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Keeping the Hope Unbroken

Strategic Philanthropy | Sep 1, 2021

It was wonderful to read the thoughtful, frank reflections of so many younger philanthropists on the future of philanthropy. What struck me the most was that almost everyone acknowledged the need to shift and broaden the centres of power, both within philanthropy and in society. It is a great irony that big philanthropy is made possible by a broken economic system that has allowed the unprecedented accumulation of wealth in the hands of very few.

Can those who benefit from this system be trusted to change it? I believe it is possible only if everyone, including super-rich philanthropists can recognise that a system which pools value so narrowly does not work for anyone for very long. Just look at the existential problems that we are facing in this century – especially due to anthropogenic climate change and global warming – also described as a massive market failure.

One small way to correct the imbalance would be to align endowment investments more closely with philanthropists’ missions. The other way would be to fund causes and efforts that give more agency to people across the power spectrum. Within philanthropy, the future needs to be more open, more transparent and hence more accountable in its practice.

A mirror is a must in the philanthropist’s hand

As one author wrote, we must break down the artificial divide between charity and philanthropy. After all, we are a social species and our desire to help others is rooted in our genes. Philanthropy can be much more trust-based; we must learn not to push down solutions ourselves but to distribute the ability to solve so that we can be more transformational. As philanthropy sheds its vanity project image in the future, it simultaneously needs to become bigger, bolder and more collaborative.

How can we jointly deploy resources that match the scale of the problems we are facing? In this digital age, philanthropy has the opportunity to be technology-enabled, though not technology-led. It can underwrite the creation of public digital goods to enhance participation, co-creation and knowledge sharing on a real-time basis. In the post-Covid world, we will have to run fast just to catch up to where we would have been on the SDGs without the pandemic.

The complexity of new challenges demands that philanthropy reimagines strategic partnerships across samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar, ie society, markets and the state to unleash contextual problem-solving at scale, with speed and with sustainability. Several new global collaboratives have sprung up recently to drive more such partnerships and to unlock the massive amounts of philanthropy that have been committed but not yet deployed, partly because of the paucity of our imagination and partly because of the lack of absorptive capacity on the ground.

This is very good news though there will be a steep learning journey ahead. I hope that in the next 25 years, as the philanthropists on these pages themselves become veterans, philanthropy will be more widely and truly practised as a trusteeship of wealth for society now and for the generations to come.

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