social issues who feel that it should be transformed. How do you start to mix those two worlds?”
—Derek Bardowell, Writer & Philanthropy Advisor, What Works in 2020: Thinking Again About Trust, Power & Equity

The mixing of worlds is a common theme when it comes to defining what we mean by “social investing.” Examples: The use of private resources for public benefit. Mobilising wealth and power to address inequality and injustice. Even the word philanthropy, famously meaning “love of humanity”, came from the Greek tragedy where the Titan Prometheus steals fire from the Gods to bring his clay humans to life.

No wonder, perhaps, that the love of humanity has proved so contested and so complex.

The question we have been asking ourselves at The Philanthropy Workshop is: what works to navigate this complexity, to build towards equity and justice, and to bring different worlds together to create something better?

What leadership looks like

In October 2020, we brought members and partners together from across the global community as part of our TPW Gathering. Despite coming from countries across the world with different cultures and different histories of philanthropy, Derek’s question of power and systems change struck a common chord:

“The criticism I hear is around the ability of the ultra-wealthy to set the agenda… It doesn’t allow for people to have an equal voice. There are a few voices that can move issues forward in a way that may not be in the best interest of all.”
—Katherine Lorenz, TPW Board Member, Backstage Chat: The Culture of Philanthropy

This question of leadership came up throughout the Gathering. Two former Heads of State shared their perspective:

“I thought Jacinda Ardern was brilliant after the Christchurch shootings. It was exemplary leadership of how to react to something so horrific, how to bring people together and speak for your whole country… it’s going to take some very sensitive and careful leadership to try and bring people back together and try to work out an agenda that addresses some of the additional poverty and inequality that comes out of this pandemic.”
—David Cameron, Former Prime Minister of the UK

“COVID is a lesson on leadership. It is worth noting that women leaders have done much better – they took tough decisions early, listened to the science and brought their people with them. Much less than 2% of philanthropy goes to grassroots work, and this has to change because that’s where a lot of the real important effort is being made.”
—Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland, Leaders for Climate Justice

To quote TPW partner and CEO of the B-team Halla Tómasdóttir, “to change the what, we need to rethink the who.”

This brings us to a key learning from the Gathering – that to navigate complexity and share power, we have to think again about leadership. But what does this look like in practice, and what challenges do we face?

The Power of Community: Frontline Leaders

As much as pandemics and global crises can be opportunities for great upheaval, history suggests they can also reinforce the status quo. In April of this year, the African diaspora-led social enterprise Ubele reported that, without specific support, 9 out of 10 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)-led community organisations in the UK would close due to COVID-19.

Improving the system would not go far enough. What was needed was a transformative, participatory approach.

“Ubele said we need new ways of getting money. All the other structures that exist in the UK are failing this group. The Phoenix Fund was set up in response to that – if they’re telling us these are the risk factors and philanthropy has failed up to this point, we need to create a new model and create it rapidly, and we need to do that in conversation with community leaders. So the Phoenix Fund has brought together many different community and philanthropic leaders from across the space and designed a participatory fund where those same community leaders take decisions around where funding goes.”
—Swatee Deepak, Global Fund for Children & Stars Foundation Board Member, What Works in 2020: Thinking Again About Trust, Power & Equity

Examples like Phoenix Fund serve as a reminder of the abundance of leaders on the frontlines of social change across the world. Having built trust with their constituencies over years of partnership and service, they are best placed to respond rapidly in crisis. If the current system is so brittle that the leaders we need most in a crisis are also the first to collapse in crisis, then it has been built to fail.

This is another key learning from the Gathering – in a complex and volatile world, proximity is crucial. When signalling What Works and thinking again about leadership, a good start is to acknowledge the power of community.

The Power of Community: Social Investors

Strategic philanthropy has often been criticised for not doing enough to support these communities on the frontlines. Why, despite years of research and reports and conferences, is best practice not translating into common practice?

Collaboration has long been touted as a solution, but collaboration without challenge and critique is unlikely to lead to change.

At TPW, we believe that relationships and culture are key. Kenny Imafidon spoke to the importance of accountability partners in moving funders from purpose to action.

“One of the first things every funder needs to do is submit yourself to accountability and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Until you do those first two things, action will never happen. I advise everyone to invite at least two critical friends on this journey with you, to take your philanthropy to the next level.”
—Kenny Imafidon, ClearView Research Co-founder, From Purpose to Action: Thinking Again

Jacqueline Novogratz, who founded TPW 25 years ago, spoke to the importance of shared values in building a culture of learning, accountability, and impact:

“The ideas of TPW are rooted in deep listening, immersion, collaborating – which I felt too often didn’t happen in philanthropy…. This is a community that is committed to listening, committed to going deep. The piece we don’t talk about enough is discomfort; I’ve come to see discomfort as a proxy for progress.”
—Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder of Acumen, The Meaning of Moral Leadership

TPW member and philanthropist Fran Perrin spoke to her story as a case study of the difference this community can make. Since joining TPW, Fran Perrin has founded 360Giving, an organisation that champions transparency in the philanthropy sector, and the Indigo Trust, which supports systems change across Africa, and was awarded an OBE for her work in philanthropy this October.

“TPW has the most transformative impact in my life – in my philanthropy and in the way I live and work. I became an advocate instead of someone who just gave grants.”
—Fran Perrin, Founder of 360Giving & the Indigo Trust

In sharing her own experience, Fran inspired and challenged us to reimagine what we can achieve, and to integrate philanthropy as a core part of our lives and identity.

This brings us to a second takeaway from the Gathering – that being part of a community and having skin in the game is crucial for social investors, as well as frontline leaders, to have impact.

From Pain to Abundance

How can we bring these communities together – of social investors and frontline leaders – in a way that drives impact and leads to equitable and sustainable outcomes?

In workshops we dived deeper into how funders can share power in practice. Lily Lewis and Kenny Imafidon of Frontline Philanthropy invited participants to think about how they deploy each of their “4 Ts” – time, talent, treasure, and ties – from an anti-racist perspective. Forum for the Future and Julian Corner spoke to the importance of thinking in systems in order to see power imbalances and avoid doing harm. Claire Wilkins of NPC spoke to the need to take a trust-based approach to due diligence, seeing due diligence as a dialogue with grantees, rather than a process done to them.

Derek Bardowell and Swatee Deepak invited us to think again about social change – to move from a mindset of scarcity to one of possibility:

“Even though there was a huge response around George Floyd, it was still something that was located around pain. And I know that pain is easy for people to gravitate towards because they can see it and feel it. But I want us to get to a place where we’re looking at abundance and we’re looking at imagination.”
—Derek Bardowell, Writer & Philanthropy Advisor, What Works in 2020: Thinking Again About Trust, Power & Equity

“Let’s look at how we can move from not just abundance of finances, but an abundance of expertise, of networks and of knowledge – because that is what has changed this moment. People have lent in ways that have been unheard of before.”
—Swatee Deepak, Global Fund for Children & Stars Foundation Board Member, What Works in 2020: Thinking Again About Trust, Power & Equity

TPW’s vision of abundance is a community of social investors, united by a shared vision to mobilise resources where they are most needed and often most strategically invested – with communities on the frontlines of change across the world.

There is a huge amount of talent, experience and ambition waiting to be unleashed. Guided by a culture of trust, challenge, learning and action, we know a community approach allows us to be part of something bigger.

So in order to move from pain to abundance, we truly believe in the power of community. And we hope you’ll be part of it.

By: Sam Underwood, TPW Staff



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