I find that with each passing year the philanthropic discourse succumbs more and more to thinking and language that’s driven by and suited to market-based solutions. In this context, the ‘Barry Gaberman Lecture’ delivered by Avila Kilmurray titled ‘The Role of Philanthropy in Difficult Times’, provided a refreshing grounding to the conversations at WINGSForum 2014: The Power of Networks, held in Istanbul in March. Avila provided a contextual analysis of what is happening in the world today. She drew attention to the increasing inequality, the economic crisis that has brought with it growing xenophobia (particularly in Europe), political instability and disillusionment with political leadership, failure of governance at all levels, threat to human rights and gender equality, unresolved long term conflicts, and our inability to face the reality of climate change.
Clearly the relatively small resources of foundations (as compared to the resources at the disposal of states) do not warrant that philanthropy alleviates all the difficulties the world is facing today. However, foundations can do what governments and corporations shy away from doing. Discussions at the conference revealed philanthropy’s unique position to take risks; be innovative; support radical ideas; and most of all, to support and nurture civil society.
Despite these unique opportunities that exist for philanthropy, we were also reminded every now and then during the Forum of the tremendous opposition and the shrinking civic space in many parts of the world, Turkey being a case in point at that moment; the conference was held amidst a government ban on the microblogging site Twitter after allegations of corruption against the government appeared on the site. In this hostile environment, if philanthropy is to affect progressive and sustainable social change, we need more than isolated opportunities and successes. We need the collective impact of the work of foundations to be greater than the sum of their parts.
So the question arises—how do we achieve this? How do we break out of our silos and be in-sync? How do we ensure that the collective impact of philanthropy is cumulative and transformational?
This is where a network approach is pivotal.
I found in the various discussions at the Forum that there are two crucial roles for associations that can raise the game for philanthropy. The first is about relationships. Associations can play a critical role in building connections and trust, which are necessary conditions to develop a shared vision in philanthropy and to be in-sync in action. The second is about leadership. Associations can lead the way for learning and innovation as shown through the work of the Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), shared by speakers Ian Bird and Jane Humphries who spoke of the initiatives taken by CFC to help the work of their members achieve greater collective impact for social justice.
In the coming months and years I’m hoping that, through WINGS, discussions about a network approach in philanthropy will include the role of associations as leaders of innovation, and as the glue that binds the field together.