8 May 2018

Déjà vu all over again: The short attention span and the cyclical obliviousness of the philanthropic and development industries

This post first appeared on the Global Fund for Community Foundations website

The philanthropic and development sectors have much in common, an ever-expending Jargon, genuine concern for the people at the bottom of the pyramid, evaluating impact, just to name randomly  few of the thousands of similarities.  In what follows I concentrate on a singular joint foible – their respective razor-slim bandwidths for learning.

This has been a creeping suspicion of mine over the last (almost) four decades that I have spent working between the two. I have watched as lessons are learned, then forgotten over a few years – each generation convinced that they need to sweep away the “old” and bring in the “new”.  I have watched these ideas and trends arrive, and donors dutifully getting in line to be the first to test shiny new magic bullets, and to stake their claim as a leader (even worse, expert) in whatever fad has captured the zeitgeist in a particular moment. What’s most frustrating is watching the cyclical nature by which this learning and forgetting is happening, and happening again, and then happening again. To borrow Yogi Berra’s famous quote: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Take for example the beautiful simplicity and  importance of putting communities at the heart of (their own) development – the theme of a new GrantCraft Leadership Series paper How community philanthropy shifts power: What donors can do to help make that happen. This has been a reoccurring theme over the course of my career, but unfortunately it seems to be an idea that needs to be continuously relearned. Worse still: it seems to meet with sullen opposition each time. This especially confounds me, because the fact that people spontaneously help their neighbors is simply not a new cutting-edge discovery. It is, in fact, a natural human instinct. People who live in a locality have a better understanding of the context than outsiders. They understand complicated and hard to communicate problems, and can develop appropriate solutions: they know what will work, and what will not work. “Development” is already happening, naturally and instinctively in communities around the world.  I have, moreover, been struck by the sheer resilience of local communities and have long professed that development pundits continue to be oblivious  to the informal institutions such as, for example, self-help burial associations , or rotating savings and credit associations. These are institutions that have survived colonialism, urbanization, the post-industrial period, etc. And the core principle behind them – cooperating with neighbours, pooling resources to buy something in bulk and then sharing it – is simple, and clearly demonstrates that giving and helping is in the DNA of communities. Thus communities around the world already have mechanisms for helping each other, and for holding each other to account – why do we need to keep relearning? Why is it so hard for the philanthropic and development sectors to make this a permanent, central tenet of our work?  Why do we need to rediscover the obvious? In part, I suspect, because its easier to revert to the notion that we know best, have the solutions down and merely need to apply the formulas we have developed ourselves.

Do not take my above frustrations as a critique of the new GrantCraft Leadership Series paper. On the contrary, I think this is an extremely important piece of work, and I applaud the authors, as well as the members of the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, for their efforts in pushing the rest of us to acknowledge something which, frankly, I am shocked still needs to be routinely spelled out.

I do, however, have a slight concern which relates to the tone or perhaps the communications strategy adopted in the paper.  I am worried that the paper is written in such a combative way that the people who need to read it most…won’t. The ideas in this paper, and the #ShiftThePower slogan more broadly, is a clarion call to arms that demands a fundamental realignment of power relationships in the development and philanthropic sectors. Since actors in these sectors are hardly yearning to reflect upon, learn from, and tweak their work – so how many are really up for all out paradigm shifts and shared power? The philanthropic world in particular is a genteel one, with real meanings communicated in sub-text and innuendo. And all of a sudden this paper makes the request – nay, demand! – to #ShiftThePower?!

I’m afraid that the evidence suggests that development and philanthropic staff are, when all is said and done, are actually comfortable in their silos, while community philanthropy at it core – which focuses on the overall holistic health of a community – forces  people to get out of these silos, and to work holistically .  The problem is how do we get the people who need to imbibe this to take the time and open their minds enough to take it in? As Upton Sinclair puts it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

I truly hope that this important paper will be read widely. What I don’t hope is that future generations of programme officers and field staff, perhaps forty years down the line, will find a copy and think “what a great idea – why didn’t we do this before?” thus completing yet another cycle of developmental/philanthropic amnesia.