What is the future of philanthropy?

A thought piece by Jessica Villat, Head of Communication at the Luc Hoffmann Institute, on how this investigation can help shape global giving to do better for people and biodiversity.

In the first half of 2022, the Luc Hoffmann Institute has been interviewing donors, funders, grantees, leaders, activists, and administrators from the philanthropic and environmental sectors, in an effort to explore the future of philanthropy at this crucial moment in history when biodiversity and climate crises are by most measures near if not past the point of no return. Among the questions we pose is: “What does philanthropy look like in a perfect world?”. A resounding answer from many interviewees is that if we were in a perfectly balanced world, philanthropy wouldn’t exist anymore.

Long divorced from its original meaning of “love of humanity” and often very much at odds with nature regeneration, big philanthropy particularly is seen as a brazen byproduct of flawed, extractive, and unequal systems. Indeed, giving back implies that one has taken something. In a 2021 Mongabay article André Hoffmann, member of the Luc Hoffmann Institute Advisory Council, was quoted as saying, “If you destroy nature to make a profit then you are creating the problem that you then try to solve with philanthropy”. In other words, big philanthropy is often remedial. It is little surprise therefore that most interviewees imagine a perfect world to be one that doesn’t need this kind of philanthropy at all.

So what could the future of philanthropy look like? How can we co-create things at the incept for the benefit of all, rather than benefiting the few who then give back? At the Luc Hoffmann Institute, we are strong believers in systems thinking, diversity and biodiversity, and rebalancing of power for true social innovation for the way forward.

In terms of systems thinking, we’re hearing through our consultation process that there is an overflow of money going into organisations that are short-termist and doing potentially very good work but that is incremental, and programme-based. And there is a deficit of money going into work that is transformational and long term. Historically, at least for a few centuries in mainstream dogma, there has also been a false division between the human and the natural world, and this false division existed in philanthropy too, where for example funding for human rights is often severed from funding for nature conservation, or funding for the more human topic of climate is divorced from biodiversity, even though the issues are intimately intertwined. However, some leaders, institutions, and organisations are beginning to see what indigenous peoples and local communities across the world have long known – that the human and natural world are inextricably connected if not one, a realisation that is long overdue for how philanthropy can tackle systemic issues.

We’re also incredibly conscious of the need for diversity and diverse perspectives for radical innovation in this space. While seeking to understand and shift the levers of change, some of which we’ve begun to identify through the Future of Conservation NGOs initiative and its four themes for change, our first step has been contending with the limitations of our own world view and how we might start to widen the lens. Firstly by surveying not just the state of big philanthropy that dominates cultural and media narratives, but the incredibly diverse and global practice of philanthropy embodied in dozens of different cultures, religions and countries. From them – and newer forms such as the renegade fundraising by digital communities – we have much to learn and they rightfully should have a place in the discourse and at the table. Perhaps equally important is scrutinizing current models and work-arounds that simply prop up structures of old systems by dressing them up in distracting facades. In teasing apart good intentions from meaningful systemic overhauls, the question we ask is: does this go far enough?

Rebalancing power is another big part of the exploration. How is wealth being rebalanced so that it benefits the areas of the world and the communities that are the most under-resourced? Here we see social justice issues mingling with access to natural resources. Is climate and biodiversity funding flowing to the Global South ? How can we work towards a dynamic equilibrium where such flows are less necessary because wealth is distributed less unevenly? Yet power dynamics are tricky, even amongst global actors. In nature conservation, how comfortable are programme leaders and fundraising officers in engaging with foundations and philanthropists to fundamentally shift the status quo?

As we embark on this exploration process, we hope to inspire systems thinking, invite a truly diverse and unusual set of voices to the conversation, and level power dynamics. We don’t have the answers, but we’re not afraid to ask difficult questions. Our aspiration is by the end of the process for a truly diverse set of stakeholders from the philanthropic and environmental sectors to collectively take forward a vision for how new and radical ways of giving and thinking could lead to systems change for people and nature to flourish as one.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, the The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity initiative, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.

Learn more about this initiative: The future of philanthropy for biodiversity

Related reading

Nature is no longer “a nice to have,” it’s “a must-have”: Q&A with André Hoffmann
An April 2021 Mongabay interview by Rhett A. Butler with André Hoffmann, member of the Luc Hoffmann Institute Advisory Council, and President of the MAVA Foundation and Fondation Tour du Valat.