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23rd Sept 2023

Is the “landscape of doing good” getting bigger and more diverse than ever before? And what might this mean for traditional philanthropy and nonprofits? We pose the questions that are going to guide a new essay series on this website.

I spend a lot of my time talking about, writing about, and reading about philanthropy (as you may have noticed). In particular, I spend a pretty hefty amount of time pondering the history of philanthropy. That has (I think) given me a pretty good sense of what the big recurring themes and fundamental questions are in this field, but it also means I rarely find much that feels genuinely different or new to me. However, every once in a while I come across a Big Idea About Philanthropy which genuinely makes me sit up; which shakes me out of any risk of complacency and pushes me to reassess what I think I know about philanthropy.

One such Big Idea, which has been driving a lot of my thinking for the last couple of years now, is the idea that the “landscape of doing good” – i.e. the range of options available to us when it come to trying to address social and environmental issues or drive change – is expanding in multiple different directions. Any assumption we might have made that the philanthropy model was the only game in town seems increasingly misguided in the context where a growing number of for-profit business are claiming a social purpose; new hybrid models of impact investment and social enterprise are constantly emerging; technology is opening up opportunities to give in radical new ways (or perhaps in old ways but with a new spin…); and there is growing awareness of the possibilities for approaches based on mutual aid and solidarity rather than charity. (And this is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways in which this landscape is evolving).

The idea that landscape for doing good is expanding often comes up in the context of discussions about whether giving is declining. Data suggests that levels of giving (or at least levels of participation in giving) may well be on a downward trajectory; however some have argued that we should not take this as evidence that society is getting less generous, but should instead question whether the ways in which people choose to express their generosity are changing, and if our methods of measurement have simply failed to keep pace with that evolution. (An idea I touched on in this previous WPM article). If the landscape for doing good is getting bigger then people may well be looking beyond traditional philanthropy and nonprofits, so if we limit ourselves only to counting these things then it will inevitably seem as though there is a decline, when in reality the overall amount of generosity may be staying constant (or perhaps even increasing).

So what should we make of this idea?  I must admit that I feel a bit guilty of having been content to hand wave vaguely at it in bits of writing or when giving talks for a while now, but that I haven’t taken the time to get to grips with what it really means or what its implications might be. And that doesn’t seem satisfactory anymore, so to address this gap I’m going to work on a series of articles that try to unpick what it means to say that the landscape for doing good is expanding, whether it is actually true, and what (if anything) we should do about it. I plan to write these separately over the coming months, but to tie them together as a thematic series which eventually will hopefully stand alone as an exploration of these ideas.

Some of this will be about looking at particular ways in which the landscape for doing good is argued to be expanding, in order to see what opportunities and challenges they will bring, and how our understanding of generosity might need to evolve in the future. To that end I certainly plan to explore:

  • Profit and purpose: how and why are for-profit companies adopting the language of “social purpose”? Is this a good thing? How is it reflected in new legal forms? Are we also seeing a shift towards funders using commercial models for their philanthropy?
  • Investment or giving? Do impact investing and social finance models which seek to combine financial and social return represent an alternative, or a complement, to philanthropy? What is the difference between a gift and an investment?
  • Mutual aid & solidarity: Why have we seen an upsurge in interest in these kinds of approaches? Do they offer an alternative to philanthropy, or do they come from a different tradition and serve a different purpose? Is technology helping to amplify them?
  • Platforms & Disintermediation: Is technology offering us new ways to bypass traditional intermediaries, including nonprofits? Will we see more and more peer-to-peer (P2P) giving, where people give to other individuals rather than to organisations? Is this bringing us full circle back to the notion of charity as an inherently individual activity? And what new challenges might this pose?
  • Social Movements & Grassroots Activism: Is the internet allowing us to organise in new ways, or in old-fashioned ways but at unprecedented scale? Where people are preferring new digital movements over traditional nonprofits, is this because they are better at enabling participation, because they are able to use more radical approaches, because they are in a position to engage in politics, or something else?

In addition to questions like this about particular ways in which the landscape for doing good might be expanding, there are also a couple of bigger questions I want to try to address that cut across all of them:

  • Is any of this actually new? Or has the landscape for doing good always been more diverse than many of our measures were able to capture? If so, why have we prioritised certain models and approaches over others?
  • What is the USP of philanthropy? If the landscape for doing good is genuinely expanding, then what (if anything) is the unique value of philanthropy (i.e. giving private assets away for public benefit, without an expectation of a return)? Similarly, what is the unique value of formalised structures for voluntary activity like the UK registered charity or the US 501(c)(3)? And what is the unique value of institutional forms for philanthropic funding, such as the foundation?

These questions about the USP of philanthropy are really about getting to the heart of the “so what?” challenge in this whole debate. If the landscape for doing good is expanding and traditional nonprofits or forms of philanthropy get less of the overall pie as result, so what? Should we be concerned about it, or just accept it as a natural evolution?

For what it is worth, I do think we should be concerned about this, and that there is a strong case to be made for philanthropy, foundations and formal nonprofits having unique value – even in a vastly expanded landscape of doing good. But I also don’t think we can be complacent, or that we can assume this value is self-evident. Instead, I think there is an onus on those of us who think philanthropy and nonprofits do have unique value to make a much stronger positive case as to what that value actually is.

I’m hoping in the course of writing up some thoughts over the coming months to crystallise in my own mind what that positive case might look like, which will hopefully spark some thoughts in all of you. So keep your eyes out for essays in this series, and if you have ideas you would like to share as we go along please do let me know!

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