Philanthropy in Uncertain Times
Monday, 2nd October 2017 at 4:33 pm
The vice president of global philanthropic organisation Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors has warned Australia not to get complacent, during a lecture on how philanthropy is responding to uncertain political times.
Mae Hong has been giving a series of lectures in Australia, hosted in partnership with Australian Executor Trustees (AET), on the subject of philanthropy and democracy.
According to Hong, since the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, the global philanthropic and not-for-profit sectors have had to respond rapidly to changes that have reversed years of progressive social, environmental and political policy.
She told Pro Bono News the situation in the US was “quite alarming”.
“I’ve actually titled the public lecture American Vertigo, because we do feel like we’re having a collective vertigo experience which involves a sense of swaying, spinning, being off balance and being disorientated and pulled to one direction,” Hong said.
“At some point, I thought ‘oh we’ll stop being shocked and surprised by what’s coming down the line’ and no, it just continues on a daily basis.”
Hong, an internationally recognised grantmaking and philanthropy expert who is also a former chair of grantmakers for Effective Organizations, said her message to the Australian audience was “don’t let this happen to you”.
“In many ways I think that you are witnessing some of the symptoms and conditions that are very, very similar to what led to our current situation in the United States, and not just in the United States, it really is all over the world,” she said.
“There is a deep seated, fermenting anti-establishment mentality and it is going to take some work on the part of everybody, no matter what sphere of work you’re in or what sector you live and work in, everyone is going to have to do their part to prevent something like that from happening here.”
She said it “didn’t just happen overnight”.
“It was a very sort of gradual erosion of the public spaces in which people of different opinion, different life experience and different background can actually interact with each other, and in many ways for all the benefits that we see from technology, one of the side effects of how much technology is driving our lives these days is that it has allowed us to really all live in our own echo chambers,” Hong said.
“So all of the news feeds, television, media, newspaper, radio, everything that is being said to us is the result of algorithms that are being designed to give us more of the same, and so we’re all increasingly in our own little bubbles and so we don’t have any interaction with people with any kind of a difference amongst us, and I think that is a really serious and dangerous condition.”
She said she hoped people would come away from her lecture “awakened to the urgency of needing to pay very close and rigorous attention to what’s happening”.
“What we learned in the United States is that we were not paying enough attention and we missed it,” she said.
“We didn’t take things seriously and that was a mistake, our complacency. We took it for granted that things were always going to continue to progress and improve and we were blindsided by it. So I hope that people will feel somewhat activated to do their part, coming to these lectures.”
Hong said philanthropy had an essential part to play in the current climate, and had taken on a role in preventing some of the regressive policies coming out of the federal government.
“I see philanthropy, as really being such a key and pivotal aspect of civil society and the voluntary sector,” she said.
“Philanthropy has an absolutely essential role to play in being the guardians and stewards and protectors of democratic freedoms and the public good and basic citizen rights.”
AET head of philanthropy Ben Clark, told Pro Bono News that Hong highlighted the need for philanthropy to be agile and keep up with the changes.
“When we were thinking about and discussing Mae’s visit here, and the option of trying to impart some insight and broader education piece, one of the things that we were really interested in was how philanthropy has essentially had to pivot to address the regression of years of socially progressive policy in the US,” Clark said.
Hong said philanthropy needed to “develop some very new muscles” to be able to react quicker.
“Philanthropy is not known for being quick on it’s feet and for responding quickly and we have had to develop some very new muscles in order to be able to adapt and respond and pivot quickly,” she said.
“I would say we still have a long ways to go, but we’re learning because the pace of assaults that are coming down the lane is just relentless, and we have to be able to move and deploy resources and counteract harmful policies, much more quickly that we did have to before.
“So some foundations are setting up what we call rapid response or critical response funds in order to deploy funds quickly, we’ve seen a massive increase in individual donations being given to organisations that are trying to hold the line, and fight the fight. We have a name for it, we’re calling it rage giving. It is that people feel compelled to give in order to support the fight.”
Hong and Clark both agreed that advocacy was a current focus for philanthropy.
“Speaking off the back of the Philanthropy Australia led summit in Parliament, advocacy was the key focus from a philanthropic investment perspective and the importance of building awareness of what’s happening out there and both sides to the coin,” Clark said.
“But it is interesting from our own perspective, we’re still big believers in the need for effective grantmaking at a capacity building level within organisations, and specifically within the early – to mid-career level because whilst we’re working in a rapidly evolving environment, the long term implications for the sector is a greater reliance on its service delivery.
“So we are certainly conscious that the organisation is going to have more expectations on it over the longer term, and organisational stabilisation and sustainability is going to be largely dependent on its own human resource, so investing in that now still remains a key priority and should be a key priority for funders.”
Hong said civic engagement was another “huge area of focus”.
“The other areas that we’re seeing really emerging is the whole field of civic engagement and really needing to activate, involve, listen, convene people together to really be in the dialogue, to be able to exercise and express their voice and make themselves heard,” she said.
“The second area that I would say is getting a lot of attention is really the role of the media, so those media policies, in terms of ownership and the financial and business models of media, but also investigative journalism and news literacy, the idea of a free and independent media being actively critical and essential to a functioning democracy, those are areas that are getting a lot of attention that before really were not on anybody’s radar.”
She said philanthropy had to be “guided and directed by the will of the people”.
“I think that is the key and the secret sauce to any effective philanthropic effort,” she said.
“You actually have to be as close to the people as possible, the people most affected by whatever issue or area you are trying to address. Philanthropy cannot be imposing its own agenda or a top down approach.”
But she said to understand the will of the people could take an “extreme effort” on the part of those at the decision making table.
“You have to exert quite a bit of effort in order to really try to find where is the voice and will of the people most affected. It takes some effort, it is a big time commitment on the part of foundations and it takes a new set of skills to be able to listen and build relationships in ways that foundations did not have to do before,” she said.
Her lectures coincide with the announced that AET and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors have formed a strategic partnership which aims to support donors, and their advisers, in designing philanthropic strategies.
“We’re thrilled to have a new best friend here in Australia,” Hong said.
Clark said the lecture series formed part of AET’s work on educating donors on how to frame their thinking and identify and evaluate philanthropic partners.
“For us we think that it is important that people keep abreast of the issues and are best positioned to deploy their philanthropic investments and so the lectures have been a really good mechanism to do that,” he said.
“The other thing that we have been rolling out domestically is a series of masterclasses that Mae has designed for the Australian market which is really enabling AET clients and those who establish their own foundations to map out their own philanthropic roadmap essentially.”
He said the response to the climate in the US was a “positive sign for philanthropy”.
“We see it through the democratisation, through people responding to the changes, not only in the US but geopolitically, by giving,” he said.
“For me, that bodes really well, because what we do know is when people start giving, the majority of them really enjoy it and they become more engaged with it and I think that leaves us in a great position, because at the centre of philanthropy is this love of humanity.
“So really in the face of times like this, which there is a degree of adversity around, I like to see the silver lining.”