I was talking with a foundation leader the other day who was bogged down with the trauma of the past year – or years, decades even – of blows to progressive social change. He was worn down, disillusioned, demoralized. He felt powerless in the face of what seems, to him, to be a growing list of increasingly complex social problems. Problems that he and his single foundation are helpless to solve.
But with his fear-based thinking he holds himself, and ultimately the social change he desires, back. Because what he – like so many philanthropists – fundamentally believes is that there isn’t enough. He doesn’t have enough money, power, or influence to solve the mounting challenges we face.
The fact is, though, that there is more than enough.
Let’s start with money. Ask anyone in the nonprofit or philanthropic sector, and they will tell you that money has diminished over the course of the pandemic. But the opposite is true. The world’s wealthiest people have significantly grown their wealth in the last year. So the problem is not that there isn’t enough money. Rather, it’s that money isn’t flowing in large enough quantities toward solutions to our social problems. That’s a problem we can fix.
But it requires a fundamental shift in philanthropy, and the system of power and wealth in which it finds itself.
It has taken a global pandemic to reveal in stark relief our many broken systems – from wealth inequality, racial injustice, gender disparity, crumbling healthcare and education systems, to an ailing planet. Yet philanthropy – that bulwark erected to stem the tide of inequity that comes from unbridled capitalism – has not responded in any appreciable way.
Why is that?
We could argue that philanthropists – who are themselves a result of growing wealth inequality – do not want to fundamentally disrupt a system that gives them power. That might be true, but it’s not the whole story.
The fundamental reason philanthropy is not reinventing itself, despite a blatant need for change, is fear. Just like the foundation leader I described above, philanthropy writ large is stuck in a belief that there just isn’t enough – money, or critical mass, or influence – to fix this epic cluster in which the human race now finds itself.
But here’s the thing. Addressing the many problems we face is not rocket science. It is simply a question of directing our limitless ingenuity and resources toward the good of all, instead of just an elite few. But to get there, philanthropy must summon the courage to think much bigger.
The place to start is with individual philanthropists realizing their own influence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard foundation leaders tell me that they don’t have much power, their networks are tiny, they can’t really shift anything beyond their own organization’s walls (and sometimes not even there). That’s simply fear talking. The leaders of our country’s philanthropic institutions are themselves, or have within their networks, the powerful elite.
What if philanthropists, big and small, started speaking up – in the cocktail parties, golf courses and boardrooms in which they find themselves – against the fear they witness? Often with a well-placed comment, or an impassioned argument many of them could likely shift great investment, policy, or powerful opinion toward solutions. Can you imagine if the wealthiest country in the world suddenly started diverting billions to solving climate change, poverty, disease?
In fact we could start thinking about money for social change – that powerful tool any philanthropist enjoys – in much bigger ways. Social (or impact) investing – investing in things that have both a financial and social return – has grown over the past decade. But it is far from the norm in the philanthropic community, let alone the finance sector. The idea of a foundation pointing ALL money at its disposal to its social change mission appears to be incredibly radical, since only 3% of foundations in the U.S. currently do it. The worry is that social investments will yield a lower return, but the reverse is often true.
What if philanthropists became truly fearless and not only pursued mission-related investing in big ways, but helped our financial markets – in which, again, philanthropy is deeply embedded – reinvent itself to be more socially directed? Who better to lead a great migration of money from the ivory towers of the privileged few to the starving coffers of social changemakers than the philanthropists who straddle both worlds?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that a fearless reinvention of philanthropy will solve all the world’s problems. But timid philanthropy certainly will not. We are living in a brave new world that requires a brand new kind of courageous philanthropy. A philanthropy that is the conduit between where money is currently sequestered and where it could be put to much greater use.
I know it’s possible. So do you.
If you want to learn more about moving from fear-based scarcity thinking to an abundance approach to lasting social change, join the Social Velocity Free Training series here. And to make sure you don’t miss out on upcoming free trainings and other opportunities to be part of an amazing community of social change warriors, join the Social Velocity e-list. Sign up here.