By Nick Young
The needs of vulnerable Australians and their communities have scarcely been more overt. Thankfully, philanthropists have risen to this challenge, protecting many Australians from the worst consequences of the pandemic.
Last May, a Philanthropy Australia survey found that 38 percent of respondents had increased their grant distributions in response to COVID-19, with an average increase in distributions of 20 percent. Though, almost by necessity, many philanthropic interventions have addressed only the symptoms arising from this black swan event. For philanthropy to continue to valuably contribute to Australian society, and meet the aspirations of young people, it should do more than address current need. It should even do more than begin mending the fractures in our society laid bare by the pandemic. It should evolve. In many cases, this will involve redefining the scope of philanthropy, its methodology, and how it is popularly understood.
Here are five ways philanthropists can help realise this broad post-pandemic mission:
- Become more concerned with systemic risks and the long-term future.
COVID-19 has shown how seemingly far-fetched macro risks can swiftly cripple our economic, social, and political systems. But there are many others – climate change, ecological collapse, cyberwar, antibiotic resistance, weapons of mass destruction and malevolent artificial intelligence are some examples. Even slightly reducing the probability of these risks eventuating, or at least mitigating their impacts, can equate to saving literally billions of lives in the future. COVID-19 should be a warning to never underinvest in systemic risk again.
- Be louder and more politically engaged.
Governments wield resources which are orders of magnitude greater than that of most philanthropists. We need more philanthropists to agitate for policy changes and to help steer the public policy endeavour. Moreover, the public interest needs defending. Increasingly well-organised, well-funded and politically influential private interest groups need to be buffeted and the interests of the most vulnerable defended. More often, philanthropy should aspire to a grander strategy than gap-filling governmental oversights and omissions.
- Consider deploying more funds to support causes which allow for maximum impact.
Applying the principles of Effective Altruism (a philanthropic movement created by Oxford professors Toby Ord and William MacAskill), more philanthropists should consider targeting causes which are great in scale and highly neglected and tractable. This approach should be paired with rigorous interrogation of the effectiveness of charities addressing such causes. Using information provided by organisations like GiveWell, a group which analyses the performance of charities, is a worthwhile starting point. Not only is this effective, but it accords with the values of many young people in Australia. Young Australians are amongst the most globalised and cosmopolitan individuals in human history. Like those in the Effective Altruism movement, many of them value life equally, no matter its geographical or temporal situs. It is time to embrace this perspective and think more scientifically about our giving.
- Investigate scalable solutions which are backed by other forms of capital.
Charities which possess significant human and intellectual labour, accompanied by a deep understanding of the problems they address, are wonderful. Though, their fundability improves greatly if they present solutions that, with a funding kickstart, can scale and become self-reinforcing. Pursuing these ventures enhances the sustainability of philanthropy. Philanthropists may invest less over time and recipient organisations may require less funding in aggregate. In my experience, mentoring programs for disadvantaged students or online networks which address social isolation for rural young people are examples which can fall into this bucket.
- Shift to an opportunity frame.
Couched in the language of obligation, philanthropy has struggled to meaningfully capture the interest of the public in the modern era. This needs to change. If philanthropy can be seen as an opportunity – as metaphorically kicking down doors and rescuing people from burning buildings – it could reach a much broader audience and increase the total amount of funds donated. This shift is also reinforced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s work in prospect theory. Framing matters and philanthropists ought to pay greater focus. Along with communicating the work of Seligman and others on the weak correlation between income and happiness, through changing how philanthropy is framed we may move closer to entrenching philanthropy as a central plank of modern morality.
Nick Young is an Associate Director of Youthrive Victoria and a Rhodes Scholar-elect.
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