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Proximate Philanthropy

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Kim Scriven, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, covers the Skoll World Forum session on ‘Proximate Philanthropy: Exploring Power and Privilege in the Funding Landscape’

The focus of this year’s forum is the Power of Proximity, and this was the starting point for a panel that cut to the heart of one of the central relationships in social entrepreneurship: that between those who seek to drive change in the world and those with the means to fund and support such action.

Kicking off the panel, moderator Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute brought the assembled audience back to the inspiring words of Bryan Stevenson in Tuesday’s opening plenary, arguing that ‘Proximate Philanthropy’ was essential for enabling the “bold, inconvenient and uncomfortable acts” that our moment requires. Achieving such bold action will entail that discomfort and inconvenience be shared by funders, not just felt by social entrepreneurs on the frontlines of social change.

But what exactly does proximity mean in the relationship between funders and social entrepreneurs? Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, highlighted efforts to foster interactions that strengthen a grantee’s ability to achieve their outcomes. These efforts are built around five core practices, starting from the internal culture of the funder, using this to actively research and pursue opportunities and provide unrestricted, multiyear funding, backed by tailored additional support. Underpinning this is the need for accountability and active communication between funder and grantee.

Vu Le of NonprofitAF.com was more prosaic: sometimes proximity is simple and physical – about donors being prepared to leave their comfortable offices and meet people working where the problems are. Parminder Vir argued forcefully that proximity is not simply about attitude or place, it is about the authenticity that comes from being born out of the world in which a funder focuses its action – with an appreciation of context, place, and history. As CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, for Vir this means being based in Lagos, Nigeria, and working with an awareness of the ongoing impact of colonialism on the country, the continent, and its people.

And this cuts to the heart of the whole debate – in the room and beyond – that philanthropy and efforts to foster social change are inescapably embedded in systems of power and politics. In the case of funders, this inherently means that they have the greater power and agency in their relationships with grantees and recipients. These power imbalances are heightened when they reflect broader social inequalities and injustices – be they about race, sex or history.

At times the conversation focused on familiar ground in debates about how best to fund social action. Is the broad approach of the Tony Elumelu Foundation – generating tens of thousands of applications from as far and wide as possible – more equitable than a more targeted and active sourcing approach pursued by the Peery Foundation? Should funders seek short but tailored applications, or just accept a standard pitch?

The answers to such questions will always be context specific and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to proximate philanthropy. More importantly, to get too focused on these details risks missing the broader point – that funders need not just to be aware of their position of power and privilege, but continually seek to recognise and address the implications.

And this brings us back to the discomfort and inconvenience that we will need to confront. Vu Le decried the fact that “the way we treat non-profits is the same as the way we treat poor people in society’ too often lacking the trust and empathy needed to build meaningful and sustainable relationships that can lead to impact. This is perhaps the crux of the proximity challenge in philanthropy, bridging inequalities in power and resource by taking the time and inconvenience to foster relationship built on mutual respect and understanding.