Philanthropia and Developmen(t) – an uneasy marriage?

This piece originally appeared on the Alliance Magazine website.

Some call it the “clash of civilizations.” Others, the marriage doomed to failure. And others still the wedding party where one of the guests is expected to buy an expensive gift but then not invited into the party. I would like to propose the title of a new (yet-to-be-written) book: “Developmen(t) is from Mars, Philanthropia is from Venus.” A European Foundation Centre (EFC) Annual General Assembly and Conference pre-conference session on strengthening philanthropy’s engagement with the post-2015 development agenda, was the latest in a number of recent discussions that I have attended about how philanthropy and development might work better together and how, if they tried just a little harder, they might find that have more in common than they had thought. The analogy of marriage and differences “between species” have popped up time and time again, the apparently plentiful – but one-off – examples of successful collaborations, set against the larger backdrop of fundamental differences and underlying bafflement.

And yet, despite all odds and as evidenced by the large show of hands in yesterday’s packed room, efforts to be made for this marriage to work still continue. So, some of the headlines from the conversation:

  • The majority of foundations don’t have any interest or share any affinity with the SDG project and yet data collected (in a slightly surreptitious kind of a way) by the Foundation Center suggests that there is already a significant overlap in terms of philanthropic funding and the 17 Sustainable Development Goal (and watch for the launch of http://www.SDGfunders.org in September 2015 which will map these synergies in terms of monetary amounts);
  • Foundations still need to preserve their independence from government agendas so that they can provide essential support to dissenting civil society voices: in the words of Rien van Gendt, they must “maintain their own DNA”;
  • For the SDGs to succeed, foundations – as flexible, risk-taking actors – have an essential role to play.

So, we have Philanthropia and Developmen(t), finding their way to a long-term relationship. Imagine them as a couple, both coming from similar, well-off backgrounds, educated to the same level, hanging out in different cliques as students perhaps and maybe in need of a little counselling at key points in their relationship but basically just a few acronyms and philosophical inspirations apart.

But…and here’s where the analogy starts to run out of steam, there is a real issue about how local voices and perspectives be included in the SDG process. It can seem elite, exclusive, impenetrable – and even irrelevant – to civil society and community groups, framed around high-level goals and aspirations, but which can prove much trickier when it comes to implementation. How, asked Avila Kilmurray, my colleague at the GFCF, can we overcome the current disconnect between lofty statements and roll-out, and is there a role that community philanthropy – community foundations, women’s funds and other community level grantmakers – can play in bridging it?

Jenny Hodgson

GFCF Executive Director 

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