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Drop-in: Ethics of philanthropy

GGM hosted our first drop-in session of 2021, a chance for friends old and new to meet the organising committee, learn more about the movement, and crucially, explore and contribute to our next piece of research, Ethics of Philanthropy.

The Grant Givers’ Movement exists to connect grant makers and to facilitate meaningful discussion within the sector. To do this, we engage our members in research to investigate key issues and then share the results as widely as possible to kickstart conversations and campaign for collective action. Since our inception in 2018, we have published reports on Discrimination, Prejudice and Isomorphism, and Power & Trust in UK grant making. In 2021, our research will be exploring the rather colossal theme of Ethics of Philanthropy, and we wanted to give our members an opportunity to share their thoughts and contribute to the design.

Attended by individuals across the sector, predominantly from grant making organisations, but also from consultancies and charities, the online session began with an introduction from GGM and a quick check-in, before the GGM organising committee staged a totally unrehearsed debate; ‘Giving is good – discuss’ to get ideas flowing. What followed was a vibrant, engaging and thoughtful discussion, which left us brimming with ideas to help shape our research over the coming months.

A controversial topic within the funding world is the ethics around how such immense wealth is created. One attendee proposed that before we start pondering whether giving is good, we need first to question a system that allows individuals to amass such wealth. The ideas of ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ money were raised – does it matter which industries generated wealth? Should ‘dirty’ money earned from the exploitation of our planet and people later be used to ‘do good’? Is the result ever net ‘good’?

But then, in our capitalist society, is there such a thing as ‘clean’ money anyway? And what about endowments - the billions of pounds invested in harmful investment portfolios, making money from money and fuelling harm in the process. In order to advocate for Foundations to even begin thinking about aligning their investment portfolio with their social aims; Grant Officers and Grant Managers working for funders need to have an understanding of these realities in order to push for this change. In the UK, there are only a small number of professional degrees available for those who want to study philanthropy, and a handful of practical guidance for the staff of grant making organisations (check out Ten Years’ Time’s Grant Givers’ Programme). Increasingly, initiatives like the 2027 talent programme are supporting those with experience of front-line service delivery and beneficiary communities to break into grant making roles, but we still have a long way to go.

We collectively acknowledged that progress is rarely linear; reflecting on the dramatic shift from some grant makers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Very quickly funders switched to emergency rapid response funding, cutting application procedures and reporting requirements, and for the first time responding appropriately to the reality in communities. The pandemic highlighted the potential of philanthropy to go where other sources of funding can’t – to set the agenda, to be ahead of the curve. But it also highlighted the power funders hold when identifying what is considered an emergency. If funders do not consider racial injustice, extreme poverty and climate change to be the real emergencies that they are, then the response to them won’t be sufficient to address the challenge. This sparked broader conversations around the role of philanthropy within a wider system – does it exist to fill the gaps the government can’t, or is its role to hold the government accountable and to push for change?

Whilst we acknowledge that the grant giving sector in which we work is fundamentally flawed; we also see a unique opportunity for real, meaningful change. Unlike the capitalist system in which much of this wealth was created, the world of funding doesn’t have to be driven by the bloodthirsty generation of profit at any cost. Increasingly it can be driven by accountability to communities we serve and measured against the social change philanthropy seeks to support. Furthermore, the sector is full of passionate people hungry for change in a system that we already know can change. That is the exciting part - that is the biting point.

And all of these thoughts in less than an hour..

So much food for thought for the GGM team, whose next task is to take all of these ideas and the many more in sticky note form on the Jamboard, and start thinking about how to design a piece of research that begins to capture the complexity and relevant themes. Keep your eyes peeled for the survey which we hope will be in your inboxes in the spring, with the final report released in autumn 2021. As always, if you want more information, or want to get involved, please visit our website.

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Ruth Riordan
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