What the COVID-19 crisis Tells us About the Future of Philanthropy

The current crisis generated by the coronavirus pandemic has revealed large society’s structural inequalities and interdependence, and at the same time, allows to analyze how these those tensions exist within the philanthropic sector.

The crisis produced by the advance of COVID-19 could provide an opportunity to increase the recognition of philanthropy as a key actor and as a complementary partner to governments in facing the crisis. However, this will not be possible if the sector maintains a conservative attitude regarding ways of funding. The philanthropic sector needs to present itself as diverse and trustworthy, as well as to get closer to its beneficiaries and to listen more to their needs, in order to be able to adapt its modes of action around them, as well as provide more flexible grants.

The advance of COVID-19 around the world has forced many governments to implement lock-down and isolation policies. As a consequence, a huge proportion of all human activities have halted, generating a feeling of uncertainty, and putting pressure on the global economy. Among the many challenges that the current context presents to sustainable development, one of great importance is adapting philanthropic actions to current circumstances.

At first, the philanthropic sector had a correct response to the crisis. Many funders have adapted their frames and loosened their grant agreements. They also launched special emergency funds, transformed project grants into core funding, and encouraged other funders to do the same. These are all indicators that the philanthropic sector is open to building new relationships with its beneficiaries, as well as gathering trust among them. However, the crisis also highlighted weak points related to the distrust generated by the current image of the philanthropic sector. This reveals two important questions.

In the first place, there is an urgent need to reduce levels of mistrust in the philanthropic sector as they limit its effectiveness, legitimacy, and sustainability. Building trust requires creating a vision through which relationships and commitments can be built. The current crisis demands more mediation, transparency and mutual accountability. It would also be beneficial if much of the flexibility and openness that the philanthropic sector is showing in response to the crisis is maintained as new norms, even at the end of the crisis. In this way, long-term partnerships could be founded, and participatory grantmaking approaches applied.

On the other hand, it is necessary for the sector to generate and share narratives about the role it plays in society, as well as adopting new norms of greater transparency, accountability and democratization. It is essential that philanthropy can be detached from the myth about its association with high-income groups and can be presented as a field of a diverse nature whose most prominent and significant forms are individual donations and local collaborations. Therefore, this will require thoughtful investment in the donation infrastructure. More collaborations and connections between support networks and organizations representing and supporting both sides of the spectrum will also be needed.

In order for the philanthropic sector to become more efficient in the face of the crisis, and even after it, it is necessary to consider adopting the measures described above. Appearing as an essential driving force in such a major crisis can help the sector make the case for a more favorable environment and supportive policies for civil society and philanthropy in the long term.

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