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By Anna Hirsch-Holland

As a relative newbie to the field of philanthropy, Philea Forum has been an opportunity to get to know this quite particular world more intimately – beyond the superficial facts that its people are very well dressed and its events involve excellent canapés. It’s helped me to understand better the unique role that philanthropy can play in aligning the limited (but also plentiful!) resources of the world to address its most complex problems. On the other hand, it’s also given me insights into some of the factors that are holding philanthropy back from achieving its full potential.

Philanthropy can provide continuity and commitment to a cause

As Dr Leonardo Santos Simão pointed out in the opening plenary: unlike institutional development aid, philanthropy is not subject to the constraints of voting cycles and the turbulence of ministerial shake-ups. It can thereby offer an element of continuity over time, which is critical if philanthropy is serious about achieving systems change.

And indeed, many philanthropists claim to be serious about systems change, but they are a long way from seriously contributing to it – particularly when they continue to work through short-term project cycles and bilateral, transactional relationships with NGO grantees. Systems change requires an all-of-society approach, and philanthropy needs to think hard about its role therein.

Sharing knowledge and expertise in all directions can help philanthropy to thrive

There is incredible diversity in the expertise and experience of philanthropic organisations, and huge potential, therefore, for philanthropy to innovate the ‘toolbox’ of the social impact space – from fundraising through social impact bonds to generating new forms of risk insurance.

However, with this expertise can sometimes come a touch of arrogance – reflected, for example, in the assumption that it’s the role of the funder to build the capacity of its grantees, but never the other way around. Coming from an NGO background myself, this can often feel somewhat patronizing, and can – perhaps paradoxically – only exacerbate the power dynamics between grantor and grantee of which we are all so acutely aware. Yet, it seems to me that philanthropy has a lot to learn from the very civil society actors it funds.

For example, on the practice of participatory grant making: a huge amount of thought, research, and practice has evolved on participatory practice in the development and humanitarian sectors. Some grantee partners will have considerable expertise in this area, and – given the right space and resources – could help to build the capacity of their grantors who have aspirations to develop this practice. This kind of exchange can only take place through meaningful partnerships that recognise the diverse and unique resources that each partner brings to the table.

Philanthropy can, and must, fail

Philanthropic donors have the resources and freedom to take risks and fail, which means they have the potential to transform the way that aid is delivered and complex problems are addressed. From the many inspiring people I’ve met at the Philea Forum, it’s clear that the individual staff working in philanthropy have the appetite to pioneer new approaches, and indeed to fail in the process; yet they seem held back by organizational cultures and institutional systems and processes that struggle to break free from a business-as-usual approach.

Anna Hirsch-Holland is TPI’s Programme Director for Funder Impact.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the Partnering Initiative. This blog was originally written for and published by Alliance magazine

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