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Reshaping philanthropy for the 21st century

Blog • • Rhodri Davies

Philanthropy is undergoing something of an identity crisis. A wave of high-profile critiques has prompted deep soul-searching about what philanthropy is for, how we do it and even its very legitimacy within a democratic society. So, what is philanthropy in the 21st century?

From generosity to justice

At the British Academy’s 2019 President’s Lecture, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker argued that philanthropy needs to shift “from generosity to justice”. Instead of dealing with the symptoms of inequality, we must instead seek structural changes that address its underlying causes. Rather than expecting people to be grateful for philanthropic assistance, we must support them to claim their rights within society.

This is not necessarily a new idea. Oscar Wilde argued in 1891 that “The best among the poor are never grateful [for charity]… Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.” Martin Luther King wrote that “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Of course, getting those who have most benefitted from current systems to recognise the need for structural reform is likely to be an uphill struggle; but it is a struggle that 21st-century philanthropy shows signs of embracing.

Damien Hirst's sculpture 'Charity' opposite the Gherkin building, London 2015. Photo by Rob Stothard / Getty ImagesDamien Hirst's sculpture 'Charity' opposite the Gherkin building, London 2015. Photo by Rob Stothard / Getty Images

Encouraging discovery

As philanthropists themselves become more self-aware, they must also help society as a whole to engage in much deeper reflection. This has long been a vital role of philanthropy. By setting itself apart from the status quo and taking a longer-term view, philanthropy has consistently been able to champion unpopular causes, develop the evidence base to understand issues and led efforts to deliver change. In doing so it has brought many causes ‘from the margins to the mainstream’ and it must continue to do so.

This points to a wider issue: the importance of taking risks and experimenting. A key argument for the ongoing value and legitimacy of philanthropy in a democratic society is that it can engage in ‘discovery’ (to use Stanford philosopher Rob Reich’s term): doing things which neither the state nor the market can do in order to drive social progress. The challenge for 21st-century philanthropy is to live up to this ideal and ensure it is not merely playing it safe or duplicating (and potentially undermining) the efforts of the public or private sectors.

Defending progress

An important point made by Darren Walker is that “fighting for social justice is not like designing a vaccine”. Social progress is not linear or cumulative, so it can be easily lost and is subject to constant challenge. The role of philanthropy is just as much about defending the progress we have already made as it is about driving society in new directions. At a time when many hard-won advances are under threat, this seems particularly important.

Existing models of philanthropy are good at enabling donors to give away money, but rarely ask them to give away power. Yet if 21st-century philanthropy is to see a shift from generosity to justice, this must change. It is not enough for well-meaning donors to determine what the issues are and how best to address them. Instead, we must involve the communities affected by society’s challenges in the decisions about how philanthropic assets are deployed. Recent years have seen growing interest in models of ‘participatory grantmaking’, which may be part of the solution; although these are still far more talked about than used in practice, so there is plenty of work to do.

From perpetual institutions to…?

The dominant model for elite philanthropy in the 20th century was the perpetual foundation. However, as the 21st century progresses there are signs that this is changing. A new breed of mega-donors who have made vast wealth early and want to engage actively in philanthropy now, rather than waiting until retirement or death, has emerged. This may add value beyond just money, but also means that the choices and worldviews of these donors will be major factors in determining the future landscape of philanthropy.

It is clear that scholars in the humanities have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of philanthropy. By engaging with these issues and informing the debate, they can help to ensure that philanthropy is reshaped for the 21st century and continues to be a powerful force for social progress.


Rhodri Davies is head of policy at Charities Aid Foundation, where he leads the Giving Thought think tank. He is on Twitter at @Rhodri_H_Davies.

Blog • • Rhodri Davies