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Philanthropy for a Fractured World

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

David Sanders, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session, “Philanthropy for a Fractured World”.

On the final morning of the 2017 Skoll World Forum, simultaneous panels were offered on Impact Investing and Philanthropy.  I debated whether to catch up on the latest from the former, with its sex appeal of “profit + purpose”, a proposed new kind of capitalism, or to return to the original solution for affecting positive change: strategic donations.

A simple realisation drew me to Philanthropy for a Fractured World:  the most pressing, extreme problems facing society today do not lend themselves to viable business models, but through giving, these issues can be remedied.

Foundations and family offices are increasingly seeking hybrid organisational models when deploying capital, and I expected the session on philanthropy to at least touch on this growing practice.  Much to my surprise, and relief, on the contrary, the panelists reminded the packed room that philanthropy has a unique, and extremely important role to play in the social impact space.

Panelists at the Skoll World Forum, from philanthropy and government, discuss the role of their organisations in an increasingly polarised society.

Panelists at the Skoll World Forum, from philanthropy and government, discuss the role of their organisations in an increasingly polarised society.

The speakers, who included Lillianne Ploumen from the Government of The Netherlands, Darren Walker from the Ford Foundation, Laleh Ispahani from Open Society Foundations and Pia Infante from the Whitman Institute, discussed their organisations’ respective responses to crises, with significant focus paid to the risks facing women and minorities in the U.S. under a Trump presidency.  Ms. Ploumen’s department has partnered on the #SheDecides campaign, which swiftly raised €183 million to help fill the gap in maternal health provisions following the president’s drastic cuts to Planned Parenthood services.  This initiative, from a foreign government to the U.S., is admirable, but indeed troublesome—it seems the U.S. is entering a period of international reliance for the protection of human rights.

Mr. Walker emphasised the importance of minority representation in leadership positions today, especially where racism and sexism persist, and he also cited specific concerns on the failure of the economy to deliver stable jobs to low-income populations.  These shortcomings, coupled with a shrinking government social mandate, escalates demand for Big Philanthropy.

While the panelists focused more on the role of philanthropy than they did on specific causes, a highlight of the conversation was a recognition that there are causes that span the political spectrum.  Disability issues and criminal justice-reform, to name two, are both values-based issues, and garner support from the right-leaning Koch brothers, and progressive institutions like Open Society Foundations.

The world of giving does grapple with some important questions, however, around its own identity and purpose.  As Mr. Walker acknowledged, philanthropists are incredibly privileged, and it is easy for practitioners to succumb to an ivory tower mentality.  One proposed solution to this, as posed by the distinguished moderator Marc Gunther from Nonprofit Circles, is to democratise the work.  Like shareholders of a public company, who convene regularly to take a voice in key decisions, should not beneficiaries to causes also be gathered to express their views to donors?

In the Trump era, the culture of giving in the U.S. plays an essential role for social progress and human protections.  And it seems, based on the views of those at the Skoll World Forum, philanthropy is stepping into its heightened role with a determined spirit.

Follow David: @DavidSandersUSA