“Philanthropy needs to become more humble”

In a long and seasoned career, first at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and, since 2016, as director of Ford Foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) initiative, Kathy Reich has driven multiple efforts to create effective and resilient organisations that are better equipped to fight inequality. In a wide-ranging interview with the Luc Hoffmann Institute for The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity exploration, Kathy discussed the levers that will cause philanthropic giving to shift to more equitable and collaborative models, the mindset change that gets us there and where philanthropy is best placed to serve a more humble purpose.

What does philanthropy mean to you?

Kathy: If you look at the root of the word philanthropy in Greek, it’s philos, it’s love of man. But I’m Jewish and in Hebrew the word is tzedakah and the root of that word is justice. In Judaism every person is compelled to do the work of repairing the world, so when I think about philanthropy I think of it not just as a societal obligation but as a personal one and one that every human should be engaged in doing, whether that is giving of money or giving of time or giving of thought and ideas. And whatever you have the capacity to give, this is what you should give because all of us are on this planet and it is everybody’s job.

Imagine yourself in a perfect world 10 years from now – what does philanthropy look like?

Kathy: I think in a perfect world in 10 years, philanthropy is working shoulder to shoulder with governments and corporations and activists from the local level on up to the global level to really solve the toughest challenges that are facing humanity. In the area of climate for example philanthropy is providing seed funding, innovation funding to develop mitigation strategies and technologies to make them commercially and economically viable. It’s funding the work of activists on the ground in communities all over the world to inform the development of those technologies. Philanthropy is also providing the space for activists, researchers, and journalists to hold governments accountable for climate commitments that they make.

And then on the adaptation side, philanthropy is funding communities on the ground to generate their own solutions for how to adapt to climate change. Philanthropy is supporting advocacy on the behalf of those who have been displaced by climate change, which as we all know, there will be billions, particularly in the Global South.

Philanthropy can truly be the accelerant for the innovation, the excitement and the creativity that’s going to be required to imagine a more sustainable future for climate. What philanthropy is not in this scenario: philanthropy is not the kingmaker, philanthropy is not the developer or the owner of the solutions. Philanthropy is the entity that can set the table, that can bring together different disparate, sometimes conflicting actors and provide them with space and flexible funding to come up with the best ideas.

Kathy Reich, director of Ford Foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) initiative.
Kathy Reich, Ford Foundation

Does philanthropy need to change and if so, why and how?

Kathy: I think philanthropy needs to start first with a mindset shift. We need to be realistic about how much power we actually hold and what we are actually good at. I think that too often organized philanthropy still acts like we hold all of the answers, or the experts within our walls have the best answers, or because our founders made billions of dollars that they somehow know how to solve incredibly deep, complex, wicked problems like systemic oppression. In reality, what organized philanthropy has is money. That is the first thing that it brings to the table. Money does bring power, but it does not bring wisdom. Money does not bring solutions to complex problems.

So that’s the first thing – philanthropy needs to get a lot more humble.

I think then philanthropy needs to figure out what it is actually quite good at, and I think it can be good at a lot of things. It can be good at funding innovation. It can be good at taking a long view, it can be good at convening people and bringing them together across differences because money does talk. It will at least get people to a table. It won’t get them to do anything once they’re there, but it will get them to at least show up.

And philanthropy does have the ability to provide that glue money, which the government doesn’t have, and the private sector won’t spend in that way, to provide the money that just can kind of grease the gears of collaboration. I think philanthropy needs to stop thinking it can do all of the things that it wants to do well, and really focus on, and lean into what it’s actually good at.

How do you see the key enabling players shifting wealth to better address the climate and biodiversity crisis?

Kathy: On climate, the scale of the problem is so vast that it is mind boggling. What is needed at this point is a concerted global effort – it’s a global treaty with targeted greenhouse gas reductions, it is a massive investment in R&D to come up with clean fuel technologies, and it is a massive investment in climate resilience, including probably wholesale relocations of large populations of people. And these are problems that philanthropy alone just does not have the resources to fix.

So what can philanthropy do in a situation like this? Our own power is quite limited when the scale is so huge and really what we need is governments that are led by morally courageous people putting their own self interest aside and maybe even the interest of their countries aside for a greater good.

I think a few things could help. I think that philanthropy funding innovation, funding R&D is important. One of the core philanthropy models of change that has worked many times in the past is to identify promising solutions, invest in them, pilot them, evaluate them, and then have governments bring them to scale. That is a path that is well trod by philanthropy and I think a path that when it comes to climate, we haven’t explored nearly to the extent that we can.

And philanthropy also can be critical in equipping civil society actors to hold their governments accountable. That’s certainly an area where Ford invests a lot of time and money in ensuring that people within countries and communities can organize themselves to exert pressure on their governments for positive change, whether it is around climate or many other issues such as gender and racial and ethnic inequality.

I do think that offering positive visions of the future is important. I think that people have to see a way out of the problem, and they have to be able to envision a better future or else they’re not going to bother trying to work for one. I do think that philanthropy is really strong, particularly in arts and culture and narrative change at advancing some of those more positive hopeful visions of the future.

What factors might cause philanthropic giving to shift in the direction that you’ve outlined in your vision for the future?

Kathy: I actually think the most important shift that needs to happen in philanthropy is a mindset shift.

I think philanthropy needs to reconceptualize its role away from being the architect, and the kingmaker of social change to being a convener and an enabler of social change and an incubator of social change. I think that until that mind shift happens we’re going to be swimming upstream.

And I think I can see the possibilities for it happening. I can see there’s been movement. If you’d asked me prior to COVID-19, I would have said nothing’s going to change philanthropy. But I did see how quickly many philanthropies were able to shift their practices when COVID-19 hit. I think the other reason that the mindset shift is so important is because when you shift your mind it leads you to other behaviors that reinforce the mindset shift and create a virtuous cycle.

So if you shift your mindset away from being the kingmaker and more toward being the supporter, it leads you to having a more flexible approach, a more humble approach to your grant making. And that leads you into different relationships with those you are funding and the communities that you’re working in and then that can lead to still more change.

Learn more about this initiative: The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity