4 April 2022

Two years on, still not making drama out of crises

Over the past two years, crisis-mode has become the new normal, and there are few reasons to believe this will be changing any time soon. So, drawing from the old adage of finding opportunity in crisis, what are the lessons to be learned from the last two years? To try to gauge this, I will use Philea’s three cross-cutting lenses: climate, equality, and democracy.

Covid-19, aggravating inequalities worldwide


On 13 March 2020 the WHO declared Europe the epicentre of the pandemic, and less than a week later every EU Member State had confirmed at least one Covid-19 case and at least one death and lockdowns were announced impacting more than 250 million people. Two years on, the direct death counted to 6m – but estimated direct and indirect casualties amount to 18.2 million people.

Much has been said about how the pandemic accelerated challenges already faced by society, in particular around inequality. Both within countries and between more and less privileged parts of the world, the pandemic disproportionately affected already disadvantaged populations, and while all income groups experienced losses during the pandemic, the poorest 20% experienced the steepest decline. Extreme poverty rose in 2020 for the first time in over 20 years, and by the end 2021 just over 7% of people in low-income countries had received a dose of the vaccines compared to over 75% in high-income countries.

Philanthropy’s response:

Philanthropy reacted swiftly, from scaling up collaboration and innovation efforts to taking an intersectionality approach to the myriad challenges faced. Across the sector, we saw an empathetic show of solidarity , including more trust-based philanthropy and flexible giving; as well as the reduction of more burdensome administration.

Under the mantra that “no-one is safe unless we are all safe”, 321 respondents to our pre-conference (Vienna) survey last year revealed that foundations are deeply concerned about funding gaps, related either to the fact that half of the globe still has an uphill battle when it comes to vaccinating its population, or related to specific issues which have seen funding decrease as priorities shifted to respond to the emergency.

Overall, the tendency of foundation members of Philea in response to the pandemic has been one led by a keen understanding that solutions were to be found together across sectors and fields, building solutions as an ecosystem rather than through individual efforts. 

Climate crisis, ‘Code red for humanity’


In the summer of 2021 nearly half of EU Member States suffered devastating floods, with 243 casualties and property damages of €10 billion euros. Beyond the direct impact of the floods, the crisis brought the existential threat posed by climate change yet again closer to home. ‘Code red for humanity’ as it was described that same summer by U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres in presenting a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which projected that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels “will be beyond reach” in the next two decades without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The 2022 edition of the IPCC report published today  highlights that if will all get on board NOW, it is still possible to turn the tides.

Philanthropy’s response:

Research conducted in collaboration with ClimateWorks, building on the efforts of our European Environmental Funders Group, highlights a welcome trend towards more investments into climate risk mitigation and adaptation over the past few years. Overall a growth has been noted in the total value of grants and large foundations have set up new grants while others are scaling up

Despite this positive trend, it is to be noted that, still today, only 2% of philanthropic giving is directed towards mitigating climate change. Such a small percentage hardly correlates with philanthropy considering climate change to be an existential crisis but while progress has been relatively slow, awareness is growing. By now we know we need to do more, and do it fast.

Recognising that the climate crisis is one that requires all of us to be on board, we established the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate in 2020 with the aim of mobilising the European philanthropy sector to address climate change as a cross-cutting and societal crisis. This mobilisation is underpinned by seven tangible commitments relating to operations, programmes and investments. To date, close to 500 foundations have co-signed these commitments, and the number is growing.

Ukraine – a violent attack on democracy in Europe


On 24 February this year the Russian regime invaded Ukraine. To date, 4,176,401 refugees have fled the country, with 2.5million people seeking protection in Poland. Over the past days, an increasing amount of reports have been coming in about alleged war crimes, including the killing of civilians and airstrikes targeting schools and hospitals. The war is one which has been built on a campaign of disinformation and attacks on Russian civil society space,

Philanthropy’s response:

As with Covid-19, philanthropy responded quickly to the situation in Ukraine, establishing emergency funds and carrying out needs assessments for the prima facie challenges. In addition to humanitarian and refugee aid and support to local NGOs, our sector was unequivocal in issuing statements of solidarity and also began preparation for longer term reconstruction planning.

On Philea’s side, we teamed up with key partners from the philanthropy sector to develop integrated online portals PhilanthropyForUkraine.eu and NGOforUkraine.eu. The portals aims to better coordinate the efforts, initiatives and calls for donations from the European philanthropy sector and NGO community in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.

Just two weeks after its launch, the platform listed a total of 95 total entries from 91 philanthropic organisations (including 15 non-foundation entities), for a total of 168m euros. Within these, humanitarian aid, refugee support and arts and culture appeared to be the areas in which the highest number of actions were registered. But beyond the immediate response, what has been high on the agenda of philanthropy is how it could contribute on the long run, when immediate solidarity winds down and the need for rebuilding remains painfully present.

Lessons learned

Two years of crises have left none of us unchanged. What has become clear is the need to look at the intersectionality of issues: health, climate, inequality all impact us individually but also how they accentuate each other. That’s why we don’t just need more climate funders, or democracy funders, or equality funders, we need all organisations to recognise that these are lenses to be applied across whatever missions they already prioritise. We have witnessed foundations increase their flexibility in terms of how they adapt to specific crises, while also staying true to the specific role and expertise they have. 

To be able to respond, we will also need organisations to strengthen their entrepreneurial abilities and be willing to take risks. This entails investments in staff and more adaptive ways of planning, allowing us to reorganise and respond in real time to the VUCA realities. This doesn’t mean we need to give up on what we do best – we need to continue to add value where we have a unique role to play, which is more often than not on the long term, rather than only in the here and now.

As we learned not to try to deal with issues on their own, so too have we seen the importance of not trying to do it all on our own. Collaboration is the next step up from solidarity, going beyond ‘standing together’ to creating full-fletched collaborative alliances across disciplines and sectors.  

To help nurture this, we also need to address some difficult issues of our own. Trust in institutions globally is in decline, and philanthropic organisations are not escaping the global scrutiny. More than ever, philanthropic organisations need to mend where trust has been broken and invest in dialogue, transparency, accountability and integrity to build the relations needed to address the polycrises together.

These are but some of the lessons we have learned, but the list is not complete and nor should it be, because we are still learning. At Philea, we are ready to play our part, by supporting our diverse ecosystem of philanthropic organisations in building knowledge, learning together and connecting around thematic issues of interest – including through intersectional lenses. We want to help create an enabling environment, help our collective ability and tell the story of philanthropy.  If you would like to share some of your thoughts with us, please get in touch, we would love to learn and share them with your peers!

The word ‘crisis’ has several definitions, including “the point in a play or story at which hostile elements are most tensely opposed to each other”. With threats to the planet matched only by threats to human life on it, we might well have been at that point in the story for the last two years. But another definition is “the point at which a decisive change occurs.” We need to make sure that the lessons learned by philanthropy in the past few years are part of such a decisive change, a sustainable reset, a roadmap to recovery for something healthier, more equal, and more inclusive.


Delphine Moralis
Incoming CEO, Philea