Philanthropies’ Role in the year 2050


by Keith Porter
(based on his keynote at the F20 Philanthropy Forum 2019 in Tokyo)

During the 2019 Foundations 20 (F20) Platform in Japan, I had the opportunity to deliver a keynote address about the role of philanthropies in 2050 and beyond. I approached the topic by reflecting on the advantages and power that we presently hold—as well as our shortcomings—and incorporated thoughts from colleagues working across issue areas on how we can challenge ourselves to chart a path forward for more-effective and just action. Regardless of the sector, we have a lot of hard questions to consider as we think about the next 30 years.

1) The privileged position we occupy in philanthropy

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation wrote: “My fundamental, unwavering belief in philanthropy is informed by history and my own personal journey. Philanthropy was crucial in creating the blueprint for social progress in the 20th century that helped nations around the world eradicate disease, that lifted children like me out of poverty, and that financed the development of thousands of institutions and new capacity that expanded opportunity for billions of people around the globe. Philanthropy helped sustain the civil rights movement in the United States, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the human rights movement in Latin America during the darkest years of military government.”

Of course, by definition, foundations have financial resources. But those financial resources translate into other advantages. We have significant influence over what topics are considered important. Our decisions impact the policy agenda, both domestically and internationally. When large philanthropies announce their funding priorities, other organizations – including governments – listen and sometimes re-align their own priorities. When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announces that they will be targeting a specific disease, global health policy agendas around the world shift.

Likewise, philanthropies are under no obligation to follow the policy goals set by bodies like the United Nations, the G20, or any other government for that matter. We enjoy the luxury of pursuing our own agenda. We can take risks. We have freedom and flexibility. We can, if we so choose, quickly adopt new strategies and approaches. In theory, at least, we can swiftly respond and adapt, making philanthropists and their foundations very potent actors for the good of humanity.

We can also engage in long term thinking. Businesses too often do not look beyond the next quarterly earnings report. Politicians often cannot see beyond the next election cycle. But we have the ability to focus on generational change. We can do good today, but with effective strategy and vision, we can also structure that work in a way that will change the future. And we can foster discussion at the intersection of critical issues in ways other more siloed institutions cannot. We can draw attention to the connection between Climate change and Security, between Climate and Global Health Policy, between Climate and quality of life, and so on.

We can push governments and multilateral forums. That is what F20 did around the G20 summit 2019 in Japan. Working together to bring about even greater good. We can build networks. There are many great networks of philanthropies working together. And when we work together, we can add value to government and multilateral efforts.

This is evidenced in the value the Foundations 20 adds to the G20. We should always remember that our presence and engagement here add credibility and legitimacy and relevance to the G20’s existence.

2) The other side: the pitfalls of power, influence, and financial resources

In my first point, I have painted a bright and shiny picture of philanthropies. But we know that is not the whole story. The power and influence we wield through our financial resources, agendas, and networks, over the long-term can be as dangerous as they are enticing. And we owe it to ourselves to reflect on this reality.

Too often we set and influence agendas without consulting others. Too often we do not even consult the people we are trying to help. One observer at the recent Skoll World Forum wrote:  “The issues are many, it turns out, starting with the power dynamic: Typically older white men control most of the fortunes and purse strings when it comes to philanthropy; they hire experts who are often well-educated to devise solutions to problems like poverty, lack of health care and lack of education – all without getting input from the people who are meant to benefit from the services being funded.”

Furthermore, too often we lack transparency. We hide behind our policies and procedures, deliberately creating an air of mystery around our operations. This way of operating leads to limited accountability, perhaps by design. We perpetuate the myth that only the elites know what is best or that only the wealthy can solve problems.

Around the world, we have witnessed the rise of populism and increased public anger. We have seen a growing mistrust of elites, institutions, and experts. We have seen growing frustration at the increasing inequity and income gaps around the world. Philanthropies are part of this system generating the anger, mistrust and frustration. Yes, what we do can be seen as a way of re-distributing wealth, but it is a method entirely controlled by those who hold the wealth.

Darren Walker also said that too often we boast of saving the world while fundamentally strengthening the economic and social structures that separate the haves from the have-nots. We need to understand our own role in creating this moment of public anger, mistrust, and frustration.

Of course, many philanthropies want to do good and some even strive to address the underlying structures that create and perpetuate inequity, inequality, and injustice. But good intentions alone won’t protect us. Real change will only occur when we examine our own role in the problem.

3) Challenging ourselves and each other to do better

We should challenge ourselves with these self-criticisms, and we should recognize this moment as an opportunity to change our ways, to work together, to make investments aimed at creating a better world. So how do we do this?

We need to listen. This includes thinking more broadly about WHO we listen to, about who gets to be included in decision making, about who holds the power, especially at local levels. All philanthropists need to redouble their commitment to trusting those on the ground who know what is needed and provide them with resources. We need to be less concerned about promoting our own objectives and more concerned with really listening to what others need. Of course, it is useful to share best practices, spread effective approaches, and foster connections.  But it is critical for funders to be open to feedback and really listen to those who are engaged in the work on the ground.

We need to invest in the next generation of leaders. Young people today are coming of age in a world vastly different than the one we entered. Many, particularly those in the developed world, take it for granted that humans are all in constant contact with each other, that our differences are to be celebrated rather than to be feared, and that the problems facing humankind require a response which goes beyond governments and existing institutions. We should be celebrating and fostering the innovative approaches brought forward by new generations.

We need to prioritize network building among philanthropies and nonprofit partners with shared goals and values. Organizations can leverage and harness their joint resources to fast track and scale what is working, and hopefully share openly when well-intentioned strategies are falling short. Given the growth of technology that makes networks and collaboration the norm, this is clearly the future of philanthropy. Investing in the structures, organizations, and technology to make those networks useful for funders, for nonprofit groups, and for allies and partners can help ensure that these connections are inclusive, effective, and transparent. Using our resources to solve global problems will have so much more impact if we become the key developers of spaces for information sharing and cohesion. We can create spaces for stakeholders who may not otherwise have the means or impetus to meet, exchange ideas, and take concrete steps toward coalition building. At the Stanley Foundation we have learned that often, networks can be improved just by getting the right partners to the table, ensuring participation, and amplifying the voices of nonprofit partners who do not have the connections or resources to participate in key events. Our gatherings are often the first-time people from different sectors have an opportunity to meet and collaborate even though they are working on the same issue.

We should be more pro-active and more publicly provocative, in the F20 and in other networks. We should take up public leadership. If we can be clear, strategic, and practical, I believe it will push others to do the same. Let us take all of the advantages we enjoy and use them for the common good.

At a construction site a reporter once asked two workers, “What are you doing?” One answered, “I am laying bricks.” The other answered “I am building a cathedral.” As you think about philanthropy in 2050, what are you working towards right now? Over the next 31 years, do you hope to alleviate suffering at the margins? Or are you working to challenge the very structures that create victims in the first place?

We need to inspire. We need to articulate our common vision. Not from the top-down but by helping that vision be sourced and articulated from the bottom-up. Doing so can set an ambitious direction, and it can enable accountability and transparency. Articulating and sharing a common vision can help the communities we serve see how our efforts align with their needs and create the space for other stakeholders to engage and strengthen the collaboration. It helps to work together in places like the F20 and through other networks. We each have a small part to play, but our goal is enormous. Changing the world and limiting the global temperature increase to just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is a massive challenge. None of us can do it alone. There is only one path which will allow us to face these epic challenges.

We as philanthropies must hold each other to higher standards, we must hold each other to greater accountability, we must work to include all the relevant voices, and we must all work together.


Special thanks to those who offered valuable contributions to these remarks: April Donnellan of the Global Philanthropy Partnership, Ellen Friedman of the Compton Foundation, Mark Seaman and Jennifer Smyser of the Stanley Foundation, Alex Toma of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and Rick van der Woud of Mensen Met Eein Missie (People with a Mission).

Contact information

Keith Porter
President | CEO
The Stanley Foundation

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