“Déjà vu all over again”: The short attention span and the cyclical obliviousness of the philanthropic and development industries


This blog is part of a series that provides reflections on a new GrantCraft Leadership Paper “How Community Philanthropy Shifts Power: What Donors Can Do to Make That Happen”, published with the GFCF and Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy in April 2018.

Gerry Salole, European Foundation Centre

The philanthropic and development industries have much in common: ever-expanding jargon; genuine concern for the people at the bottom of the pyramid; a growing focus on evaluating impact – just to randomly name a few of the thousands of similarities. But in what follows I concentrate on a singular joint foible: their respective razor-slim bandwidths for learning.

My suspicion that both sectors seem to possess an inability to learn and retain lessons has been growing over the last (almost) four decades that I have spent working between the two. I have watched as lessons are learned, then forgotten over a few years – each generation convinced that they need to sweep away the “old” and bring in the “new.” I have watched these “new” ideas and trends arrive, with donors dutifully getting in line to be the first to test shiny new magic bullets, and to stake their claim as a leader (even worse, expert) in whatever fad has captured the zeitgeist in a particular moment. What’s most frustrating is watching the cyclical nature by which this oblivious learning and forgetting is happening, and happening again, and then happening again. To borrow Yogi Berra’s famous quote: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Take for example the beautiful simplicity and importance of putting communities at the heart of (their own) development – the theme of a new GrantCraft Leadership Series paper How Community Philanthropy Shifts Power: What Donors Can Do to Help Make That Happen. This has been a reoccurring theme over the course of my career, but unfortunately it seems to be an idea that needs to be continuously relearned. Worse still: it seems to be routinely met with sullen opposition. This especially confounds me, because the fact that people spontaneously help those around them is simply not a cutting-edge discovery. It is, in fact, a natural human instinct. People who live in a locality have a better understanding of the context than outsiders. They understand complicated and hard to communicate problems, and can develop appropriate solutions: they know what will work, and what will not work. “Development” is already happening, naturally and instinctively in communities around the world.

I have, moreover, been struck by the sheer resilience of local communities and have long professed that development pundits continue to be oblivious to the countless informal, local institutions that already exist, such as, for example, self-help burial associations, or rotating savings and credit associations. These are robust institutions that have survived colonialism, urbanization, the post-industrial period, etc. The core principle behind them – cooperating with neighbours, pooling resources to buy something in bulk and then sharing it – is so simple, and clearly demonstrates that giving and helping is in the DNA of communities. Thus communities around the world already have mechanisms for helping each other, and for holding each other to account – why do we need to keep relearning this and rediscovering the obvious? Why is it so hard for the philanthropic and development sectors to make this a permanent, central tenet of our work? In part, I suspect, because it is easier to revert to the notion that we know best, have the solutions at the ready, and merely need to apply the tested formulas that we have developed ourselves.

I hope you are not taking my above frustrations as a critique of the new GrantCraft Leadership Series paper. On the contrary, I think this is an extremely important piece of work, and I applaud the authors, as well as the members of the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, for their efforts in pushing the rest of us to acknowledge something which, frankly, I am shocked still needs to be routinely spelled out.

I do, however, have a slight concern which relates to the tone, or perhaps the communications strategy, adopted in the paper. I am worried that the paper is written in such a combative way that the people who need to read it most…won’t. The ideas in this paper, and the #ShiftThePower movement more broadly, are a clarion call to arms that demands a fundamental realignment of power relationships in philanthropy and development. As actors in these sectors are barely able (and hardly yearning) to reflect upon, learn from, and tweak their work, how many are really up for an all-out paradigm shift that necessitates redistributing power? The philanthropic world in particular is a genteel one, with real meanings communicated in sub-text and innuendo. And all of a sudden this paper makes the request – nay, demand! – to #ShiftThePower?!

I’m afraid that the evidence suggests that development and philanthropic staff are, when all is said and done, quite content and comfortable in their silos. Uncomfortably for them, community philanthropy at its core – which focuses on the overall health of a community – forces people to get out of these silos, and to work holistically, and in cooperation with others. The problem is: how do we get the people who need to imbibe this #ShiftThePower message to open their minds enough to take it in? As Upton Sinclair puts it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

But despite my concern, I truly hope that the time has come for philanthropy and development to take communities seriously, and that this important paper – which spells out exactly how donors can support rather than displace what is already happening at the local level – will be read widely. What I don’t hope is that future generations of programme officers and field staff, perhaps forty years down the line, will find a copy and think “what a great idea – why didn’t we do this before?” Thus completing yet another cycle of developmental/philanthropic amnesia.

By: Gerry Salole, Chief Executive, European Foundation Centre

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