Can Philanthropy Get REAL?

February 25, 2020
Hilary Pearson

I was intrigued by a recent Twitter thread from Rhodri Davies, Head of Policy at Charities Aid Foundation(CAF) in the United Kingdom and leader of CAF’s think tank, Giving Thought.  Rhodri is a thoughtful and experienced observer of philanthropy and the big questions that foundations face as social actors. In his thread, @Rhodri_H_Davies notes that he is trying to tie together various strands of current critiques of plutocratic philanthropy in the 21st Century and possible responses to those critiques.  He came up with an acronym RECODE, to set out six criteria for “good” philanthropy: a philanthropy that counters the critique suggesting that it is only the sphere of an elitist group of plutocrats trying to whitewash their wealth through an arrogant deployment of philanthropic resources for their own benefit. The acronym stands for: R, risk-taking, E, enough (scale), C, contextualised, O, open, D, democratic, and E, environmental (urgency of climate change). 

Rhodri invited comment on RECODE from observers and practitioners of philanthropy. He acknowledges that no one example of philanthropy needs to meet all six criteria. But these do provide some guidance to what one should be considering if one was a philanthropist of any scale, interested in being effective rather than merely self-interested. So, I gave this some thought in a Canadian context. I agree that these responses to philanthropy’s critique would apply in a Canadian philanthropic context, even without the prominence of plutocrats that we see in the US. But I wonder if we need to reflect more on the question of power in philanthropy: who has it? Can it be shared? Does it need to be deliberately addressed for philanthropy to have as much impact as it should? Using this lens, and staying with RECODE as an acronym, I propose that E could stand for empowering (partners and grantees) to address power imbalances, and C could stand for collaborative, or taking a power-sharing approach to working together.

Taking this speculative thinking further, the more compelling acronym instead of RECODE but something much simpler and more direct: REAL. REAL takes into account the power imbalance between funder and grantee and tries to mitigate it. R for Resource, or ensuring that any initiative is resourced enough, in as open-ended a way as possible, without unnecessary conditions; E for Empower, or enabling community partners to have greater agency and voice; A for Adapt, or focusing all philanthropic efforts on the critical need for adaptation to the transition that our world faces away from unsustainable growth based on carbon; and L for Listen, or for keeping an ear open constantly to the views and voices of communities.

Does this line of speculation resonate?  Would you have a different acronym to suggest? 

A note about E for Environmental:

Philanthropy needs to get REAL these days about the urgency of the disruption and need for adaptation posed by climate change. Rhodri Davies is right in suggesting this as his final “E” in RECODE. As an eminent Canadian such as Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of Canada and Bank of England, now UN Special Envoy on Climate Change and Climate Finance, has noted: “A question for every company, every financial institution, every asset manager, pension fund or insurer: what’s your plan?” I would add that this is a question for every foundation or philanthropic organization in the face of climate crisis: what’s your plan for contributing to net-zero (carbon) by 2050?

As an environmental funder (and maybe all foundations should be today, at least in part) you can: fund work to promote policies or to contribute directly to preservation of natural carbon sinks such as forests, oceans, and sustainable agricultural lands; commit to building resilience in communities facing the consequences of climate change; work on strategies to manage the stresses on food, water and housing that will inevitably occur. Even if your work doesn’t have an environmental focus, as foundation you will be faced in this decade by the disruptions caused by climate change to communities, jobs, and most aspects of life. What can you do as a funder to face and ease the transition? As Carney and others repeat: transition, transition, transition. This is the word that will resonate most in the years of this decade. And it is the word that philanthropy must grapple with, in a REAL way.

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