Philanthropy and the new economy: From imagination to action
By Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director, WINGS.
Can philanthropy help reimagine and implement new economic systems for people and the planet? Tackling this was the ambitious target we set for ourselves during the recently held third and final event that formed part of our WINGSForum 2020-2021 Virtual Summit series.
Our guiding theme for the online series of WINGSForum, Imagine, aimed to challenge us to think beyond the conventional wisdom of what philanthropy is and offer us the opportunity to explore what it can — and must — become.
This time around we grappled with the idea of reimagining an economy that works for people and the planet. A considerable task but a fundamentally necessary one given that we can imagine and implement the most innovative solutions to the many issues we are addressing, but we won’t collectively bring about lasting change if we don’t find ways to transform the economic system on which our lives and societies are built.
An early theme that emerged during our discussion was that of value: about what we value and how we assign value. A key driver of the multiple crises we now collectively face is that we allowed the unfettered spread of economic models that let the market decide what holds value. But what does the market say about human dignity? Or decent jobs? Or the natural world? Or whether pharmaceutical companies should maximise profits over saving people’s lives? In order to change the system we need to change what we value and how we calculate value.
Philanthropy can be at the heart of the solution or at the heart of the problem, that’s our choice: helping maintain an unsustainable and inequitable economic system by making it more acceptable and slightly less harmful, or leveraging our assets to invent new models from the bottom up, and contribute to changing the rules of the game.
The potential is there, the models exist. The social economy and social business sectors are very dynamic and innovative. Grassroots movements and indigenous people develop integrated and holistic approaches centred around the concept of well-being such as ‘buen vivir’. A new generation of business leaders and high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) are engaging in the transformation of their business models to put social impact at the centre.
The mainstream economy and social sector are starting to overlap in promising hybrid new ways. But all these models and approaches are still waiting to be scaled and to move from the sideshow to the centre stage.
Philanthropic actors have many different tools and approaches to leverage to support these models and scale them in unprecedented ways. They can support communities creating local economic systems that bring about sustainable and equitable futures; they can invest in those who will think and design new models, new organisations, new rules and incentives, and research that develops the models of tomorrow; they can help influence policy locally or globally; they can transform their own models by diversifying their investments and adopting operating principles in line with their values and social objectives; and, last but not least, they can influence the business and family practices behind them.
By doing so, they can help turn the social field, or third sector, into the first sector, as the generative domain in which we find the social values, ethical principles, and solidarity practices that the market and the state should be built upon.1
Philanthropic actors have the potential to bring about such a shift. Philanthropy is in a unique position because it is flexible and can take risks. We should fully and urgently embrace the challenge, the privilege, of charting new territory and leading the way. One of our speakers articulated this by saying that “if businesses fail they’re out of business; if philanthropy fails, it learns - and hopefully course corrects and moves on”.
It was striking to note that all the speakers, even though they came from very different backgrounds, were in clear agreement that business’ voluntary change will not be enough and that funders need to work at a systemic level to influence:
the regulatory environment of markets through advocacy;
the socio-cultural environment through new thinking and the reinforcement of social movements and of the power base for change;
and the operational environment by building a powerful ecosystem of support organisations and intermediaries that can multiply and scale social innovations and new models.
The philanthropy of tomorrow cannot remain in a bubble, improving lives at the margins, limiting the negative externalities of the economic system. It can do much more than that, not just with its financial resources, but through its potential to influence, to build bridges between sectors, its power to empower others, its independence and capacity to take risks and incubate new models.
If philanthropy is to be a catalyst for change in the face of the many urgent and existential threats humanity is facing, we need to find ways to go beyond isolated havens of impact. Coming together to share knowledge, ideas and resources, to support each other, to build our collective intelligence and strength — all of this will help facilitate and accelerate progress toward addressing the challenges we face.
Now is the time for imagination and action. For a brave philanthropy that can help create a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.
1. D. Wruk, G. Pasi, G. Krlev and M. Bernhard, 'Reconceptualizing the Social Economy', Stanford Social Innovation Review, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/reconceptualizing_the_social_economy#.
Benjamin is the Executive Director at WINGS. He has previously led international programmes in fields such as civil societies’ strengthening, sustainable development or post-disaster reconstruction. He has managed international programmes at Fondation de France, worked for the International Cooperation Agency of Monaco and for several NGOs in Ethiopia, Tunisia and Canada.