Philanthropy and the Pandemic Portal

Hilary Pearson

Lucy Bernholz of Stanford is one of the thinkers I admire most in the world of philanthropy. Hers is an articulate and original voice. It helps me put into context the changes and arguments going on in the world of philanthropy, civil society and digital technology. Every year for the last thirteen, she has written what she calls a “blueprint”, an “annual industry forecast for how we use private resources for public benefit in the digital age”. In her 2022 blueprint, she has written a particularly clear-eyed commentary on what she calls a point of discontinuity that we have come to.

A year ago, Bernholz and I both picked up on an image used by the writer Arundhati Roy. She spoke of the pandemic period as a portal that we will walk through from the past to the future, and that in doing so we must decide what to bring and what to leave behind. We have not yet stepped through that portal. As I said in a January 2021 blog, much of what happened in 2020 in response to the pandemic did not go outside the boundaries of past assumptions and practice…we held the assumption that we would return to the ordinary, that there was a “normal” state that we would return to. Arguably, much the same could be said of 2021. Foundations gave more, more flexibly, more urgently. But they did not fundamentally change their roles as funders. Nor did charities and nonprofits change their roles as fundseekers and recipients.

Bernholz now talks about a discontinuity or, as she says, a point defined in physics as an interruption in the normal structure of a thing. She believes that the discontinuities accumulating in our environment, not only from the pandemic but even more importantly from the human-induced changes to the planet’s ecosystem, mean that “it’s not merely a matter of passing through a portal—we need to “leap” through the moment, making major shifts.”

How do we make this leap? It’s difficult to see beyond the moment, to avoid simply reacting to what is in front of us, to re-examine all our assumptions. The urgency of need in the pandemic makes it even more challenging to take a wider or longer view. Bernholz doesn’t have a guidebook for us. She does tell us that given the discontinuities we face, “we each need to make deep shifts in our individual lives and even bigger shifts in our political imaginations if we are to learn how to adapt to a climatically unstable planet and create new ways for humans to thrive”.

Generously, Bernholz shares links in her blueprint to examples of imaginative shifting in philanthropy. One is a report from a Design Justice workshop for the MacArthur Foundation, which explored how design justice methods can be applied to grantmaking in order to challenge rather than reproduce structural inequalities in philanthropy. The philanthropy world of 2022 as imagined and reproduced in a graphic from the workshop is a hugely different one than that of today. Among other things it imagines that a century from now there is no need for foundations. As Bernholz urges, let’s look at this closely to prompt a shift in our imaginations.

Another example is the work of Cassie Robinson, a grantmaker based in the United Kingdom who is imagining and sharing the shifts in practice that a funder could or should make to be able to leap to a future where everyone can thrive. Robinson has shared in a blog post a framework for thinking about the past or present of grantmaking practice and a possible future that might be very different, in which funders are field -builders for long-term change.. In another post, Robinson has described the skills that she believes should be important to grantmakers now, and this list is quite different to the skills we have sought in the past. Robinson names design, foresight, narrative, pattern recognition, synthesis and sense making, among other skills.  Using systemic design, continuous learning through inquiry, prioritising narrative, and field building, resourcing infrastructure, making use of all the assets that a foundation might have…this is a different picture of the roles of most philanthropists today. But a shift towards these roles, and acquiring the skills to get there, is required to make the leap to a more just and sustainable future. It may take some time. I do see Canadian foundations beginning to shift their thinking and to plan for the organizational structures and people skills they need to break away from old roles and unexamined assumptions. Urgency is probably what is needed most now.

I am made more hopeful, in the dark start to what may still be a difficult year, by Bernholz’s thoughtful conclusion:

“All of us can use this time to collectively pursue visions that seemed impossible not long ago. That is what Arundhati Roy meant when she described the pandemic as a portal back in 2020. It is a threshold, a moment of choice. What we take through with us matters—whether that be a deepened commitment to the health of our neighbors, the joy we’ve found in creating mutual supports for our children and elders, the pride we can take in successful collective action, or the hope of new ideas. These are the greatest potential powers of civil society and philanthropy.”

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