Sociologist Erving Goffman suggested that the best time to understand social interaction is when it’s disrupted. This may also be true of philanthropy, and the field is certainly experiencing disruption today. The prolonged and increasingly devastating nature of the COVID-19 pandemic means that large foundations in the Global North—even those that didn’t originally focus on health issues—have diverted a significant proportion of their funding to the health sector to support pandemic relief. This shift has in many ways highlighted the historically unequal power dynamic that exists between philanthropic organizations in the Global South (including NGOs and social enterprises, grant makers and grant recipients) and resource-rich foundations of the Global North. It not only has underlined the immense control foundations exert over the allocation of funding, but also has blown away the veil that previously concealed deep frustrations with established grantmaking practices.

Yet, through this shift, many grantees have found their voice; they’ve demanded the faster disbursement of grants and the ability to use funds according to what they deem most pressing. Foundations, in turn, have deviated dramatically from traditional grant distribution practices developed in the North—where grantees must endure lengthy application processes, wait months to receive grants, and apply them in specified ways—and instead responded to the urgent needs of frontline fieldworkers based in the Global South.

Because Northern foundations typically hold the purse strings, grants often come with numerous conditionalities and parameters set by grant makers that are physically and institutionally disconnected from grantees and the people they serve. This creates a number of inefficiencies. For one, despite possessing valuable situational and local contextual knowledge, frontline workers in the Global South must implement decisions made and approved at the top. Some of the grant recipients we spoke to complained that grant makers based in far-off markets and with little field presence simply didn’t listen to communities in need on the ground, let alone collaborate with them on solutions. Over the years, this sustained lack of meaningful input from Global South organizations has eroded foundations’ capacity to devise more-effective interventions, thus undermining their ability to deliver sustainable impact or advocate for much-needed core funding.

In our recent study of 24 philanthropic organizations operating or based in the Global South—in particular the Middle East, Africa, and South East Asia—we interviewed more than 40 grant makers and grantees, and asked if and how the pandemic had changed their work. We then combined insights from these interviews with large amounts of secondary data, including industry reports, commentaries from sector experts, research data on grant giving, and industry webinars. Our findings clearly indicate a desire in the Global South to continue radically recalibrating traditional industry practices. There is a desire for faster decision-making that responds to locally defined needs, as well as less-restricted funding and more-efficient reporting requirements. Global South practitioners also suggested that making and sustaining these changes could help fill institutional voids that continue to hinder the effective disbursement of philanthropy in emerging markets. In particular, they expressed a renewed appetite for South-South collaboration, with a view to building strong peer networks, knowledge sharing, and collaborative funding initiatives.

Read the full article about global philanthropy by Clare Woodcraft and Kamal A. Munir at Stanford Social Innovation Review.