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Philanthropy Right Now:

Democratising Philanthropy

‘Philanthropy Right Now’ is a periodical column for Beacon Collaborative by Marie-Louise Gourlay, Managing Director of Europe for The Philanthropy Workshop.

The prefix co- can be defined as “with, together, joint” and even “one that is associated in action with another” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The last blog touched on the importance of community in philanthropy. In recent weeks, the world’s eyes have been watching a small community of leaders making hefty decisions to tackle climate change and justice.

We desperately – urgently – hope it translates into action. But how do we bring people together around the metaphorical table and ensure that all voices are heard in shaping our future? How do we avoid simply reflecting the ideals of the statesmen and -women of the western world?

Ahead of COP26, we saw many within the philanthropy, public and not-for-profit sectors trying to figure out how to be a part of the conversation. Navigating just this one space felt like a microcosm of the challenges of navigating the wider social sector. The complexity and vastness, coupled with the all-too-often siloed and deeply private nature of philanthropy, can mean it’s a quagmire.

Even more challenging, is finding the spaces where all voices are equitably heard. In the now outdated system of hierarchy, meritocracy gets in the way. It gives louder voice to those with longest experience – but these are not always the people with the best ideas. When length of service trumps innovation and bold thinking, something isn’t right.

How do we ensure that there is always space for diverse opinion, knowing it furthers our discussion and expands our thinking? What is democracy if not sharing thoughts and ideas from across the spectrum in order to move us forward? How do we move away from purely intellectualised and theoretical discussion and refocus attention on the communities with lived experience of the issues we are trying to resolve?

People often refer to needing a case study to understand something. To take it from abstract theory, to real life example. In speaking with non-profit partners in Madagascar recently, they shared the distress of climate migration already underway. As men move inland to find work, forced from their homes by severe drought and ensuing famine, women and children are left behind – and we heard of women selling their unborn children in order to buy food and charcoal for their existing children.

And that’s just one example from one region. Do we have to wait until there are more tangible and hard-hitting examples before we move to action? Or can we build deeper trust with the voices from the communities that are closest to the challenges, and believe in the urgency?

The vitality of activists and movement builders is gaining in traction and voice, and they are not afraid to challenge. Space needs to be made to hear their demands. We have heard from philanthropists in the past that activism can feel ‘aggressive’ and can put people off funding such an approach – that narrative needs to change.

We need to listen. And then we need to move.

Marie-Louise Gourlay is the Managing Director of Europe for The Philanthropy Workshop. Find out more about The Philanthropy Workshop’s activity here.

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