by Sheetal Singh, a grant writer at TechSoup Global. This post was originally posted on the TechSoup Blog
As a capacity-building organization for the global nonprofit and social benefit sector, we at TechSoup are very conscious of the need to understand and work within different cultural contexts for philanthropy. It is easy to forget that the U.S. philanthropic ecosystem — with established foundations, corporate giving programs, private donors, and 501(c)(3) classified nonprofit organizations — is not a blueprint that can be or has been replicated around the world. Although cultures of giving to those in need are widespread, many countries lack the infrastructure that promotes philanthropy as we know it, including legal nonprofit status for organizations, tax laws that favor charitable giving, or established native foundations. A recent publication titled Global Philanthropy, from the Mercator Fund, a project of the Network of European Foundations, helps bring the variable global philanthropic landscape to light.
Four themes emerge from the book, which provides an overview of the philanthropic sectors in countries across the world:
1. The newness and lack of credibility of the philanthropic sectors in many countries.
This seems to be a particular problem in former communist countries, such as China, where the first nonprofit and non-governmental organizations and foundations were created by the government in the 1980s and 1990s, and Russia, where the first government-run charitable institutions were created in 1987, but the sector is still hampered by the legacy of communism.
According to the book, after the Bolshevik revolution, charity was declared obsolete in the Soviet Union since in a society of equals, there was no need for it. This was particularly true during the Stalinist era, when charity was defined as “cynical acts of capitalists trying to cover their exploitation of the working classes.” Although charities were forbidden, the Soviet system encouraged volunteering for causes deemed important for the communist cause. Many people, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980, when widespread belief in Soviet ideals had largely dissipated, were forced to “volunteer,” working on collective farms for example. The legacy of this situation “poisoned the whole notion of volunteering in Russia for many years.”
During the Putin years, charities faced many hardships and crackdowns by government authorities, but the past decade has also seen the growth of a middle class as well as the birth of an ultra-rich class and the foundation sector. The combination of new middle class wealth with the legacy of public distrust of charities has given rise to giving practices that seek to bypass the official NGO sector. Direct help or assistance funds are mushrooming. Though these funds are registered as NGOs, they pride themselves on having zero administrative costs. Therefore (they assert), all the money collected goes directly to those in need. These appeals have been popularized through media and celebrity support. They tend to focus on curing symptoms (giving money to those in need) rather than solving social problems. Real NGOs, meanwhile, are few and far between, and fundraising, especially from individuals, is a challenge.
2. A cultural incompatibility with the idea of “charity” in some cases.
In many cultures and countries, such as South Africa, the words “philanthropy,” “charity,” and even “aid,” don’t resonate. There are no translations of these words in the local languages, and the concepts aren’t widely accepted because “the idea of a rich elite bestowing their generosity upon the poor, who are poor as the result of an unjust system, raises the spectre of a past inequality that has retained the right to dictate where there is access to, and distribution of, resources,” according to the authors. In these cases, where there is often a strong but informal culture of giving, institutional philanthropy must tread carefully, taking care to work with communities in need, not just for them.
3. The need for greater transparency within the philanthropic sector.
Even in countries with an established philanthropic sector, such as those in Western Europe and North America, there are challenges that the sectors face. Key among them is the need for greater transparency in grant making, which will only work to increase the credibility of the philanthropic sector as a whole.
In the U.S., many foundations are taking the initiative to increase their transparency through increased communications on their websites; grantee perception reports; whistleblower policies; the use of ombudsmen; and the creation of audit committees. In addition, The Council on Foundations is in the process of creating new standards on accountability and transparency in grant making, as well as the management, legal, and financial operations of foundations. Despite these efforts, adoption of practices to increase transparency is scarce and disjointed. One of the reasons is the relative isolation of foundations and the need to break down barriers between the foundation and nonprofit sectors, allowing for more staff interaction between the two.
4. The need for collaboration and data sharing among grant makers and outside of the sector.
This may be stating the obvious, but as philanthropists tackle large-scale, global social problems, they are realizing that no one foundation can make a whole lot of impact on their own. Furthermore, since the early 2000s, there has been a real push to foster cross-sector, public-private partnerships, in an effort to address these larger global challenges such as public health and clean water initiatives in the developing world and climate change.
Despite a number of high-profile examples of cross-sector collaboration, such as the Global Water Challenge; (Product) RED; the M Health Alliance; and the Clinton Global Initiative’s Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative, there is still an overall lack of capacity within foundations to foster these collaborations. There is also a lack of infrastructure within the foundation world for the knowledge and resource sharing that would facilitate the introduction of new partners: partnership development largely takes place within a closed circle that prohibits new alliances, and this needs to be remedied.
All in all, a fascinating read from both anthropological and philanthropic perspectives.