By Alina Shenfeldt, Deputy Director at Russian Donors Forum

With the pandemic causing major upheaval, we’ve found ourselves revisiting the status quo of our lives, our organisations and our systems. This is also the case for global philanthropy which has met the crisis with resources as well as responsibility. While “traditional” philanthropies of American and European origin showed their ability to respond flexibly and collaboratively, what was the stance of `emerging’ philanthropies, in particular those of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa?

The need for philanthropies in BRICS to look at themselves through the lens of their peers was recognised at an online event organised by Russian Donors Forum and WINGS on 23 March 2021. “Reimagining the added value of philanthropy in BRICS countries: lessons learnt from COVID-19” brought together ecosystem champions of the philanthropy sector from the BRICS countries who reflected on the big issues of the COVID-19 response, the role of philanthropy infrastructure and their appetite for global leadership. 

COVID-19 response: collaboration and trust

Introducing the event, Benjamin Bellegy, the Executive Director at WINGS and the event moderator, summed up the context by saying that what we’ve seen during the COVID-19 crisis has been an incredible surge in giving and philanthropy in emerging market economies. BRICS philanthropies also unanimously recognised unprecedented collaboration within and beyond the sector. Sarah Rennie, Chairperson at the Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa, shared the South African examples of the Solidarity Fund, which attracted $200 million from almost 15,000 individuals and 2,500 corporates in South Africa, as well as the South African Future Trust which partnered with 6 national banks in South Africa and extended interest-free loans to almost 10 thousand Small and Medium enterprises. In China, according to Yanni Peng, CEO at Narada Foundation, within a month of the first COVID-19 case, major Chinese foundations initiated the China NGO Consortium for COVID-19 to share information and build collective action. 

Atila Roque, Director of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, reflected that the pandemic was an invitation for increased levels of cooperation which, at times, was unpredictable and challenging. In India, according to Ashwini Saxena, Director at JSW Foundation (India), COVID-19 collaboration was most intense in technology and health, skill development and employability, and innovation.

Most importantly, COVID-19 presented the challenge to improve mechanisms of building the environment of trust. This resonated with Oksana Oracheva, General Director at the Vladimir Potanin Foundation (Russia), who shared that while public trust has been declining in various institutions, charitable and philanthropic organisations are the only institutions in Russia that are enjoying rising levels of trust from the public. This is definitely momentum worth building upon.

Philanthropy Infrastructure: awareness and demand

Since the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brazilian philanthropic sector mobilised more than $1bn. This huge figure, according to Atila Roque, is partly due to the existing philanthropy infrastructure that was developed in Brazil way before the pandemic. There is an increased level of consciousness about infrastructure being crucial to coordinating efforts and bringing together various stakeholders. 

While Atila considers (and hopes for) investment in infrastructure to be a trend, Sarah Rennie is slightly more sceptical. Though there has been an unprecedented willingness for South African foundations to associate and work together during the pandemic, normalisation of the situation might lead to a decrease in this. However, this is something that should be avoided as the pandemic showed strong interconnectivity of all social and environmental causes. Only coming together with other foundations with an open-minded approach will allow for the exploration of risks that might be there for the cause that is on your agenda.

Global leadership: humbleness and new models

The virtue of qian, one of the traditional Chinese virtues, refers to humbleness and modesty. This is the virtue that seemed to resonate with BRICS philanthropies when they were invited to reflect on their potential role as global leaders. They feel more comfortable to come together, listen to and learn from each other, share challenges and come up with joint solutions, rather than imposing their ways of working. As Oksana Oracheva put it, the momentum exists to think beyond the traditional understanding of the ‘international’ aspect of global leadership in terms of North-South or West-East money flows. Instead, old narratives and the traditional language of power do not seem to respond to the challenges of the day and require a new language, that which understands `new power’. 

Still, the question remains – what is it that BRICS philanthropies have got to offer the world? Fuelling unprecedented levels of individual giving via crowdfunding platforms? Rapid development of social innovations through the surge of social enterprises or social business? The practices which become inherent in emerging philanthropies might well lead to the democratisation of the sector and blur boundaries of a traditional understanding of where philanthropy can come in. This untapped potential can be scaled up, and this is entirely where philanthropy infrastructure can ensure that this exchange happens and is harnessed for collective impact. 

Quite soon, BRICS philanthropies will need to figure out and articulate what exactly they have to offer as the demand is being forged. Only 10% of the webinar participants said that BRICS philanthropies should continue to focus only on the domestic agenda, while the vast majority stated that they are ready to increase global leadership. As Benjamin Bellegy said, we need to understand whether BRICS philanthropies can become a centre of new thinking and practices in philanthropy and mirror the diplomatic vision of the BRICS bloc to build an alternative global emerging leadership - while still engaging on domestic issues.

What became evident during the webinar is that there is a strong appetite for an exchange of practices and learnings (even from failures) among philanthropy organisations in BRICS countries. They recognise themselves in the words of their peers and they recognise the challenges they are facing in their country with the challenges faced by philanthropies in other BRICS countries. At Russian Donors Forum, we have initiated research to dig deeper into what brings the BRICS philanthropies together and how learning from each other’s journeys can benefit us all.

If you missed the webinar, you are welcome to listen to the recording here. We will also be happy to hear from you if you would like to share resources on philanthropy and COVID-19 response in BRICS - it will contribute greatly to a study on philanthropy in BRICS countries we aim to publish later this year. 

Alina Shenfeldt, Deputy Director at Russian Donors Forum

Alina Shenfeldt leads international programmes at the Russian Donors Forum, association of responsible business and charitable foundations in Russia. She also works with the communications team of Dafne – Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe. Previously, Alina worked for the UNESCO Institute of Information Technologies in Education, Transparency International-Russia and learning disability and autism charities in the UK and Cote-d'Ivoire. She holds BA in International Relations from the MGIMO University (with honours), MA in Political Science from the HSE University (with honours).

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