By Tiziano Blasi, Senior Coordinator, Policy and Advocacy at WINGS


How is the water?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?"

This metaphor from David Foster Wallace can be applied to philanthropy as well. Indeed, our ecosystem can survive only where there are legal, political, economic, and social conditions that allow our existence and development. In other words, our water is what we call the ‘enabling environment’.

We don’t help, we transform

The enabling environment includes all the conditions to guarantee philanthropy’s existence. This includes basic human rights such as the right to life, freedom and personal security, freedom of association; an encouraging financial and fiscal framework that allows philanthropy to expand; the skills to have an impact such as data collection, analysis, and communication; and access to platforms and networks to collaborate with public and private sectors. 

While the concept is usually associated with NGOs and social movements, the quality of the enabling environment and all the related values/rights are crucial for the philanthropy sector. There are several reasons why philanthropy needs to take a stand and start to advocate for a better enabling environment:

  1. The first and most direct example is the ongoing shrinking of philanthropic and civic space. For example, the 2020 Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) law in India dramatically limited the possibility of receiving foreign funding. This is not just a legal issue, according to Ashoka, the consequence is that millions of Indians will be thrust back into poverty. In Hungary, the Open Society Foundation left the country due to a repressive political and legal environment. Other examples can be found worldwide, as highlighted in research by Indiana University and CAPS.

  2. Ongoing social challenges such as gender inequality and climate change can only be dealt with if we guarantee a healthy enabling environment. Initiatives on gender equality led by the Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Hewlett Foundation (all of them WINGS supporting members) as well as bottom-up actions such as the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change can spread and escalate only if they find a fertile enabling environment to host them.    

  3. There is a growing debate in the philanthropy sector that is changing the way we evaluate effectiveness. We need to turn our attention from short term outputs and deliverables to long term impact. Hence, if we want to be more than a service provider for the government or just fill the void of market failures, we have to invest every effort in transformative changes that alter power relationships.

  4. Lastly, Covid-19’s impact has worsened inequality worldwide; a situation that pushes philanthropy to take a greater stand for a fair and equal world. An enabling environment is a primary condition for philanthropy to challenge power structures that are part of the root causes of inequality and question governmental and private sector choices. A remarkable example is the UK government’s cuts to foreign aid due to the Covid crisis that, after raising strong criticism from civil society, will be partially covered (£93.5m) by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the ELMA Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.

For all these reasons, we believe that it is the right time to raise the collective voice of philanthropy.

Ingredients for change

The escalation of advocacy by philanthropy is not an easy goal and requires a long-term investment in different areas:

  • Resources. Local philanthropy in the Global South and in countries where human rights are at stake needs flexible funds to invest in developing or consolidating their advocacy strategies, undertaking feasibility studies, mappings, legal litigations, and other actions. Some need vital support to start building their ecosystem, others backing to survive in a hostile environment.

  • Knowledge. Law, technology and media are used to control and shrink the civic and philanthropic space. Philanthropy has to build its capacity and strengthen its competencies to counterbalance this crackdown. We need to get smarter.

  • Network. A network is an opportunity to learn, a space to receive support and grow, an opportunity to give visibility to our cause. The climate emergency and the current pandemic have shown us that silos and boundaries have become obsolete.

  • Awareness. Philanthropy organisations can have resources and knowledge, but they need to be aware of their role and accept the risk to act at the political and legal levels. It means to convince their leadership, staff and constituencies that radical transformations can often only be achieved through a policy change.   

Who fears politics?

Does it mean that to build a proper enabling environment we need to become more political? 

Yes, philanthropy needs to be more political, because without advocating for obstacles and barriers to be removed, we will not be able to create a thriving environment for leaders, foundations, and networks everywhere. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be on the front line, on the contrary, the most successful advocacy actions are often supported by collective structures and large alliances that work on all levels.

Talking about advocacy in philanthropy is a complex topic that poses several questions about neutrality and representation. In the final analysis, it’s hard to disagree with Rhodri Davies when he says: “Charities have not only a right, but a responsibility to engage in the political sphere and in many cases, if they didn’t speak up they would be negligent in their duty to the people they serve.”

In other words, coming back to our fish, we definitely need to be aware of the “water” and learn to navigate it even when it gets hot.

More than 60 philanthropy support organisations (PSOs) have been intensively discussing these topics in the dedicated WINGS’ Enabling Environment Working Group and WINGS has just launched a fund to support advocacy actions in the Global South to protect, promote and consolidate the enabling environment, thanks to the European Union support (more information here).

Tiziano Blasi, Senior Coordinator, Policy and Advocacy, WINGS

Tiziano is actively engaged in civil society and human rights promotion since 2004. He developed and managed programmes in the Middle East and the Balkans in partnership with the European Union and the UN. Back in Europe, he coordinated an advocacy network with Save the Children and the project design and the M&E in ActionAid.

Other news