Modern trends in philanthropy and their implications for governance

August 29, 2019

Blog by Ken Whitney, Philanthropy New Zealand Board Chair

Over recent decades we have witnessed a quiet revolution in philanthropy which has evolved from “charity”, or what I would classify as palliative giving to relieve need without addressing the root problems, to a more strategic focus on understanding and tackling the often complex underlying causes of social deprivation. Inherently this more challenging approach demands more of governors of philanthropic organisations if they are to succeed in their missions and make a difference.

Firstly, governors need the humility to recognise that many of the problems they are grappling with are deep-seated and involve a complex interplay of negative influences, of which they may have little experience or comprehension. Social research and data can only get you so far and there is no substitute for actually getting out and talking to the people you are trying to help. In my experience, they know their problems better than you do. Also, they often have a better insight into what approaches will work and what will be inappropriate. Successful programmes involve a collaboration between the affected constituency, academic researchers, passionate and dedicated leaders and supportive funders.  Governors need to be mindful of including all these stakeholders in developing and implementing their strategies.

An awareness of Te Ao Māori is extremely helpful in thinking about the practice of modern philanthropy, with its emphasis on building strong and lasting relationships based on respect, trust and integrity. These and other Māori values align perfectly with the culture of philanthropy and can be a powerful driver of success in the way your organisation operates.

Collaboration is a growing theme if we are to lift our sights and aim for real impact. It is inspiring to see so many governors and funders come together at the PNZ Summits and Funders Networks to share opportunities and experiences. Hopefully this will encourage funders to work together and learn from each other. Governors should be open to joint ventures and marshalling all the available resources from whatever source to tackle problems at scale and sustain effort over a long term. Close monitoring and evaluation will lead to a growing body of evidence to support best-practice and avoid unintentional harm.

As governors, we are all at the cutting edge of philanthropy. Often risks will have to be taken and new approaches trialled. This constant testing of new ideas is the unique role which philanthropic organisations are ideally placed to perform. Governors need to be skilled at assessing and managing risk, but also being prepared to fail, learn from and adapt to changing circumstances in the quest for impact.  This can be exciting work which often surprises with dramatic success.  There is no room or excuse today for governors simply to do the same old thing without considering whether new approaches might be a better spend of the available funds and achieve better outcomes.

The boundaries of traditional philanthropy are blurring and new tools are becoming available such as social enterprises and impact investing, often combining financial returns with social impact and involving partners who have not traditionally been considered as having a role in philanthropy.  These concepts hold great potential and resonate strongly with youth in particular.

Today’s philanthropy is an exciting and intellectually stimulating place to be and governors need to be up for the challenge of soundly managing and encouraging these developing trends.  There are many opportunities to up-skill provided by Philanthropy New Zealand and others which I encourage all governors to consider.  It is an immensely rewarding journey to embrace.