Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

The World Has Changed. Why Can't Philanthropy?

The World Has Changed. Why Can't Philanthropy?

Two things struck me during a panel session at a recent gathering of foundations in Europe. First, the lack of diversity in the room; and, second, the advice being given to foundations: have more open dialogue with grantees, be more responsive and flexible in your grantmaking, award longer-term general support grants, avoid silos. The scene left me wondering why philanthropy has not moved forward.

Certainly the world has changed. The global financial crisis of 2007-8 precipitated measures of austerity that still hold us in their grip and fostered the rise of populism as well as a decline in our trust of institutions, politicians, and traditional political parties and processes. New social movements are challenging both established institutions and those that philanthropy traditionally has invested in.  

But philanthropy is responding neither quickly nor effectively to these developments — nor can it, as it is ill-equipped to support new forms of organizing for social change.

For me, this is directly linked to the lack of diversity among foundation staff and what this says about how foundations operate. The absence of diverse perspectives and points of view in the sector prevents it from reflecting the changed world around us. In other words, philanthropy has not kept up with the times and seems to lack the capacity to change.

This stagnation has been attributed to flawed recruitment processes or, worse, to poor-quality applicants. More often than not, diversity initiatives have looked outwards and tried to address the problem through technical fixes. I would suggest this is the wrong approach.

Foundations need to look inwards. There are things deeply rooted in organizational cultures that perpetuate this lack of diversity, and it is up to foundations to change their respective cultures and to be more inclusive of applicants who represent the increasingly diverse societies in which they operate.

That said, it is impossible to make your organization attractive to, and welcoming of, a diverse array of candidates unless you are the kind of organization that fosters continuous learning and feedback under self-aware and empathetic leadership. Ideally, foundations should be looking to cultivate an environment that nurtures relationships between colleagues — at every level — characterized by authenticity, trust, and support.  

Does that describe your foundation? What kind of measures do you have in place with respect to diversity and employee care? How are the individual needs of staff acknowledged and supported so that employees are empowered to do great work and overcome any challenges they might be experiencing? How much is your board invested and involved in this conversation? Does your organization's culture echo its policies? In short, how people-centered is your organization?   

Of course, the same culture of trust and listening/learning should underpin the funder-grantee dynamic. And recruitment and people-care initiatives should be designed to create a more diverse staff that better reflects the groups and populations at the center of a foundation's work.

If your foundation already boasts such a culture, it is more than likely doing the kind of responsive grantmaking that enables grantee organizations to excel; the two are inextricably connected. On the other hand, if foundations, with the luxury of resources at their disposal, are unable to put in place measures which ensure that the environment we cultivate for our own staff and the way we do business with others reflect the kind of world we are working to create, why should we expect anyone else to? 

Karisia Gichuke ( works at the Open Society Foundations and is writing in a personal capacity.