Philanthropy Insight

Philanthropy after Covid-19: A New Mandate for Philanthropy.Insight

A) What we see:

Like any other sector, the philanthropic community and the whole of civil society is being challenged by COVID-19. Whether the pandemic is going to produce a “new world” of philanthropy changing everything as we knew it until recently, no one knows. What seems to be reasonable, however, is the assumption of an extended period of uncertainties, for philanthropists, foundations, for beneficiaries. The civic space, endangered by necessarily extended government power, faces the challenge of having to contribute more than ever before to shaping communities and society in general.

On the surface and at the risk of crude simplification, for the time being, among philanthropists, four not mutually exclusive attitudes seem to prevail:

  • Vindication: The prophets (“I warned you the pandemic would come”) are striving on their prediction and are busy enlisting everyone including governments, international organizations, the private sector and civil society, in their mission to reshape the world of health systems. While collaboration is laudable, a siloed (hazard by hazard) crisis response is insufficient, at least from a public policy perspective, when the nature of the pandemic requires systemic risk management with a multi-sector, multi-actor and policy coherence approach.
  • Responsiveness: Taking the attitude of “unbureaucratic, decision driven” managers with strong sensibilities for the relevance of action in difficult times, founders and trustees are shifting resources to a whole range of ”x and corona”- type activities. While speed is a decisive element in providing effective disaster relief support; the consequences can be manifold. Where giving to corona related activities implies abandoning ongoing activities, costs and benefits may be less obvious than anticipated.
  • Funding: While up to February 2020, the outlook for charitable giving in the years to come had been largely positive, forecasts are now projecting more complex scenarios reflecting the depth and reach of the economic crisis of the pandemic. It will remain to be seen whether past experiences of quick recoveries of giving to pre-crises trends will repeat themselves. Founders and boards are concerned how to adapt to the potential economic impact of the pandemic on their strategies and activities on both the expenditure and revenue side.
  • Defense of Values: Over the past few years, in countries like Turkey, Egypt, China, Hungary, and Poland, to name just a few, the civic space has been seriously contested. Philanthropic activities, particularly when involving philanthropists and foundations from outside the country, have seen harassement, and legal and administrative restrictions. This has not been halted by Covid-19 and will not only continue, but spread to more consituencies.

To sum up: In a post-covid-19 world, organized philanthropy has a crucial role to play.

B) What society expects:

Global philanthropy is called upon to defend a cosmopolitan, rule-of-law-based, democratric and open society. Voices of fundamental concerns about options and constraints of philanthropic foundations to COVID 19 are also increasingly emerging. There is an urgent need for the community building role of civil society, as communities have been seriously disrupted. Civil society actors will require philanthropic assistance to meet expectations.

People are wondering about the role of philanthropy in both the cum- and post-corona world, when next to the challenges of the health system the potentially dramatic economic, social and political disruptions of the pandemic will become evident; when the expectations for support and corrective interventions by government might by far exceed its capacities, financially and otherwise; and when the relationships between government, markets and civil society might come under growing pressure and scrutiny.

Headwinds, of course, are not new to philanthropy. Recent academic literature is loaded with critical assessments, especially in the US. Public perception reveals either ignorance of the sector or questioning, if not rejecting philanthropic activities. E.g., unprecedented levels of donations towards the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris last year attracted nearly global attention, with much of it exposing distrust and hostility of public opinion towards giving which seemed to verge on the border of competition among foundations.

The big question is, how foundations should brace themselves for maximizing their usefulness for society over the short, medium and long term under these circumstances – navigating between their capacities and ambitions on the one hand and the uncertainties, risks, and low levels of trust on the other?

To sum up: There are great challenges for philanthropy ahead. Peer counselling is needed to help face them.

C) A new role for Philanthropy.Insight:

Philanthropy.Insight developed just before the appearance of COVID-19 as a tool of self-assessment of trust-based philanthropy proposes five criteria to help design strategies and major activities of private foundations. An exhaustive series of detailed questions has been elaborated to facilitate and guide settlors, donors, boards, and management through the individual dimensions of the criteria. The headline questions can be sumarized as follows:

  • What is driving philanthropy?
  • Do activities serve the public purpose?
  • How relevant are activities?
  • How are they performing?
  • Is philanthropy accountable?

Fundraising for the projected phase 2 of the Philanthropy.Insight project did not meet expectations before Covid-19, and is less likely to do so now. It therefore seems necessary

  • to discuss and define new priorities,
  • to adjust the project to a post Covid-19 scenario,
  • to restructure it in a manageable format.

While aspiring to conduct a large selection of case studies world-wide (as originally intended in phase 2) seems unrealistic, it would seem all the more important to start a monitoring and watchdog process based on the Philanthropy.Insight methodology and aimed at enhancing the role of philanthropy within civil society and in society in general.

To this end, a monitoring and reporting process will be set in motion. Regular surveys based on qualitative research, the methodology of which still needs to be finetuned, will be published. Surveys will monitor to what extent philanthropic institutions are living up to societal post-covid-19 expectations.

Needless to say, philanthropic institutions will continue to be encouraged to apply the methodology as developed to their own institution (as is already happening).

The project will be accompanied and supervised by a steering committee to be composed by representatives of the following bodies:

  • Carnegie UK Trust
  • Gulbenkian Foundation
  • Charles Stuart Mott Foundation
  • Bosch Foundation
  • DAFNE
  • WINGS
  • Maecenata Foundation
  • other ?

Also, a small advisory committee shall be formed, consisting of

  • Tobias Jung (St. Andrews, Scotland)
  • Stefan Toepler (George Mason, US)
  • Catherine Ruth Levy (TU Berlin, Germany)
  • other ?

Furthermore, a network of like-minded philanthropists, philanthropy practitioners, and experts will be assembled.

Finally, within the framework of the project, it will be discussed if and how the Philanthropy.Insight methodology can be made to apply to a wider range of civil society organisations.

To sum up: Philanthropy.Insight can assist global philanthropy in embarking on a new post-covid-19 journey.


A visualization during a workshop carried out by Philantrophy Insight during the Pex Conference in Madrid in January 2020.

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