Disruptive Philanthropy: must philanthropy be disrupted?

disruptive-product-on-flickr-photo-sharing

Image from: Cause Capitalism

Gabrielle Ritchie

Director, The Change Room

20th October 2016

Collaboration, partnership, disruption, innovation, grantmaking for empowerment, risk, big bets  – these are all key concepts in the current philanthropy moment.  The African Philanthropy Forum has just had what looked like a fantastic 2-day annual meeting (17th – 18th October 2016) in Rabat, Morocco – with many of these topics on the agenda.

The next philanthropy forum gathering on the continent is the Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa‘s annual gathering, which takes place in Johannesburg from 25th – 26th October 2016. In line with this forum’s overarching theme, Disruptive Philanthropy, the programme offers a session juxtaposing the notions of Disrupting Philanthropy and Disruptive Philanthropy.  This is a great topic, and worthy of some investigation – since our current general love of the notion of disruption, dating back at least as far as 2010 as a  hot topic for philanthropy forums, doesn’t look to be fading any time soon.

There is a volume of resources available on disruptive philanthropy, the meaning of disruption relative to philanthropy,  how to be more disruptive with one’s philanthropy, and so on. Jho Low, Director of the Jynwel Foundation explains that disruptive philanthropy captures the idea that:

to effectively address the complex challenges faced by society, people need to treat giving as a significant, long-term investment in their collective future

The Charities Review Council, in their outline for their 2014 Forum, DISRUPTIVE PHILANTHROPY: IMAGINE, CREATE, INNOVATE,  defines disruptive philanthropy as:

a transformative event or moment, an act of giving and relationship building that is a departure from the status quo. It may not be easy, endorsed or comfortable, but it is necessary to inclusively create a shared vision, a new sustainability, innovation, imagination and growth

This second definition expresses a far more disruptive energy than the first definition above, which reads as safe and as not much of a departure from existing, smart, effective grantmaking. Jho Low does go further, however, and breaks the Jynwel Foundation’s disruptive mission into five practical steps:

  • Dig deep. The foundation researches and talks to experts until it discovers the root of any given problem.
  • Collaborative design. Motivated by cross-continental thinking, it works to bring partners from all walks of life together in order to plan its programs.
  • Think very long term. The foundation believes that nothing can be solved in 3-5 years, so it makes commitments of 15-30 years or longer.
  • Invest big. The foundation actively looks for places where its funds will have the greatest social return, and invests accordingly.
  • Measure to grow. Each program is carefully evaluated every step of the way, and partners are brought in to make the foundation’s efforts even more powerful.

Lee Fox, of Cause Capitalism, seems to suggest the approach that a disruptive philanthropy might require a different approach to grantmaking.  She comments as follows:

the ideology of disruptive philanthropy identifies how a new population can participate in a way that was historically only accessible to an elite group.

Disruption implies a tipping up, a disturbance, a changing of the shape of things.  For philanthropy to be disruptive, it needs to disrupt not just the social challenges it seeks to address and the solutions it seeks to support. It also needs to disrupt its own dynamics, how it functions, sets strategy, develops grantmaking programmes, and distributes its funding.

Indeed, would these very terms and practices still be valid in a disrupted philanthropy? Would we need to talk about a qualified disruption?  Is philanthropy inherently conservative?  Is it possible to maintain the existing relations of power with regard to decision-making and fund management, and still achieve a disruptive social result?

Certainly for philanthropy to be disruptive, philanthropy itself must be disrupted.  Anything short of this implies a lack of capacity for self-reflection about one’s own participation in existing philanthropy power relations – relations that themselves serve to maintain a certain status quo and that would serve to prevent any real disruptive potential for philanthropy.  If disruption, relative to philanthropy, is understood as defined by Jho Low above, then perhaps it is not so disruptive after all?

As with social justice, however, different meanings would be ascribed to different combinations of the terms “disruptive/ disruption” and “philanthropy”.  In the case of social justice, “social justice philanthropy” and “philanthropy for/in support of social justice” mean different things – appropriately, I believe.  The first refers to the very practices of grantmaking, where social justice considerations are taken into account and implemented in how grant decisions are made/ who makes grant decisions.  The Other Foundation is an excellent example of efforts at more participatory grantmaking processes, and of working to practice social justice philanthropy.

The second phrase refers to philanthropy that supports social justice initiatives but where the grantmaking process and practice are “business as usual”, and the social justice aspect refers to what is supported rather than who makes decisions and how they are made.  Similarly, disruptive philanthropy could (or should?) imply a funding context in which the very practice of philanthropy and funding is in itself both disrupted and disruptive, and challenges existing / traditional/ “business as usual” grantmaking.  This would support an agenda of going beyond the limits of simply funding initiatives that are designed to disrupt, which is perhaps better described as “philanthropy for disruption”, or “philanthropy in support of disruption”.

If a philanthropy is working to support disruptive initiatives, rather than being designed as disruptive in itself, my sense is that such philanthropy continues to operate in a “safe zone” and has the longer-term potential to get stuck in its own echo-chamber, limiting its capacity to be an energetic catalyst in a genuinely disruptive process toward fundamentally disruptive solutions.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s