30 January 2024

What did philanthropy talk about in 2023? Key insights from the 15 most popular Philea Opinion pieces


2023 was another important year for philanthropy, characterised by growing conversations and awareness around the necessity of shifting foundation practices. Confronted by one global crisis after another, foundations across the world have come to recognise a critical truth: our systems are fundamentally flawed, and a radical transformation in our approach is necessary. In this piece we compiled key insights from the 15 most popular Opinions published by Philea in 2023 to shed light on issues that mattered most to philanthropic organisations.

Systems change

Since last year, the philanthropic sector has been actively engaged in dialogues about systems change, exploring how to integrate this perspective into their work, a critical question Kyrill Hartog and Teresa O’Connell explored in their piece. The global scale of current crises and the complex challenges our societies are facing require a systemic approach which focuses on the root causes of problems rather than isolated solutions or narrow, immediate change models.

Beyond that, the authors remind us that philanthropy is uniquely positioned to lead in systems change due to its operation outside of current value systems. This position allows philanthropy to challenge and expand the theory of value and demonstrate new ways of organising and valuing societal contributions. To be able to do that, philanthropy often needs to focus on the less glamorous aspects of systemic change, like accountability, resource allocation, innovation capacity, and trust-building, which are fundamental elements for real change.


As we started to see better the connections between political, environmental, societal, and economic challenges, in 2023 the term “intersectionality” gained widespread attention, often being confused with cross-thematic or broader issue-based work. Fortunately, efforts to clarify its true meaning also emerged. In her piece, Atje Drexler emphasised the roots of this term in addressing the multidimensional nature of inequalities. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality highlights the complex interplay of social identities, such as gender, race, and class, in shaping distinct experiences of discrimination.

Initiatives like the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s programme demonstrated its practical application in philanthropy, focusing on context-specific approaches and collective learning to understand power dynamics and address systemic disadvantages. These efforts underlined the importance of maintaining the integrity of intersectionality as a tool for critiquing power systems and structural exclusion, distinct from broader interdisciplinary approaches, to honour its transformative potential and the legacy of marginalised groups, especially Black feminists.

Similarly, Nani Jansen Reventlow’s article highlighted the critical need for intersectionality in the climate movement, stressing that effectively combating the climate crisis requires addressing its interconnections with various forms of oppression, such as racism, ableism, and classism. It differentiates between general climate action and climate justice, critiquing the current European climate movement for its lack of focus on justice, which considers the unique impacts of climate change on marginalised groups.

This is exemplified by the disproportionate effect of environmental issues like air pollution on racialised and urban communities, as well as the significant challenges faced by people with disabilities, who are often neglected in climate policies. The article also discusses environmental racism, as seen in the living conditions of Europe’s Roma communities, and calls for more inclusive climate funding. It argues that the dominance of white, middle-class perspectives has led to a narrow approach in climate funding and advocates for a shift towards more grassroots, community-driven initiatives that represent a wider spectrum of voices and needs

Foresight and forward thinking

In the dynamic and interconnected landscape of global challenges, the “Exploring 21st Century Philanthropy” survey by Philea highlighted a crucial pivot for philanthropic organisations: strategic foresight. As foundations confront complex megatrends like climate change, democratic backsliding, and mental health crises, the traditional reactive approach is proving inadequate. The Philea team  shared the findings from this survey and showed how strategic foresight emerges as an essential tool, enabling philanthropic organisations to not only anticipate emerging challenges but also to plan and implement effective, long-term strategies.

Philanthropic organisations are beginning to embrace forward-thinking approaches that could reshape philanthropic practices for generations to come. Inspired by the wisdom of the Awaruna people, who view the Earth as a precious loan from future generations rather than a mere inheritance from our ancestors, some organisations are experimenting with futures and intergenerational practices in their strategic planning. This paradigm shift, moving away from traditional extractive models, places significant emphasis on the long-term impact of today’s decisions on future generations. As illustrated in Carola Carazzone’s piece, Assifero’s ‘Future Chair’ initiative is at the forefront of this movement, symbolising a commitment to integrating future generations into current decision-making processes.

Regenerative practices

In a world teetering on the brink of environmental and social challenges, it becomes clearer that sustainability alone may not suffice. This is where the concept of regenerative practices comes into play, offering a lifeline and a blueprint for future. Regeneration is about healing and restoring ecosystems, communities, and economies. Foundations have started to explore how these practices differ from traditional sustainability efforts.

A concrete example of this experimentation is seen in the work of a local foundation in Spain, detailed by Hanna Stähle. The Home of the Pioneers of Our Time (The Home), led by Stef van Dongen, is setting a precedent for regenerative, holistic philanthropic practices through its transformative work in the Muga Valley. The foundation uses long-term, sustainable solutions and innovative financial models like climate credits to address the problem of biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and the declining health of ecosystems which poses threats to local agriculture, tourism, and the overall health and well-being of the community. This approach integrates a deep focus on local ecological and community needs with collaborative, multi-stakeholder engagement, involving local authorities, researchers, and private investors.

Expanding the definition of impact  

As mentioned above, systems change perspective drives a focus on structural shifts that fosters long-term change and justice rather than just short-term solutions. It involves understanding how various components of a system interact and how changes in one part of the system might affect the whole. In parallel to this, in the words of Stefanos Oikonomou, a significant transformation in the philanthropic sector is the broadening understanding of ‘impact.’ Impact is increasingly seen not just as about immediate results but about creating sustainable changes in the system. This shift involves moving away from an over-reliance on quantitative metrics, dubbed ‘obsessive measurement disorder,’ to a more nuanced approach that balances qualitative data and storytelling. This perspective reshapes how philanthropy assesses its success and influence.

Unrestricted, flexible funding

The exploration of systems change by foundations in 2023 has meant considering a departure from the traditional, project-based, and short-term interventions that have long been the norm. Foundations have increasingly recognised that to effectively implement a systems change perspective, they need to provide unrestricted and flexible funding. And why is that?  Systems change work is inherently complex and unpredictable. It involves trying new approaches and learning from failures and successes, deep contextual understanding and localised solutions, strong organisations with resilient structures, financial stability and confidence to commit to long-term strategies and relationships, addressing multiple interconnected issues simultaneously and adapting strategies along the way. Unrestricted, flexible funding allows for adaptation, greater innovation, and learning from mistakes, and fostering more equitable partnerships between funders and implementers.

As a concrete example Victoria Dunning highlighted the Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative, which offers five-year, unrestricted grants with a focus on institutional strengthening. This approach addresses the limitations of restricted, short-term funding by enabling organisations to be more strategic, adaptable, and resilient in tackling complex social challenges. Key to BUILD’s success is its emphasis on trust, learning, and evaluation. An external evaluation has shown BUILD’s combination of flexible support and institutional strengthening has been transformative, enhancing grantees’ strategic clarity, financial security, and their ability to respond to opportunities and challenges.

Arts as a tool for social change

Gone are the days when artistic creation was a solitary pursuit; today’s artists are stepping out as leaders of community-driven initiatives, reshaping the way we think about creativity, collaboration, and their impact on society. This emerging trend was the focus of an article by Klaus Fruchtnis Durán that highlighted the shift from individual artistic contributions to a more inclusive and innovative approach. This collaborative approach is fostering deeper engagement and commitment among participants, leading to works that resonate more profoundly with diverse audiences.

Philanthropy, long a patron of the arts, is now recognised as a crucial supporter of this transformative journey. By funding artists and organisations focused on social justice issues, foundations are amplifying voices that inspire change and challenge societal norms. This support is not just about financial backing but about endorsing a vision where art is an instrument of social change.

By the same token, Geoff Mulgan’s article highlighed the role of arts in responding to various crises, such as economic downturns, pandemics, wars, and environmental challenges. It points out how arts help people understand and respond to these crises and even engage in advocacy. The notion that crisis can stimulate artistic creativity is discussed, with historical examples showing how challenging times can lead to more vibrant and imaginative artistic expressions. In a time of pessimism, the article underscores the role of arts in helping society envision a better future, addressing themes like societal improvement, democracy, and environmental relationships.

Innovative infrastructure

In 2023, a significant topic of discussion and exploration in the philanthropic sector was the evolving role of philanthropy support organisations and the importance of an innovative, catalyst infrastructure as discussed by Alina Porumb and Alexandra Stef. Throughout the year, it became increasingly evident that as the philanthropic ecosystem grew more complex with a diverse array of actors and methodologies, support organisations emerged as vital catalysts for transformative change. Their ability to widen the circle of partners, including those from community development and social entrepreneurship, greatly enhanced the ecosystem’s capacity for systemic change. Key focuses included fostering collaborative frameworks like communities of practice and alliances, and engaging in catalytic practices like sensing emergent system needs and spotting opportunities for new change-makers.

Likewise, Tim Draimin in his article introduced the concept of philanthropy Innovation Ecosystem (PIE), which focuses on visioning, connecting diverse actors, and fostering knowledge sharing and capacity building. This ecosystem emphasises core principles like long-term partnership, collaborative ecosystems, and shared power dynamics within the change process. The success of this transition hinges on building a robust relational infrastructure within the community of philanthropy support organisations, fostering synergistic collaboration and effective change-making.

Regulatory frameworks in philanthropy

Despite all these exciting developments, the sector continued to face serious challenges: one of them being declining trust in a context marred by factors such as misinformation, rapid advancements in AI, and societal polarisation. As discussed by Delphine Moralis and Brieuc Van Damme, this crisis of trust not only impacts the operational license of philanthropic organisations but also necessitates a thorough re-evaluation of their practices. Concurrently, the political climate, particularly with the upcoming European and Belgian elections and Belgium’s presidency of the EU Council, provides a unique opportunity for the sector. This period could be instrumental in advocating for a unified market for philanthropy, which would encourage greater collaboration between governments and philanthropic entities.

Furthermore, significant hurdles in cross-border philanthropy persist. There is a pressing need for robust legal frameworks that not only facilitate but also streamline philanthropic activities across national borders. Such frameworks would form the cornerstone of an innovative infrastructure in philanthropy, capable of navigating the complexities of modern societal challenges while fostering trust and transparency in its operations.

As a related development, expanding Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulations to include non-profit organisations (NPOs) posed new challenges for the philanthropic sector as shown by Ben Evans. This shift, marked by a lack of international AML standards for NPOs and inconsistent applications across countries, raises risks of operational constraints, especially for smaller NPOs, due to stringent compliance requirements and potential penalties. The importance of this development lies in its potential to inadvertently hinder legitimate philanthropic activities, demanding a proactive response from the sector. The role of philanthropy, therefore, has become crucial in advocating for clear, global policy guidelines and ensuring that AML regulations are risk-based, balanced, and do not impede the essential work of civil society. This response is vital not only for compliance but to safeguard the freedom and effectiveness of philanthropic initiatives worldwide.

Data and transparency 

The restoration of public trust in institutional philanthropy cannot be left to chance. This requires active engagement with policymakers, researchers, journalists, and society at large. Foundations should openly discuss their roles, objectives, and perspectives on societal issues, while embracing participatory mechanisms that include community voices in decision-making. Data plays a crucial role in this renewed approach, both for internal transformation to become more effective and for external accountability.

In Pavithra Ramesh’s article discussing the importance of collecting and visualising data in the philanthropy sector, a clear trend is highlighted towards using data for strategic and impactful philanthropic decision-making. This approach is vital as it allows for the identification of pressing needs, optimal allocation of resources, and effective assessment of philanthropic interventions. The emphasis on data enhances transparency and accountability in philanthropy, helping to understand and address gaps in giving. Visual mapping, as mentioned in the article, is particularly significant, serving as a powerful tool for illustrating the impact of philanthropy, advocating for supportive policies, and fostering collaborations. This integration of data is essential in elevating the efficiency and impact of philanthropic efforts, ensuring that resources are judiciously used to generate the most significant societal, economic, and environmental benefits.

It is a change agenda

2023 has been a year where the unique role of philanthropy in driving societal transformation is being thoughtfully reconsidered. Foundations are coming to terms with the idea that to contribute to the systems change, they must take risks and invest in long-term change, focusing on systemic issues, consider more flexible funding models based on trust, building organisational capacities for resilience, foster a culture of learning and experimentation, and adopt collaborative, inclusive approaches, and invest in infrastructure. So many important shifts are on the way. We strongly believe that this is not just talk, but a change agenda philanthropic actors are building together, and by engaging in these conversations philanthropic organisations explore these different approaches and practices, get inspired and get challenged. We are looking forward to hearing about what questions keep you up at night and your thoughts about how to put this change agenda into practice this year. 


Sevda Kilicalp
Head of Knowledge and Learning