Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

Philanthropy and Civil Society after Covid-19

Key questions for the future

29 April 2020

The covid-19 pandemic is having an enormous short-term impact on all of our lives. Yet the long-term implications are still far from clear. Will this period of disruption lead to fundamental changes in how our society and economy operates? Or will we revert to how things were before as soon as it is over?

The focus of many people working in civil society right now is understandably on doing whatever is necessary to ensure the survival of their organisation in the face of unprecedented challenges. But it is also important that we find time to look up and ahead if we can. Whilst none of us can know what the future will bring, we can start to identify key questions and possible scenarios. That way we can work backwards to what needs to be done now to ensure we maximise the chances of ending up with the future we want, or conversely that measures put in place to address short-term challenges do not lead us down the wrong path.

To that end, here are some of the key questions that have been most on my mind as I have been speaking to people about the current crisis, looking back at the effect previous crises have had on philanthropy and civil society throughout history and trying to think ahead about the longer-term. This is just a long list at this point, but we will be picking up on many of them in work at CAF and developing our ideas further over the coming weeks and months (and probably adding many more questions!).

The Role and Reputation of Philanthropy

1. Will we see a shift in public expectations of state vs philanthropic provision?

Crises such as epidemics, famines and war tend to affect views on the relative role and responsibilities of philanthropy and the state. Often they shine a light on the inadequacies of philanthropy or voluntary action as a way of meeting the needs of society as a whole and lead to  a renewed focus on the necessity for some form of state intervention (as I detailed in a recent article for HistPhil). The actions taken in response may be limited by prevailing ideological views about government involvement: as they were following many outbreaks of plague and other disease from the 17th to 19th centuries ─ when the implementation of Poor Laws was only reluctantly strengthened ─ or following WWI, when calls to reorganise the existing system of voluntary hospitals that had been shown to be inadequate by the war and the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic went largely unheeded. But sometimes the conditions can be there for more radical actions to result, as was seen following WWII with the formation of the NHS and other elements of the Welfare State in the UK.

In the current pandemic it is hard to know which way this pendulum will swing. The nature of the crisis has highlighted the importance of state intervention, but at the same time the response of many governments around the world has been criticised for being inadequate in both scale and speed. We have seen incredible generosity from the public when it comes to giving to support medical staff and other key workers on the front line of the response, yet at the same time many question whether the need to draw on charitable giving simply highlights longer term underfunding of our health service. Meanwhile many philanthropic funders, donors and companies have stepped up their efforts and shown an ability to be flexible, responsive and quick that has put them at the forefront of efforts to respond to covid-19.

What conclusions, then, will we as a society draw about the desirable balance between state and philanthropy?
NHS stay home public generosity to the nhs

2. Will there be a rebalancing of the mutual vs charitable tradition?

In the history of the UK voluntary sector, there are a number of distinct (and sometimes divergent) traditions. Most notably, there is a distinction to be made between a charitable/philanthropic tradition and a mutualism/self-help one (although these are often overlapping and not always easy to distinguish). In very broad terms, the former involves notions of altruism and seeking to address problems that one is not oneself affected by. The latter, meanwhile, is more about those of similar socio-economic status, or within a given community of identity, collectively supporting one another.

The mutual/self-help tradition was extremely vibrant in the 19th century (probably at least as vibrant as the charitable/philanthropic one), but began to wane in the arly 20th century as early forms of state intervention emerged. Despite that, William Beveridge argued in his 1948 book Voluntary Action that mutualism would continue to be an important element of the voluntary sector as it found its place alongside the nascent Welfare State. Beveridge proved to be somewhat over-optimistic on that front, however; and although mutuals, co-operatives and other similar models never disappeared they did find themselves increasingly crowded out or subsumed by the public sector.

The initial phase of response to the current pandemic has seen a surge of new mutual aid networks springing up. Furthermore, as one recent Giving Thought podcast interviewee pointed out, the current pandemic is unlike almost any crisis in living memory in that it affects all of us (even if not equally) and this makes fundraising more nuanced and complex because approaches based on the idea that you are asking people who are unaffected by an issue to help those who are affected do not seem appropriate. It is not about “giving to them” but about “supporting and being part of us”. The interesting question is whether will this herald a wider shift towards notions of mutualism, cooperation and collectivism when it comes to future social action.

3. Philanthro-localism or philanthro-globalism?

Another question is whether the covid-19 crisis will result in people taking a more global or local view when it comes to philanthropy. Again, this is difficult to call, as there would seem to be forces pulling in both directions. On the one hand the pandemic is global in scale, and it is clear that if we are to be better-prepared for similar events in the future it will require more coordination at a global level. On the other hand people are seeing and feeling the effects at a hyper-local level and travel restrictions and social distancing measures are forcing us to focus far more on our immediate surroundings. Will this result in a longer-term shift in attitudes towards how we balance giving to local, national or international causes?   

4. Will the reputation of philanthropy improve or deteriorate?

Over the last few years, philanthropy has been somewhat on the ropes. A growing chorus of voices has drawn attention to issues around philanthropy’s relationship with inequality, whether it undermines democracy, whether the source of many donations brings difficult ethical issues and so on. The question is: will the current crisis exacerbate these concerns and critiques, or dampen them down?

As highlighted above, there have been many high-profile examples of philanthropists and funders stepping up to support efforts to combat covid-19 and to meet the wider needs of civil society at a time of crisis. And they have often done so when support and action from governments has been lacking. On the flipside, critics still raise ongoing concerns that many philanthropic efforts are aimed at addressing the symptoms of the pandemic rather than grappling with the changes that might be needed to address its underlying causes ─ which are likely to be structural and fundamental.

Further fuel to the fire may come from the fact that philanthropy has been a prominent feature in a growing number of covid-19 conspiracy theories. It is easy to dismiss these as eccentric fringe views, but there have been worrying signs that they are filtering into the mainstream e.g. this report that UK academics were promoting conspiracy theories about Bill Gates. This demonstrates that there is plenty of existing scepticism about philanthropy, but it may also foster further distrust in the future. Exactly where public opinion on this issue will settle when this is all over is difficult to guess.

New Organisational Forms, New Power

5. Are decentralised and networked organisational models an opportunity or a threat for civil society?

Whilst many traditional charities and CSOs have been integral parts of local and national responses to the pandemic, there have also been new organisations springing up that employ decentralised, non-hierarchical or ‘networked’ models and have garnered a great deal of support and attention (e.g.  Covid Mutual Aid UK). This is not a new phenomenon: over the last few years many of the most prominent social change movements have adopted these kinds of models (e.g. Extinction Rebellion, The Movement for Black Lives, #MeToo). However, does the current crisis confirm that these new approaches are becoming more prevalent and if so, what does this mean for traditional CSOs and funders? Does it represent competition, or an opportunity to reimagine things? (NB: for more on tech-driven decentralisation in civil society and its potential limitations, check out the paper I did for last year’s ARNOVA conference). 

6. Does the response to the pandemic highlight an unmet desire for participation?

A related question about some of the new networked social movements is why they have been so successful. Is it simply that the people believe them to be more effective in achieving outcomes, or is it more to do with the fact that participation is integral to how they work and they therefore fulfil to a desire among people to get more involved or have a more active role when it comes to supporting causes? Have some charities fallen into a trap of wrongly allowing supporter relationships to become too passive, on the assumption that people don’t want to have too much asked of them, and are at risk of losing out to these new organisations that offer people a sense of agency and engagement?

Obviously many charities do offer opportunities to participate through volunteering, but are these seen as too formal and structured? Do people find the immediacy and feedback of engaging with a local mutual aid group organised via Facebook more appealing? If there is (as Timms and Heimans suggest in their book New Power) a growing hunger for people to be active participants rather than passive consumers or donors, what does this mean for traditional charities and CSOs?

Callum Shaw school strike for climate change march unsplash

Civil Society and Technology

7. Will the current period of enforced digitisation lead to more CSOs engaging with the opportunities and challenges of technology?

As result of travel restrictions and social distancing measures, a vast number of organisations have had to pivot towards using digital tools to enable remote working, communication and the delivery of services in innovative new ways. Necessity has largely been the mother of invention here, but the interesting question is how much of this enforced digital transformation will stick in the longer term. Will it result in new norms about how civil society operates? For example, will remote working become much more common and result in a more geographically-distributed charity sector workforce? Likewise will some services that were thought to be possible only in person but are now being provided virtually remain virtual beyond this crisis? Or will we simply return to how we did things before after it is all over?

More broadly, will greater awareness of the role technological solutions are playing in the covid-19 response together with the experience of having to engage with new digital tools and platforms, convince more organisations across civil society of the need to engage with what technology can offer, as well as the challenges it creates?

On the positive side, there have been many examples of innovative approaches to gathering and using data that have highlighted the power of “tech for good”. But on the negative side there have also been alarms raised about some of the technology solutions being proposed the future issues they may lead to (e.g. concerns about new data-sharing partnerships between the NHS and tech firms like Palantir, Amazon and Google).

Up to now, apart from a handful of organisations from what might be classed as “digital civil society”, there has been worryingly little engagement from CSOs and philanthropic funders on issues around the development of technology development issues (as I have argued elsewhere, e.g. in this article for the World Economic Forum). Perhaps one result of the current crisis will be that many more organizations begin to see these issues as relevant and important.

8. Does the growth of crowdfunding and direct giving models bring new opportunities for connection, or risk introducing new biases?

As well as the decentralised models of organising highlighted above, we are also seeing more prominence being given to disintermediated forms of giving that seek to connect donors more directly with beneficiaries. Platforms like GiveDirectly, which previously focussed on making direct cash transfers from donors in the global north to recipients in the global south possible, are now offering the same service within the US. Meanwhile, there have been many instances of individual crowdfunding campaigns for various things such as healthcare needs or personal protective equipment going viral.

What does this mean for charities and non-profit organisations? Can they tap into these approaches as new sources of funding for their existing work and a new way of getting connection between donor and cause? Or are charities themselves seen as middlemen that need to be bypassed? And if the latter, are there challenges with disintermediated models that we need to be aware of, for instance in terms of how the recipients of donations are determined (a question explored in detail in our CAF paper Networking Opportunities:Rediscovering Decentralisation in Philanthropy and Civil Society?)


The Practice of Philanthropy

9. Is the short-term imperative to meet critical need going to lead to a longer-term desire to rationalise philanthropy?

Charity is not, by its nature, rationally distributed or maximally effective. At a micro level, most donations are to some extent based on the voluntary choices of individuals, driven by a broad and diverse range of conscious and unconscious factors; and at a macro level this means that the landscape of philanthropic funding and the organisations it supports is equally broad and diverse. In normal times the messiness of the charity sector (which led Kendall and Knapp to characterise it as a “loose and baggy monster”) is a price worth paying for the pluralism it brings. However, at times of crisis ─ when priorities are more narrowly defined ─ the tolerance of policymakers (and indeed some within the world of charity) for such perceived inefficiency often reduces sharply. Hence during previous crises during wars and epidemics there have often been moves to centralize and rationalize philanthropy and charitable activity (during WWI, for instance, the government created a new post of Director General of Voluntary Organisations, with a brief to oversee charitable activity in support of the war effort).

In the current crisis, it is clear once again that coordination (of philanthropic funding and of volunteering) is a huge issue. There are efforts underway by infrastructure bodies, charities, funders and policymakers to address the challenges. For instance, in a number of countries there are already government-approved funds that are pitched as the best place for donations, in a bid to centralize the outpouring of public generosity and ensure it doesn’t become too diffuse. But whilst this kind of thing makes clear practical sense right now, what longer-term impact might such efforts have? Will they result in policymakers taking an ever more instrumentalist view of the charity sector- as something they can shape and direct towards their own policy goals? And could this exacerbate existing political narratives that place value only on the service delivery role of civil society organisations at the expense of their equally important advocacy and campaigning role?

10. Will we see more transparency and sharing of data?

One potential way of getting greater coordination and rationalisation without forced centralisation is to make data on where funding is coming from and going open and usable by all. That way donors and funders are able to see where existing provision is aimed and where gaps exist; and thus focus their own efforts accordingly. Initiatives like 360 Giving in the UK, Candid in the US and Italia Nonprofit in Italy are already drawing together a lot of data to map the philanthropic response to covid-19 in different countries. There is still far more to be done, but if these initiatives demonstrate the value of sharing philanthropic funding data in an open format during the current crisis, will this lead to more donors and funders being willing to share data in the future?

11. Are we seeing the end of organisational ego in philanthropy?

In response to the scale of the challenges currently facing civil society, many organisations are moving past the standard model of “single organisation or funder addresses problem” and thinking more about how to address problems at a systems level. This entails far more collaboration, and one thing I have heard time and again in conversations with people across civil society in recent weeks is delight at the extent to which people have been willing to put aside organisational ego and work together during this crisis. Will this last as we move beyond covid-19? Or will financial necessity dictate that some organisations have to look beyond just collaborating and consider merging with each other?
carer patient wheelchair facemasks

12. Will there be longer-term changes in attitudes to core costs, unrestricted grants and reporting requirements?

Many foundations and other philanthropic funders have been responding to the acute short-term needs of CSOs by adapting the ways they work. This has led organisations to shift criteria so that program-specific funding becomes general-purpose core cost funding; or to relax reporting requirements to reduce the burden on grantees. As a result, many funders (at least in the short term) are adopting models that rely far more on placing trust in grantee organisations. Is this going to result in longer-term changes? Will funders come to see unrestricted funding as the rule rather than the exception?

13. Will we see a shift in perception/norms with regard to endowed assets?

Foundations have come in for particular scrutiny in terms of the philanthropic response to covid-19, with some arguing that they should be digging further into their endowed assets in recognition of the potentially unprecedented nature of this crisis. Some have already risen to this challenge: in the UK, for example, the Indigo Trust announced that it was increasing its annual grantmaking by 250%, whilst in the US the Mary Reynolds Babcock foundation has doubled its annual grants . In the US, a group of foundation leaders and advisers has issued a call on other endowed philanthropic institutions to spend down a portion of their assets.

Concerns about the legitimacy of perpetual endowments are far from new (John Stuart Mill railed against them in 1869 and Sir Arthur Hobhouse went on to wage a one-man crusade against them, and they weren’t even the first). Recent years have also already seen more and more focus on the idea of time-limited foundations and spending down. Will the current crisis accelerate this line of thinking? Or will focus shift back to the advantages of the longer-term view that endowed institutions can take, and the role that they might have to play in rebuilding civil society and reshaping it to ensure greater resilience in the face of future shocks?

14. Will there be more recognition of the need for foresight among funders and civil society?

Whilst having a long-term time horizon is an often-argued benefit of endowed institutions such as foundations, this does not always result in sufficient focus being given to thinking strategically about the future. Many organisations in civil society seem ill-prepared for a pandemic or economic shock of this kind (although they are hardly alone in that regard). So as we move beyond the current crisis and think about the role philanthropy should play in the future, one important element is ensuring that we are better prepared for the next crisis. Does this mean that we will see a greater emphasis on the value of foresight among funders and CSOs?

Wider Societal impacts

15. What will be the impact on children’s attitudes to charity of these formative experiences?

Many of the issues outlined above are raising big questions for all of us about our notions of charity and what we see as the role of giving and voluntary action in modern society. But for children, the experiences they are going through now may be deeply formative (especially if the current period of lockdown continues in some form or other over the medium to long term, as seems increasingly likely). What might this mean in terms of future attitudes to charity?

Will children who have lived through this crisis have a greater awareness of the needs around them in society, which might result in them being more likely to give in later life? Will the fact that those needs are currently being demonstrated more locally lead to a stronger sense that “charity begins at home” among younger people? Will seeing parents and family members giving, volunteering and fundraising normalise a “habit of giving” for many children? And what impact might the experience of being taken out onto the streets to clap for NHS staff and other key workers have on their views of what jobs are “important” in society, and what we expect of the state?
child painting a rainbow 2020 covid 19 crisis

16. Will more people seek jobs that have “purpose”?

Following on from the question above about how this crisis is affecting perceptions of what counts as “essential” or “important” work, many people are currently finding themselves in the position of being unable to do their job in a meaningful way yet at the same time seeing others working incredibly hard to respond to the Covid-19 crisis or to perform functions that keep society going more broadly. For many this lack of agency will be hugely frustrating, and may be leading some people perhaps to re-evaluate the nature of our own work. Longer-term, could this result in more people seeking a sense of clear “purpose” in their work? And if so, will some of them look to jobs in civil society to offer them that purpose?

17. Will the crisis create new problems for civil society to address?

In addition to changing perceptions of civil society and opening up opportunities to do things differently, the Covid-19 crisis is likely to create new problems that civil society organisations will be called upon to address in future.

For instance, will there be significant mental health impacts ─ both on those working directly at the front line of the pandemic response, who may suffer forms of post-traumatic stress, or on society more broadly as social isolation measures and increased anxiety take their toll? Will there be major challenges to address among children and young people, whose development and longer-term life chances may be affected in many unforeseen ways by the disruption we are seeing to schools and other services? Or will changes to policy and leigslation around surveillance and data collection made in the interests of short-term public health needs lead to longer-term human rights and civil liberties issues that we may be unpicking for years to come?

What Next?

As we said right at the start of this blog, predicting the future is difficult at the best of times – and at times like this, when potentially major changes are happening almost daily, it is pretty much impossible. However, that does not mean that we should simply bury our heads in the sand.

There are clear themes that we can determine from looking back at past events and joining the dots across different present contexts, and these can help to guide our thinking about the future. We may not be able to offer firm answers, but we can at least identify the right sorts of questions to ask ─ and that is a start.

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