Greater Good Blog

Outside Voices Can Help Us Change the Way Philanthropy Works

Gwen Walden

It’s seldom that someone like me, who has been active in a particular field for over two decades, gets the opportunity to experience something entirely new. This is what happened when I recently attended my first Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF) conference. Unlike most conferences in our sector, GPF doesn’t just gather those who work in philanthropy. This annual confab cuts across sectors and fields of interest, gathering foundation leaders and individual donors as well as impact investors, representatives from corporations and international NGOs, government officials, and academics, all of whom convene over a three-day period to address current and emerging themes impacting social good across the globe. Talking to people who work towards similar goals but in different fields shed light on how various changes taking place in the public and private sectors and markets around the world have the potential to change the way philanthropy works. So what new tricks did this old dog learn?

First, as an old hat at attending philanthropy conferences of all stripes and colors, I realized that we need these opportunities to talk with our colleagues beyond our own field. Conversations across sectors, borders, approaches, and philosophical perspectives are necessary in order to collaborate more effectively for social change. Although the participants represented a multitude of diverse backgrounds and practices, our goals are very much the same, and we have much to learn from each other, as well as much to gain by working more closely together. For instance, human slavery and trafficking is an issue that transgresses borders. Though many funders work on this issue, it also impacts actors in business, law enforcement, governments, and the NGOs that are trying to end this practice. Conversations at GPF made it clear that it will take an international and multi-sector collaboration to solve it.

Second, there is a powerful convergence underway between the nonprofit, for-profit, and public sector actors focused on social change. The bright lines we used to draw between foundations, businesses, and government are no longer serving the greater good, and we need to create, discover, and promote the instruments for change that will have the most impact and achieve the outcomes we want to achieve. For example, we who come out of the world of traditional philanthropy would often have non-negotiables when working with government, especially if we thought our resources would be used to backfill or supplant services that are historically seen as the government’s responsibility. We need to reexamine these tried-and-true practices in order to address the changing nature of the social contract, and the respective roles of philanthropy, business, and government in it.

Finally, GPF really brought home to me the fact that the rapidly changing and dynamic nature of social capital markets will fundamentally and forever change the way philanthropy has operated for most of its history. No longer can we only see grants as the modality for investing in communities. Debt and equity instruments are now a permanent part of the landscape. Market failure will increasingly seek market-based solutions, and our practice as philanthropy professionals will need to adapt to this new reality.

The conference made me realize the extent to which those of us who are embedded in traditional philanthropy need to think through how to adapt our practice in response to these changes in our environment. What are our biggest challenges in light of macro conditions like the weakening of boundaries between sectors and changing social capital markets?

Gwen Walden is a managing director in Arabella’s California office. Her work centers on the strategic needs of boards of directors and senior and executive leadership in private foundations, family foundations, corporate giving entities, and public agency grant makers.

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