Why networks are so critical in today’s disrupted environment
by Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director, WINGS
Who said net-working means not-working?
Few forms of organization and action require as much thoughtful, work intensive, persevering, adaptive, and well- resourced effort and labour than networks to be successful. While their reward lies in sustainability, impact, trust and effectiveness, their establishment and management are complex. In philanthropy, it does not always seem natural for its players, whether they are foundations, HNWIs, families, individual donors, communities or corporations, to see themselves as part of a sector. Networks and other support organizations are a reflection of this sector’s self-consciousness… and their accelerator.
Philanthropy networks exist in many forms and fulfill a broad array of form and function: geographic, thematic, focused on specific types of private donors, members based, informal, providing technical advice, advocacy, practical knowledge, etc. Their common point is that they allow for close communication, collective action and thinking. At WINGS, as a global network of philanthropy networks, reflecting on their nature and impact is part of our DNA. We were created 20 years ago by a group of grantmakers’ associations from all over the world who felt they needed a space to share knowledge and collaborate at the global level.
The two first grantmakers’ associations were started shortly after World War II, one in Germany in 1948 and the other one in the US in 1949. Maybe this tells us something about how building networked organizations, creating links between those who seek to build more peaceful and just societies is a key first step in establishing the societies we want.
Of course, networks are not ends in themselves and there would be nothing to celebrate about them if it weren’t for what they allow philanthropic actors to achieve. The same applies to philanthropy itself whose value should only be looked at against the positive changes it supports in society. It is with this in mind that we decided to produce this publication, half practical guide, half deeper reflection.
Through our observation and research of the field, we know the strategic value and impact of these players. Yet few resources are available to help them maximize their impact. We are also aware of some of the stiff challenges they are facing. The first one is why should we exist and for whom? Are we representing the whole diversity of the sector? How can we remain relevant in a fast-changing environment? How can we effectively protect our constituency and sector in a hostile political context? Do we stand for clear values? Are we focused on achieving the maximum positive impact in society through our mission or are we seeking to thrive as individual organizations?
The current landscape urges us to find clear answers. Everywhere, we see a rising wave of criticism of, and skepticism towards, the philanthropic sector both from the left and right of the political spectrum. On the one hand, there is a narrative about a sector which potentially plays against national interests, and on the other, a demand for more accountability and transparency from the field, especially where “big philanthropy” is concerned.
Although every single foundation and donor has a responsibility to respond to these challenges and, when needed, to evolve in its own practices, no individual organization can provide an answer and preserve the sector’s ability to contribute to common good. It is networks that have the agency and legitimacy to do so.
Taking another lens, let us look at impact. Increasingly, we see that long-term impact, impact at scale can only be achieved through complex, adaptable and collaborative processes. By providing the space, tools and connections for peer-exchange and, sometimes, for collective action, networks contribute to breaking the silos and building the architecture for collaboration within the field, and possibly with other actors. More basically, they help increase the efficiency of the sector through enhanced information and coordination, practical tools and support services.
Despite their strategic importance and the particular momentum that surrounds them, most countries do not have national associations or other collective organizations for the sector. WINGS’ Infrastructure in Focus: A New Global Picture of Organizations Serving Philanthropy, 80 per cent of the expenditure on philanthropy support organizations is in North America. Although the sector is growing, there seems to be an important potential to create new networks and strengthen those that are already in place, including through increased domestic funding.
In countries like Peru, Haiti, Chile, or in regions like West Africa, domestic foundations have reached out to WINGS over the past few years asking for support and guidance on how to establish and sustain associations and networks.
In parallel to that, the infrastructure space is changing, with new actors coming into the field, creating what it sometimes a congested space with competing networks. Even where the field is older, we observe a lack of sustainability of organizations and some unnecessary competition. The next generation of donors is bringing new, sometimes less institutionalized, approaches to philanthropy. Adding to the challenging political context
mentioned earlier, networks and associations need to confront the rapid pace of change and sometimes need to reinvent themselves.
In this era of great opportunities and important threats, we felt that we needed to engage with the network in a collective reflection on philanthropy networks. This is why we launched a new publication “Philanthropy Networks: Value, Voice and Collective Impact”. It is not aiming to provide pre-determined formulas and ready answers. We hope it will ask some relevant questions and that, by tapping in the WINGS’ network wisdom, we will engage in a joint and open reflection that will contribute to making our organizations better equipped to continue making a difference in a disruptive environment.
To conclude, maybe should we challenge the assumption we made earlier. What if networks were not only a means to achieving the philanthropy we want but were a constitutive part of it? Could a more networked, trust-based, collaborative philanthropic sector be part of the solution? And in the same way, what if philanthropy was not only a means? What if we could work towards the establishment of philanthropic societies, in which giving at all levels of society, reciprocity, solidarity, trust, self-reliance and agency, are at the centre? Through their value, voice and impact, philanthropy networks may help us along the way.
This excerpt can be found on pages 3 and 4 of Philanthropy Networks: Creating Value, Voice and Collective Impact. Read the full publication here.
Executive Director, WINGS