The “Old” Normal and the “New” Agenda

Hilary Pearson

At the turn of this pandemic year 2020, we are once again in a place of semi-lockdown, asked to stay home and away from others, unable to meet in person, wary of human contact. Being in this place forces us to stand back, to reflect and to try to understand both what has happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. In the words of the writer Arundhati Roy, we are all stuck in an unclear present, trying to “stitch together the echoes of our past and the premonitions of our future”. For her, the “pandemic is a portal” that we will walk through; we need to decide what to bring through with us and what to leave behind.

The new year is an opportunity to consider our past and future. Many thoughtful observers of philanthropy and civil society have done so and shared their reflections as we moved closer to the end of 2020. Reading through them, I have been struck by the hope that they express for a “new way” as we move forward, not just a rebuild or a recovery. We have been found wanting. Simply going back to “the way things were” doesn’t feel right. We should want a new, not an “old” normal. But what might that look like?

Many have emphasized, rightly, how the pandemic has shown us, in a way that we cannot avoid and should not look away from, the inequalities in our society – income inequality, systemic racism, social injustice, gender bias. In the face of this, governments, philanthropy and civil society have had to step up to their roles as never before. But arguably, we have stepped up while still acting within the paradigm of the “old” normal. What does that look like?

In the “old” normal, governments protect our health, provide us with safety nets and safeguard our rights as citizens. Philanthropy supports communities and societies by funding charitable institutions of all kinds. And civil society serves, educates, creates and advocates (among many other functions) to enhance our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. Throughout 2020, Canadian governments, donors and nonprofits outperformed in this paradigm.

Governments quickly acted to try to address the impact of disease; they provided urgent income support, widely distributed, as well as targeted funds; and they continued to keep us informed and educated through public health. A significant number of philanthropic foundations loosened restrictions on their grants, gave more than before and committed to collective funds and to shared decision-making with community partners. Civil society organizations and individuals responded in extraordinary ways to the increased demand for support, while coping with the strains of shifting to remote work delivery, the decrease in revenues from traditional fundraising, and the vulnerabilities of their starved core operations. And many responded with motivation and commitment to the movement for inclusion, for equity and for justice for historically excluded and unrecognized populations.

But….much of what was done in 2020 did not step outside the bounds of familiar assumptions and practices. Yes, much of what was done was extra-ordinary. But we held the assumption that we would return to the ordinary, that there was a “normal” state that we would return to. Emergency public funding would end, foundations and donors would revert to previous giving levels and practices, nonprofits and charities would continue to make do with starved operating budgets and doing more with less. Is this what we want more of in 2021?

This is a crucial moment to reconsider old relationships and roles, not just as individuals but also at the level of governments, of philanthropy and of civil society writ large. The effects of the pandemic, combined with the movement for more meaningful action against systemic racism, inequality and exclusion have created the opportunity for a break with the “old normal” in relations between governments and civil society. Prof. Susan Phillips of Carleton University reflected, in a prescient and thoughtful article published in late September, on the events of the past year and their implications. She noted at least three major impacts:

  • A renewal of the importance of place – given the disparate impacts of the pandemic on different communities and populations
  • A need for deeper engagement of civil society leaders and citizens with government on the big cross-cutting issues of inequality that must be dealt with at a societal level.
  • More meaningful inclusion of diverse communities in leadership roles within civil society and in the public sector.

She argues for real change in the policies and practices of governments, nonprofits and private funders. “The disastrous effects of COVID-19 on the nonprofit sector require not mere recovery and restoration of the status quo but reinvention of models of service delivery, better means of engagement in policy development and more effective inclusion and human resource strategies.”  We don’t need more proforma consultations, or detached and uninformed policy making. We need to have deeper relationships and dialogue, as partners working towards shared goals, at both community and national levels.

Lucy Bernholz, the self-described philanthropy wonk at Stanford University, echoes this thought. Bernholz writes a yearly review of trends and forecasts for philanthropy and digital civil society.  In her Blueprint 2021, she argues passionately for deep reconsideration of the roles of government and philanthropy in this current circumstance. “More philanthropy will not get us to a just or equitable society. Philanthropy done better will help, but more fundamentally, what is needed is an honest evaluation of what we’ve let philanthropy become and where it should fit in relationship to public responsibilities.” Bernholz is commenting on the U.S. context in which big philanthropy looms much larger and the state less central than it does in Canada. Nevertheless, she puts her finger on the same need for fundamental change as Susan Phillips. Governments must take the lead but hand in hand with citizens engaged through reinvigorated civil society organizations. “Philanthropy and civil society’s rightful role will be to support and sustain the infrastructure for broad, inclusive civic and political participation and leadership in setting public priorities...”

Can this come to pass? What is our new agenda for 2021? Will we walk through the pandemic portal to a different world? In my next blog I will comment on what that might look like.

Never miss a new post. Subscribe.