National Conference 2021 Speaker: Phil Buchanan

The compelling questions for philanthropy’s future

At a moment in time when old certainties have been broken down and our vulnerabilities have rarely been more exposed, it can be hard to contemplate the shape of philanthropy in a post-pandemic world.

Phil Buchanan, President of The Center for Effective Philanthropy in Massachusetts, does not claim to have the answers. But he also knows that the past year has revealed the adaptability and creativity of hundreds of organisations who responded to the COVID-19 crisis with vigour and impact. The question for him – and for the rest of us – is the one with the unknowable answer: is that bold, nimble and creative response a blip or the start of something more sustainable?

It is the type of question Phil as one of several international speakers at Philanthropy Australia’s virtual conference will grapple with as part of the conference theme – Future Needs Now? (What does the future need from us, now?)

For Phil, one of the already clear legacies of COVID-19 has been its economic impact that has exacerbated existing inequalities, along socio-economic and racial lines.

“One of the things we need to do is to come out of this crisis, this series of crises and rebuild the fabric of social connection and community in our societies and one of the things philanthropy can do is help to do that,’’ he says.

“So one of the things that I think philanthropy needs to do for the future may be better than it has historically done is to actively consider the fact that you can’t help folks respond to this crisis without also thinking about the issues in inequity and targeting your resources accordingly,’’ Phil explains.

"A higher level generic thing is philanthropy and the non-profits that philanthropy supports are typically, or often, taking on the challenges that governments have not effectively addressed and that markets have not effectively addressed.’’

Where philanthropy, government and business intersect is often a complex discussion, perhaps more so now when the pandemic has devastated many domestic economies and a range of responses have emerged. What Phil has observed in his homeland is a tendency among some donors to apply business thinking and approaches to philanthropy.

“[Business and philanthropy are] different in all kinds of ways: it’s different because strategy is different, because business strategy is about competitive positioning, zero-sum whereas in a philanthropy context the strategy has to be shared,’’ he explains. “The homeless shelter is thinking about - how do they do their work in relation to other homeless shelters that serve other areas and in relation to the drug treatment centre who serves the addicts who are homeless…it’s a much more complicated ecosystem.’’

What Phil describes as philanthropy’s current preoccupation with size and scale owes its origins, he argues, to the business school approach. “And that business is a metaphor for everything…I think that’s the root of it,’’ he says. “In this sense [the view is] that there are so many non-profits – it must be inefficient – there must be a better way to do it.’’

Phil recalled his own time at business school two decades ago, when there was often talk about scale, and that social enterprise needed to be more like venture capital. On the ground, however, the reality was often different. Community solutions about scale could be about how deep the commitment went, not how large the organisation could grow. It’s that sort of scaling approach that is adjusted for the community itself, not to the size of the organisation.

“And I think that relates to…people go to the people they trust,’’ Phil says. “Often the smallness and community-rootedness of an organisation is what allows them to have those close connections and you see that most starkly here [in the US] with undocumented people: they’re not going to walk into the local community foundation, or even to the foodbank. They’re scared. They’re going to go to the small non-profit serving immigrants that helped them when they got here, where they trust people. So smallness can be an asset in that way.’’

Central to that community response is philanthropy supporting non-profits to do their work in their local communities. That may ultimately mean flexible funding but it starts with putting donors in touch with the appropriate organisations on the ground.

“I think we need to find ways to help donors find the small, effective, community-rooted organizations that are doing vital work but need support,’’ Phil says. “Both every day and in a crisis, these are the organizations that are uniquely positioned by virtue of the trust they have established with those they serve. I think community foundations and other intermediaries can play a vital connecting role linking donors to these organizations.’’

“One of the biggest challenges is that big donors are often insulated from people and may think they have the solution, but it’s not informed by those closest to the problem or those who are intended to be helped,’’ Phil says. “One of the things that philanthropy needs to do better, at least in this country, is to get behind the solutions that are in communities already, rather than imposing in a top-down way solutions that are created by McKinsey consultants with fancy PowerPoints but with no connection to the communities of the issues.’’

According to the CEP’s recent research, there is evidence that some of those changes have started.  “On the foundation side – and we’ve just put out a report on how foundations have changed, and we’ve seen that folks have stepped up spending from budgeted levels, loosened restrictions, made more flexible grants, more general support, they’ve funded different communities, more communities of colour, more organisations led by people of colour, so there’s a massive amount of change including in areas where people have been for years calling on foundations to do better,’’ Phil explains.

“We’ve done all these interviews, [and] people say things like: “There are things we have talked about doing for years but we hadn’t done and then this crisis happened, and we just did it and it actually wasn’t that hard to do. Or we’re trusting grantees a lot more, asking less, putting fewer restrictions on grants, and it’s really good and we may not go back to where we were.’’

But Phil knows there are no guarantees that the changes are here to stay. What he hopes is that the pandemic has provided something of an epiphany for many people, that there is some clear vision of what the future could look like.

“So what I’m hopeful for is that this terrible experience will help us see more clearly the role that everybody plays: that government has a role, that business has a role in making our society better, and that non-profits and philanthropy have a role that is different from the first two and sometimes intention. And if we can come out with a bit more clarity about that, then that would be really good,’’ Phil says.

Yet at the end of a tumultuous year, the biggest question of how to increase giving seems a compelling enquiry, even if the answer seems perennially elusive.

“If ever there was a time we need people to dig deep, it is now,’’ Phil says. “I don’t think anyone will look back in 20 years at this time of unprecedented global challenge and say “I wish I had done less.” We need to counter the cynicism about philanthropy that has been on the rise with examples of the good it does. We need to put non-profits and the work they do front and center in that story.’’

Join us in April and May as we come together online for the Philanthropy Australia National Conference 2021 to explore: what does the future need from us, now?  Click here to register.

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