8 February 2021

Fixing the Plumbing: from shared data to shared imagination

This is a fascinating time for philanthropy, with so many very intense short term pressures. But there is also a hunger to address long term challenges, which are not so hard to see: dealing with social injustice and inequality; averting climate catastrophe; supporting political renewal; restoring truth in our media.

Philanthropy has unique freedom to be brave, impactful and relevant in addressing these problems.  I want to focus on is what philanthropy could be doing together to amplify its impact. I’ve run a foundation, worked with foundations and convened foundations.  But if I’m honest I would have to say there has been surprisingly little progress in serious collaboration over the last few decades even as a vast amount of money has poured into philanthropy all across the world.  One result is that the whole remains much less than the sum of its parts.

So what could be done differently? Here I suggest 5 fields where foundations could be pooling their resources and collaborating more effectively.  These are all essentially about the back office and underlying infrastructures: the unglamorous plumbing which makes systems work so much better but is nearly always undervalued.

The first priority is shared scanning of what lies ahead:  what are the important threats and possibilities.  We can see all around us worsening inequality thanks to COVID;  perhaps the worst set-back for the SDGs in a generation; or that accelerating investment in automation means turbulence in job markets and threats to many places whose industries will disappear. A shared picture of likely futures and also of low probability but high impact threats must be the precondition for any serious philanthropic work, and there is little point in foundations doing this separately.

Second we need shared intelligence on what’s happening in the present. As an example, 12 years ago I helped bring together a group of UK foundations to do a snapshot of the state of Britain’s social needs.  We used statistical analysis, qualitative studies, deep dive interviews and research and we identified some emerging problems such as isolation and loneliness which at that time were not being talked about at all, though they have become far more visible through the Covid crisis.  Here again it’s obvious that foundations should pool resources to have an accurate up to date picture of the world rather than relying on media or anecdote.

Illustration by Marina Roa, SenseTribe

Third foundations should collaborate on evidence: knowing what does and doesn’t work.  I’m now helping to run a version of this called IPPO – the international public policy observatory on Covid – where we try to synthesise lessons from around the world on education, mental health, care housing and homelessness so that decision makers whether in government or NGOs can avoid making unnecessary mistakes. The evidence is often messy, complex and ambiguous. But a lot has been learned about how to do this well. The key is not just to have repositories of evidence which go unused, but instead to work very closely with the users to make sure the evidence is digestible, relevant and timely. Here again I find it surprising how little foundations play a role in this most basic orchestration of shared knowledge.

Fourth we need in almost every field what I call ‘intelligence assemblies’: the active curation of some of the things I’ve already described like data, intelligence and evidence and emerging ideas to help whole systems think.  These need to be consciously organised and managed, and run as an open commons (just as meetings too need to be organised in ways that maximise collective intelligence).  Over the last two years I’ve been working with the UNDP applying collective intelligence methods to sustainable development goals like waste, gender equity or access to water and in every case we find the lack of any organised intelligence is a huge impediment to progress. This is in striking contrast to business which invests vast sums of money in the intelligence which helps firms like Amazon, Google and Alibaba. It also contrasts strikingly with the military field which likewise invests heavily in its own intelligence. In the social field we lack even an awareness that this might be a problem.

Finally we need foundations to work together on imagination. I believe we face an imaginary crisis.  By this I don’t mean that the crises around us are imaginary.  Rather that we are lacking the kinds of imagination we desperately need right now.  Many people find it easy to picture disasters ahead: ecological catastrophe, robots taking over the world, or authoritarian populists grabbing control of even more governments.  We can also picture technological futures: the future of driverless cars or ubiquitous AI.  But people find it very hard to picture or describe how their societies could be better a generation or two from now: how welfare could be organised or education or democracy or neighbourhoods.  The institutions which used to play a role in this work, from universities to political parties, have largely vacated the space. This lack of a shared, positive imagination is one of the reasons why so many surveys show that most of the public now expect their children to be worse off than they are. I believe we need shared investment in reawakening our imagination, drawing on the best of art and design, on social sciences, the insights of citizens, innovators and activists, to start filling in more detailed pictures of what our options might be in the decades ahead:  – what kinds of welfare, democracy,  health or tax we might want.  If we don’t have such pictures of where we want to go its not surprising that we revert to fatalism about the future.

So here are five possible spaces for foundations to work together.  They are in a sense the underpinning plumbing which needs to be attended to and maintained in order for the more glamorous work to have any impact.  It’s a sad truth that many foundations – particularly perhaps in the US – spend so much on branding, seeking credit and attention but are so poor at cooperation and therefore too often achieve only a fraction of the impact they might.  US President Harry Truman is one of many to be credited with saying that ‘it’s amazing what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit’, and I strongly believe that more humble collaboration, giving up ego, has to be the route to speeding up our ability to solve shared problems.

Sir Geoff Mulgan is Professor at University College London. His most recent book is ‘Social Innovation; how societies find the power to change’, Policy Press, 2019.