9 April 2024

What is enabling futures philanthropy? A plea to embrace protopia

Philanthropy exists within the same social, economic and power relations which it intends to fix. The rapidly changing societal context is causing foundations and donors to reflect on their own role and adjust their mission and strategy.

Enabling philanthropy for the future means at least two things: building courageously on philanthropy’s strengths vis-á-vis other societal forces, and putting it to an honest test against the best possible version of itself.

Looking farther, adapting faster

Foundations have been spending time and capital on reviewing structures and strategies to adapt to new VUCA realities (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). Some have managed to reinvent themselves by moving towards more participative and core-funding oriented models. For others, attempts to innovate have led to internal change fatigue. Due to the growing speed of societal changes, it’s become necessary to build a daring vision and values for a long-term direction as well as to adopt a strategy with a much higher degree of flexibility.

The speed and quality of embedding new practices in philanthropy are very much determined by the proximity of boards and staff to each other. It is therefore crucial to foster and deepen the connection between them. Honest debates between boards and staff about impact, risks and costs of innovation are hard, but necessary.

If we want to enable more innovative and risk-taking philanthropy, the challenge is to foster multifaceted growth of engaged professionals. Philanthropy needs more rigorous data analysts, who are also empathic storytellers, listeners and reflective leaders at the same time. Which university programme offers curriculum that combines fine arts with data crunching or anthropology with management?

Transgressing silos

Philanthropy often aspires to bring systems change, which often involves policy transformation on a large scale. This requires adopting holistic approaches and transgressing silos. In both policymaking and philanthropy, new practices are emerging, for instance designing policies around a holistic concept of well-being rather than GDP growth.

Philea’s “Exploring 21st century philanthropy” survey conducted in 2023 showed that the most urgent problems of the coming decade are of a highly polyvalent nature: climate migration, biodiversity loss, mental health and well-being, spatial segregation and inequality, or the impact of artificial intelligence.

It’s therefore not only grantees who should be encouraged to apply systems thinking and transversal approaches, it’s also philanthropy boards and staff who need to be exposed to cross-disciplinary perspectives.

Failing and learning quickly

Most foundations have expanded their lens from an input/output logic to measuring impact. But as the famous saying goes, not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured. Settling for narrative approaches could create an illusion of satisfaction and false success, whereas drilling hard on data might miss the transformation of mindsets.

Some foundations have listened and introduced lighter and more targeted ways to collect data and have shifted the emphasis towards learning. Doing so means much more than operational adjustment. It is an organisational and individual mindset change which translates into a new cultural pattern. Foundations are rarely the changemakers. It’s the civil society organisations who are. Only when foundations learn from their partners, embrace their strategies and create space for voices that are missed by established politics do they become part of civil society, strengthen democracy and are therefore seen as legitimate.

Tracking impact in order to learn and course correct is one of the most important sources of legitimation of philanthropy. Only when society sees evidence that there’s an honest feedback loop practised by the privileged, do the privileged deserve the space to exert influence on the lives of people, communities and states. By doing so honestly and transparently, philanthropy contributes to trust in society.

Working better together

Innovative models of collaboration that enable joint learning and aim to reduce bureaucracy for grantees have emerged on the horizon, but more is needed to realise their promise. For instance, the Network of European Foundations (NEF) serves as a practical platform for collaborations among like-minded donors. It hosts various pooled funds such as European AI and Society Fund, and Civitates, a funders’ collaborative that focuses on strengthening democracy and solidarity in Europe.

But donors collaboratives bring new challenges. Joining forces also means more chairs in the room, more energy spent on alignment, more stakeholder management. There’s a growing consensus that, in fact, a much bigger scale and more innovative forms of collaboration (such as collective impact method) in philanthropy are needed.

Are we ready to imagine hundreds of small and big donors around Europe working together to tackle the biggest challenges of our times? What kind of governance would such an effort need to allow for maximum participation while remaining effective at the same time? Which elements of power is philanthropy ready to give up, or rather share, to achieve more together?

Creating new institutions based on old designs will most likely not bring new results. Instead of building new formal, and therefore somewhat rigid structures, a new kind of “swarm philanthropy” is needed, characterised by nimbleness, consistency and power of scale.

Power to imagination

Utopias, despite their bad reputation, have an important function: They serve as idealistic experiments that test our ability to imagine a different order of things and to act for a better reality now.

The environmental catastrophe towards which we’re heading can be prevented only by an unprecedented mobilisation of collective imagination and will to make our institutions and economy more just and sustainable. Such mobilisation will happen if we bravely turn the tide of popular dystopian thinking and rejuvenate utopian imagination that creates new options for our future instead of a single daunting version of it.

Protopia is a future reality that is not perfect, but actively built by the best knowledge and wisdom we already have, anchored in principles such as inclusiveness, peace and sustainability. The role of philanthropy is to build bridges to these potential collective futures by imagining and building prototypes of them. In other words, by becoming protopian. Future philanthropy that leads along these lines, does not bring better life to people and planet (only) out of generosity, but because of an unquenchable thirst for justice and humanity.

Just like dandelions, philanthropic organisations can adapt to new environments, help nurture the soil for emerging ideas and seed alternative futures. Find out more about foresight and actionable strategies to shape a better tomorrow with Philea and Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies upcoming publication “Futures Philanthropy: Anticipation for the Common Good”.


Ondřej Liška
Regional Director, Europe, Porticus