24 July 2019

The writing is on the wall

I read all the stories that were submitted to the EFC for our 30th anniversary blogs with delight.  I am thrilled at the richness and sheer diversity of storytelling and raw narrative in our sector. We have so many stories to tell! We have so many ways of telling them. This collection of blogs is surely a barometer and testament to the vitality and health of our sector.  As Clifford Geertz reminds us: “Human beings make sense of the world by telling stories, by using the narrative mode for construing reality”.

I too have a story to tell, and it’s a story that I will have to tell in different ways at different times, but in what follows I would like to begin by sharing a perspective that synthesises my participant observation of the sector with my training as an anthropologist.  My most powerful impression about institutional philanthropy is that it endures, it ebbs, it flows, it changes constantly. It is unboxable, it certainly defies easy classification if not definition. Recently I had an “ah-ha” moment. I realised that we do not talk about institutional philanthropy through the lens of reciprocal exchange. I am now convinced that we have seriously underestimated an important variable in philanthropic behaviour and norms. Classic anthropological texts by the likes of Marcel Mauss (Essai sur le don) and Marshall Sahlins (Stone Age Economics) have reminded me that we have modern day equivalents even of potlatch and Kula ring. The concept of reciprocal exchange mechanisms, delayed reciprocity, parallel exchange systems, balanced reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, etc. provides us with a compelling framework.

Reciprocity is an integral part of core human behaviour and institutional philanthropy is a concrete manifestation of this bundle of reciprocal relationships. Probing philanthropy through the lens of reciprocal exchange means that we have a far more satisfactory and convincing “driver” for philanthropic behaviour than altruism. I mean, we all know that the benefactor not only gives but “gets” something (prestige, reputation, admiration, fame, respect, influence, vindication of hunches, karma, forgiveness, satisfaction about being right, license for social engineering experiments, “return on investment”, rubbing shoulders with the powerful, exclusive access, conspicuous consumption, public bragging rights, honours and titles). This lens gives us the toolkit to better appreciate what exactly is being exchanged.

The elephant in the room

We all know the story of the six learned but blind men of “Indostan” who each experience a different physical aspect of an elephant and hence describe the creature completely inconsistently. It is as if by focusing mainly on benevolence and altruism we have not bothered with other equally important aspects of the elephant.

Moreover, such a perspective has the additional value that it well and truly explodes the myth that philanthropy is something developed and perfected in a specific corner of the globe and that other forms of philanthropy are mere copies or mirrors of the original – a persistent foible that many North Americans and some Europeans share. We know that what is an integral part of homo-sapiens’ repertoire tends to have myriad forms and no version is any better or worse than another. There is no model, no template. No perfect or original form.  How liberating! It also means, of course, that the forms and weight that philanthropy constantly adopts are infinitely adaptable and there will always be new modes, new ways of gifting, or reciprocating.  We needn’t worry unduly about the well-being of this phenomenon: it’s simply an integral part of being human and woven permanently in our repertoire.

This blog is an attempt to look at a crystal ball and predict the future. Having asked so many of you to do this I felt it would be churlish not to reciprocate.  I wrote a blog a year or so ago about the seven challenges that are facing European philanthropy. I believe that little has changed, and those paradoxes are still very much with us. However, in the space left I would like to concentrate on four major issues that I predict are going to completely dominate this sector in the coming decades. The first three of these are external challenges that we will be forced to grapple with and overcome and the fourth is a challenge that is more internal to the sector but will, I think, prove equally consuming of creativity, time and energy.

Desolation Row

And the Good Samaritan, disguised as Robin Hood, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row – Bob Dylan

I am writing this blog sitting in Philanthropy House, at the crossroads of Treurenberg and Rue Royale. Treurenberg (loosely translated as the Mount of Mourning) is one of the very few streets in Brussels that does not have affixed next to it a French translation. Those of you who know me well might have already gathered that I find it irresistible not to translate Treurenberg as “Desolation Row”.  This is especially true since the beginning of the climate strikes where schoolchildren are boycotting school to demand that policymakers take the climate emergency seriously.  The children in Brussels make their way up in ever increasing numbers every Friday from the central railway station to Rue Royale on Treurenberg, passionately campaigning as they passed Philanthropy House.

This is an existential threat that is likely to become one that more and more foundations are going to have to grapple with. I would anticipate that even foundations whose missions and mandates are far removed from the environment will find themselves compelled to find ways of addressing one or more aspects of the climate emergency. Clearly, we will all have to contend with the food and storage systems, the travel systems and other aspects of daily life that will be impinged by the climate emergency.  This is likely to cause some serious soul searching and some stretching of mandate as the scale of the problem becomes more apparent. Denial will no longer be possible.

The times they are a-changing

The second preoccupation, perhaps a mainly Western one, is already touching and galvanising parts of the sector.  It is the need for the generally loose and scattergun response to the changing political landscape to harden into something that is more cohesive and more deliberate. The invitation in front of us, as so many of the blogs written for the 30th anniversary remind us, is one of standing up at this critical time for democratic values just when these are deliberately and systemically under attack. As some of the blogs have underlined, one of the consequences of institutional philanthropy being more in the public limelight is that foundations and other forms of institutional philanthropy will have to deal head on with a much more ambivalent if not hostile context. We are at the beginning of a brand-new era and the old arguments or defences are not fit for purpose.

Until a few years ago it was common to hear foundation leaders talk about the relatively high opinion in which they are held generally by the public and there are still a handful of foundation leaders that fondly think that they can remain above the fray. I fear that the tide on this is turning and it will be necessary for foundations to get their shtick together, to develop narratives and stories that explain better the role that they play in society. One way, I think, to do this effectively will be to move away from the traditional “altruistic” and benevolent premise that “justifies” our work and develop a much more explicit narrative that embraces and indeed celebrates the reciprocal and transactional nature of philanthropic behaviour. The time to see philanthropy as a voluntary and private act of benevolence may be drawing to a close and, invariably, together with that the very close association that philanthropy has with capital accumulation. It is time too, for a more up-front recognition of the different kinds of give and take that are being exchanged.

Algorithm and blues

The third issue, also amply covered in the 30th anniversary blogs, that will dominate in the coming years will be the issue of technology and digitalisation.  It is very closely connected to the political backdrop but surely is of such magnitude that it will seriously influence nearly all aspects of life.  Already algorithms are making many decisions for us and changing our lives but we have probably not seen anything yet. Institutional philanthropy is beginning to grapple with technological change but as with climate and democracy this is likely to expand exponentially as a major preoccupation for all of us in the future.

Infrastructure – thinking inside the box

This brings me squarely to the fourth challenge, one that is less about institutional philanthropy per se and more about how the so-called “infrastructure” fits in.  It may be that foundations will grapple successfully with the challenges above without any recourse to the infrastructure organisations – although I seriously doubt this. Nevertheless, as you all know we are currently embarking on a process of looking at ways of how the infrastructure organisations can collaborate better.  The coming years are therefore very likely to see significant modification in the infrastructure architecture.  I have argued for some time that there are huge dangers in being too reductionist here. Thus, while ostensibly the “infrastructure” is external to foundations it is critical to understand that this is not, in fact, always the case.  Indeed, I would argue that one other consequence of seeing philanthropy as an integral part of reciprocity, would mean that infrastructure has to be recognised as more like the skeleton holding philanthropic norms, values and behaviour together, rather than as external scaffolding.  Scaffolding is, after all, only needed temporarily but is rapidly discarded once the edifice is built.  The problem is that the philanthropic edifice is never built.  We discard infrastructure at our peril, if it’s an integral binding of our reciprocal ecosystem.

To some, infrastructure has been dismissed as mere service provision or trade association.  An approach that is so mechanical and reductionist risks sweeping away a set of nuanced and calibrated relationships that not only cannot be easily replaced, it also means that some of the normative unwritten rules governing reciprocal exchange will be at risk.  In the jostling for position that is likely to occur in the near future, some of the relationship-building, trust, and rather idiosyncratic accommodations that are an integral part of the tailor-made organic reciprocity will invariably get lost.

So, indeed, “the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide, and even the fortune telling lady has taken all her things inside”. Looking once more at the street sign of Treurenberg, perhaps the writing is literally on the wall. In this chess game, the next moves will be worth playing carefully.