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Giving More & More Equitably: Reflections on the Gates Foundation’s Greater Giving Summit 2023

10th May 2023

Rhodri reflects on the key insights and topics of discussion at the recent Greater Giving Summit 2023, hosted by the Gates Foundation in Seattle.

At the end of April I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Seattle to attend the 2023 Greater Giving Summit, organised and hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This was obviously a delightful jolly for me, but more importantly it was also a great opportunity for two (rather intense!) days of listening and talking to lots of fascinating people – all of whom are grappling with the challenges of trying to encourage both more and better giving.

The Gates Foundation is best known for its work funding medical research and international development initiatives, so you might think a conversation about everyday giving is a bit outside their wheelhouse. However, they have actually been supporting work on this topic for quite a few years now and have built an impressive community around it which includes researchers, civil society leaders, philanthropy infrastructure bodies and tech companies – many of whom were in the room last week to talk through the big challenges and opportunities for giving right now.

I thought it might be useful to share some of the key things I took away from the event, in the hope that this helps to spread the conversation beyond just those people who happened to be in the room (as I know there are many people who will be interested, and definitely could have made valuable contributions!) There’s no way I am going to be able to capture all of what was said, so I will just offer some thoughts on things that particularly struck me.

Is there a decline in giving (and does it matter?)

One of the big framing questions for the Greater Giving Summit was whether we are in the midst of a long-term decline in giving and volunteering. The opening session of the event offered a “state of the state of giving” to unpick what the available data tells us, which in very broad terms is:

  • Top line levels of giving to 501(c)(3) organisations (i.e. standard nonprofits) in the US remain strong (in fact the most recent figures from Giving USA show that the last year saw the highest level of individual donations to 501(c)(3)s on record- $327 billion).
  • BUT: Levels of participation have dropped quite dramatically (Giving USA shows that overall participation has declined from two-thirds to less than half of American households).
  • AND Many groups and types of organisations are still disproportionately left out of the picture: Giving to women & girls, for instance, remains at less than 2% of philanthropic funding; while a report from Bridgespan and Echoing Green found that the unrestricted net assets of Black-led organizations were 76% smaller than the those of their white-led counterparts.

What we have, it seems, is a picture in which the US nonprofit sector is increasingly reliant on a smaller number of donors. These donors are (so far) giving higher average amounts, so the overall amount of giving remains relatively constant. But this giving is not equitably distributed, and many marginalised groups are getting increasingly left out. So the challenges when it comes to everyday giving are:

  • Getting more giving overall
  • Ensuring higher levels of participation so that the donor base is broadened
  • Finding ways to make sure that donations go to groups and communities that have historically been excluded or underfunded.

This is a US-specific picture, but as with many other things I heard at the GGS it definitely resonated with what I have heard about wider trends in giving elsewhere. In the UK, for instance, we face a similar set of challenges in terms of declining participation and inequitable distribution of resources (both geographically and in terms of cause areas). We may also be facing a real-terms decline in overall levels of giving: CAF’s UK Giving 2023 report suggests that donations have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and levels of volunteering are falling. A recent report from Benefact Group even suggested that the value of UK charitable donations may be down by as much as half, (from £9.3 billion in 2021 to £4.3 billion in 2022), but IMHO this figure needs to be viewed sceptically given that it is so far out of line with other research findings (it may, for instance, just be an anomaly resulting from the particular survey methodology used for this report) .

I guess the big question here is “what is actually going on?” Is there a genuine decline in the amount of generosity, or is it simply that people are choosing to display that generosity in different ways that are not necessarily being captured by our current forms of measurement? You may have noticed, for instance, that I was at pains above to specify that we were talking about giving to 501(c)(3) organisations – which I felt was important so that we are clear about what is captured in existing research, and get away from equating this one type of giving with generosity as a whole (which we have certainly had a tendency to do in the past). These days people may be displaying generosity in a far wider variety of ways: from giving to political organisations or engaging in impact investing, through to joining mutual aid groups or getting involved with online protest movements. If they see these as legitimate forms of “giving”, but our methods of measurement do not currently include them, who is Should we try to “educate” people that what they thought was giving was actually nothing of the sort, or do we expand and evolve our definitions of giving to reflect the realities of how people are choosing to express their generosity? Personally I would err towards the latter. (And you can hear me discuss this at more length with Lucy Bernholz in this podcast conversation from 2021 about her book How We Give Now).

The other question this raises is whether it actually matters if people are choosing to give in non-traditional ways. If the overall amount of good being done in the world remains the same (or even increases), but traditional nonprofits get a smaller share of the resources, do we just need to accept this? Or, should we be worried that something will get lost in this process? My gut feeling is that we should, since I tend to believe that there is still unique value to the idea of people giving resources away with no expectation of reward; and that having legal structures tied to this concept is worthwhile. However, I also think that we need to make a far clearer positive case for what the unique value of traditional non-profit structures in an expanded landscape of doing good might actually be, rather than simply assuming it is obvious (which has too often been the case in the past IMHO).

Not just more giving, but more equitable giving

A big focus of the conversation at the GGS was how we ensure that the benefits of everyday giving (and philanthropy in general) are felt more equitably. This reflects a shift in the strategic focus of The Gates Foundation’s own work in this area over the last few years, in which they have tried to put equity and justice at the centre of their efforts to encourage giving. A key part of this is highlighting the importance of ‘proximate leadership’ – which is a slightly philanthro-jargon way of saying that the best way of ensuring that money gets to historically marginalised communities is to support organisations that are led by people from those communities. This was a recurring theme in conversations at the GGS event, and was also reflected in the list of attendees and speakers: which included many great leaders from organisations representing Black, Native and LGBTQ+ communities (among others), who were able to speak powerfully about their own experiences and the challenges they and their organisations had faced when it came to attracting philanthropic funding.

There were three things that really struck me when listening to these grassroots leaders speak:

  • The constant tension between patience and urgency. Many of the challenges these organisation are dealing with are extremely acute, and need action to address them right now. However, most of the leaders were also clear that movement building can be a slow process and needs funders and donors to have the patience to stick with it over the longer term. I can imagine that managing this tension is often extremely difficult.
  • Everyday giving is hugely important to grassroots organisations- particularly those who for whatever reason don’t tend to get on the radar of institutional funders (either because they are in the wrong geographic location; because their cause area isn’t understood or seen as a priority, or because they are perceived as too “militant” in their approach and therefor risky to fund). For these groups, being able to appeal to everyday donors who might have a better understanding of where they are coming from, and more willingness to accept radical approaches and outspoken advocacy, is absolutely crucial. It reminded me that this has often been the case for social movements in the past too: the historian David Owen said of the anti-slavery movement in the UK in the 18th and 19th century, for instance that it gave “the impression of a movement supported chiefly by… large numbers of people in moderate or modest circumstances”, rather than one which relied primarily on big money donors.
  • There is cause for hope. Even if many of the challenges are vast and systemic, and often seem insurmountable, the work these groups were doing was a really powerful reminder that when people come together and just do something, that can have a huge impact. And that is a great lesson to hold onto when times can seem rather bleak.

Infrastructure – the “plumbing of philanthropy”

Another big theme of the conference was the importance of infrastructure: AKA the unsexy “plumbing” of philanthropy. This ran through a lot of the conversations at the event, but there was also a specific session on the second day which looked at how we define philanthropy infrastructure, what the current state of it is and what we need to do to improve it. This was (like much of the conference) heavily skewed towards the US experience, but as an observer from the outside a lot of it still resonated with me. The philanthropy context in the US is, of course, different to that you would find in the UK, Kenya or Brazil,  and as a result their ecosystem of infrastructure and support organisations is going to look different. However, the challenges when it comes to funding infrastructure, making it accessible, avoiding duplication etc are, it would appear, universal.

I was particularly struck by the call from Favianna Rodriguez (President of the Center for Cultural Power) to expand our understanding of infrastructure to include “narrative infrastructure” as well: i.e. organisations and institutions that can support artists, writers and other creatives to engage in work that has a social change aim. I have long thought that not enough attention is given to the power of art and literature within civil society – particularly given that, in my experience, one well-told piece of fiction or work of art can have more impact than a hundred dusty policy documents. (And I say that as someone who has produced more than my fair share of dusty policy documents over the years!) Rodriquez’s call also highlighted the need to provide support to enable artists and creatives from marginalised communities to engage in social change work – which is particularly important since people from these communities face particular challenges when it comes to taking on this kind of work (which is often not commercial, and therefore requires that you have the luxury of people able to work for free unless you can find funding).

At a time when the nonprofit sector in many countries seems to be casting around for big ideas and bold visions that can help it redefine its role in relation to the major challenges we increasingly face as a society (the climate crisis, the impact of technology, rampant inequality etc), it is more important than ever that we factor support for spaces and places where new ideas can grow and develop into our thinking about what the necessary infrastructure for philanthropy looks like. We are starting to see some of this emerge (such as the work the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is doing in the UK on “collective imagining”), but there is a need for much more of it – as was clear from what we heard at the GGS.

The roles and responsibilities of platforms

One type of infrastructure particularly in focus at the GGS event was online giving platforms. There was general agreement that these kinds of platforms have a huge role to play (which was reflected in the fact that representatives of many of the big nonprofit and commercial platforms were in the room). There was also some interesting debate about the responsibilities they bear: are platforms merely neutral intermediaries, for instance, or should they take a more active role in shaping and informing people’s giving decisions to make everyday giving as a whole more equitable?

This is an issue we have considered in some detail on the Philanthropisms podcast in the past (in our episode on the platformisation of philanthropy). However, against the backdrop of the row over philanthropic plurality currently going in the US (covered in the latest WPM newsletter), this question of who gets to decide which causes and organisations do or don’t make it onto platforms that people use to give feels particularly pointed. And it is important to remember that we are not just talking about nonprofit-specific platforms here: increasingly we are seeing commercial payment and social media platforms add giving functionality to their offering, so the ability to shape the giving choices we make, which may have a major impact on the overall makeup of the nonprofit sector, will be in the hands of private companies whose motives and drivers may or may not be well aligned with those of civil society.

The rise of China and India

One particularly fascinating aspect of the discussion of the role of giving platforms at GGS was hearing from representatives from a number of major Chinese tech platforms (Tencent, Alipay, ByteDance, Bilibili etc), who were able to talk about their experience. We heard from them about the remarkable growth of everyday giving in China, where charitable donations have doubled in the last 10 years, and  the country has risen from 147th in the CAF World Giving Index in 2019 to 51st in 2022; and we heard about the pivotal role that digital giving is playing in this story.

I was lucky enough to get to talk to some of this Chinese delegation in depth at various points (in a session on AI, and another session on engaging Gen Z), and the two things that really struck me about what they were saying is how young the user base for their giving platforms is, and how massive it is (there were certainly quite a few times when they casually mentioned monthly user numbers that would make most non-profit platform operator’s eyes pop out!)

This reaffirmed my view that as global centres of wealth continue to shift, the centre of gravity of global philanthropy is likely to shift too; a view that was only strengthened further by hearing from some of the representatives from Indian organisations at the conference, who were also able to tell stories of pretty remarkable growth in giving in recent years. As these new philanthropic powerhouses emerge, I can’t help but think that it is naïve (if not a bit culturally imperialist) to assume that their philanthropy and non-profit sectors will look just like those we have in the US or UK – yet too often this does seem to be the background assumption. Hearing from people working in China and India about the similarities and the differences between their context and mine was both fascinating and a great reminder of the importance of ensuring that when we think about philanthropy, we lift our gaze to the global level and don’t become too inwardly-focused on our own country or region.

Other key takeaways

Those are some of the things that most struck me at the Greater Giving Summit, but there was plenty of other food for thought that I’m sure I will be chewing on for some time to come (and may well write or podcast about in due course…).

For now, I’ll just leave you with a couple of other key things I took away from the conference:

  1. The US perspective still dominates conversations on philanthropy: This is particularly the case when you are in the US, which is totally understandable, but it also made me think that we need to do more to join the conversations happening at places like GGS with some of the conversations about philanthropy and giving going on in Europe and elsewhere, as so many of the challenges and opportunities feel very similar!
  2. Meeting people IRL is great (though exhausting!): I am by nature an introvert, so although I really like meeting and interacting with people, I need a lot of time to recharge afterwards. And it turns out that a couple of years of hiatus for in-person events thanks to Covid, combined with the fact that I mostly work from home on my own these days, has not improved my capacity for sustained human contact! I think I did my best, but if you were at the event and speaking to me after lunchtime on day 2 I apologise if you only got the dregs of me…
  3. I’m bad at gauging the appropriate level of quiz questions on philanthropy: One of my highlights of the trip to Seattle was going along to a philanthropy-themed pub quiz organised by some of my fellow UK attendees (Lauren Gross from The Mesa, and Emily Collins-Ellis from IG Advisors). I was invited to do a history of philanthropy themed round, which I did my best to pitch at the right level but it turns out that my sense of “the right level” when it comes to trivia about the history of philanthropy is waaaaaay off. So apologies to anyone that had to endure that, although I think we all still had fun…? (FYI if you want to test yourself, you can find both the questions I wrote and the answers here).

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