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Philanthropy powers up for the 21st century, Ditchley Foundation conference reveals

Philanthropy powers up for the 21st century, Ditchley Foundation conference reveals

News (International, UK)

What does 21st century philanthropy look like and what is its relationship with government and civil society? These were the topics under discussion at Ditchley Foundation’s conference held at historic Ditchley Park from February 16 to 18, a decade on since its first conference on philanthropy.


The 40 or so delegates represented many sides of the polygenic community; a mix of philanthropists,  academics, institutional funders, funding associations, fundraisers, NGOs and charitable service providers from across Europe, the UK, Canada, USA, the Middle East and China.


The conversations between groups discussing ‘the future of philanthropy’, ‘its culture’ and ‘its relationship with government’ (and therefore civil society) built a picture of a powerful 21st century philanthropy, operating in a shifting, complex and global landscape, acting deep within communities and challenging the status quo.


Delegates described the new tools and creative ways philanthropy is extending its reach and punching above its weight. But philanthropy is tongue-tied, and with no common voice – ‘the anarchist party’ as one delegate observed. It is having difficulty defining and promoting itself to the public, potential philanthropists and the media. ‘Doing good’ is not a front-page story it was noted.


A better description than ‘the giving of time, talent and treasure’ which describes philanthropy as a ‘consumption activity for the wealthy’ was felt to be ‘private power for good’.


A need for better 'story telling' was echoed by many groups, as was an image makeover; philanthropy is ‘cool’ and ‘fun’ ( great enjoyment can be had ‘ski’ing  or ‘spending the kids’ inheritance’ we heard) –  those some preferred ‘joy’ as a description of what one receives when giving their wealth to make a difference. Greater professionalism and transparency were also felt to be drivers in improving philanthropy’s image and reputation, as were more role models – the ‘Philanthropy Anonymous club’ must find members prepared to lead and to become more vocal about philanthropy. Many pointed to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and their ‘Giving Pledge’ as an example to follow.


Delegates discussed the tension between government and philanthropy, particularly around the funding of and responsibility for welfare delivery and cultural provision, thus veering into the politics of philanthropy.


A smaller state, either by choice (‘Big Society’) or because of the immense pressures on the government funds, is looking to business and philanthropy to fill the gaps.


While many felt philanthropy should remain a 'counterpoise to government', it seems philanthropists and funders are to some extent prepared to fill some of the gaps, finding it difficult to ignore increased need where they see it.  However, drawing the line is more difficult and it was questioned whether it was the role of private funders to pay for the clean-up when government messed up or to step in when they failed to fund ‘the basics’, such as tertiary education.


While acknowledging that private funding could never make up the cuts in government spending, new impact-boosting strategies and approaches allow the philanthropic pound to go further and hit harder.


The ‘acupuncture approach’ sees funding applied where its pressure can be most effective, such as in matched funding schemes, and it is one way government and philanthropy are working in partnership, such as the Catalyst Arts programme in the UK. Another promising partnership model sees philanthropic pounds as risk absorbers for experimental projects, allowing public funds to flow in risk-free, as with the UK’s first Social Impact Bond aimed at reducing re-offending. Yet another model sees government scaling successful philanthropically funded pilot projects, though in the future it is the markets that will scale the good ideas it was said.


Institutional funders, bound by governance, legislation and focussed on grant-making are more risk averse however. Rigidities in government policy and practice are thought to be one of the biggest barriers to development of entrepreneurial philanthropy and global philanthropy.


While governments have grown smaller, civil society has grown stronger and perhaps more fierce; its force unleashed by digital media and fuelled by a growing sense of injustice. There were several examples of not-for-profit projects facilitating and galvanising people power and supporting civil rights actions, such as Ushahidi,  that lets users crowdsource crisis information via mobile phones. Media has given citizens a voice and a way to organise themselves as powerful agents of change, shaping policy, holding governments and NGOs to account and even challenging the capitalist world.


Another reported emerging trend was a move away from funding charities to funding projects and sectors. Donors are increasingly interested in ‘the work’ and problem-solving rather than in organisations, which means operational costs look likely to remain unappealing to philanthropic funders.


The three legged stool of  funding; business, government and philanthropy may have sprung an arm – civil society; but where the seat of power lies is a matter of opinion; it’s clear the balance of power has changed between funders and a new social contract with defining roles may need to be written.


In looking to the future it was said a ‘philanthropy of ideas’ will bloom in a digital global world. New networks and sources of data will empower do-ers and donors, but though internet technologies are still a focus, the future is more fantastic, said one expert, who pointed to  nanotechnology, biotechnology and genomics as promising fields to plough.


Philanthropy in the 21st century has new muscle, creativity and an ear to the ground and governments might do well to listen and follow it was said – ‘crowding in’ to areas where philanthropy is working.  


Discussions at Oxfordshire’s own ‘Downton Abbey’, where Winston Churchill spent many weekends during WWII, may have thrown up the many difficulties facing philanthropists in a changing landcape, but as Churchill once said: "Difficulties mastered are opportunities won”.


A summary note on the conference will be prepared by the Ditchley Foundation’s Director, Sir John Holmes, and posted on their web site


In the latest issue of Green Giving, NIck Perks of the Environmental Funders Network imagines a future for eco-philanthropy.

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