The times are calling us to find and address root causes: A global pandemic, deepening inequities, worsening natural disasters, a tsunami of species extinctions, rising authoritarianism around the world, and polarization fuelled by AI-driven tech. Why are these trends persisting? What can we do beyond plastering over the cracks? How can we reimagine the institutions that drove progress for some, but not all of us?

While it is always important and necessary to redress symptoms, to salve real suffering and hardship, right now we need to focus our philanthropy on the root causes of the issues we are facing. This is a moment to dig deeper, and look at what it takes to address the problems that sneak up on you so slowly that you don’t see them until it is too late. 

If oceans rise by centimeters each year, it’s easy not to notice. If the economic model that drives the glacier melt has made you wealthy, not noticing becomes self-preservation. As Upton Sinclair famously quipped, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

It has been widely understood that this environmental crisis moment would arrive since 1962, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first pricked popular awareness as to the unintended consequences of modern agriculture’s use of chemical pesticides. Now it is clear that our economic system is breaking through multiple planetary boundaries, including, just to name a few, biodiversity loss, climate crisis, nitrogen cycle, deforestation, and ocean acidification. And, the people who stand to lose the most – homes, livelihoods, health – are already sitting on the margins of society.  

These impending catastrophes will not be resolved by incremental reforms or technological innovation alone. Leading “existential risk” analysts believe that there is about a one in six chance that we will not make it out of this century without massive loss of human life. As philanthropists, we simply cannot accept those odds for our grandchildren.

The challenge to philanthropy today is to rethink what and who we fund before cataclysmic events force the reckoning. We need to ask new questions, ones that can guide a nonviolent, but fundamental shift in our economic model and the mindset that underlays it.

Here are two that are being asked now that inspire me.

In 2007, the family-owned global food and beverage company, Mars, asked itself: What is the right level of profit for the corporation? It recalled a 1947 memo from Forest Mars Sr. in which he argues that the purpose of business was to “create mutual benefit for all stakeholders.” This will sound familiar to those following the recent big business move away from “shareholder profit maximization,” including the Davos Manifesto 2020 from the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Business Roundtable’s 2019 Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation

To understand the “right level of profit,” Mars created an internal think tank, Mars Catalyst, which has evolved into an independent Economics of Mutuality Foundation, that is researching, teaching, and consulting to advance an economics and business operating model based in mutuality. The economics of mutuality can be seen as a set of new thinking in economics that includes doughnut economics and “Indigenomics.” I have heard this call, and joined a start-up, Single Organizing Idea, that seeks to accelerate progress to remaking business as the global engine of sustainable progress for all by training and supporting business advisors everywhere. Philanthropy can accelerate progress around the uptake of these paradigm-changing ideas. In particular, this is the time for philanthropy to invest in BIPOC-led businesses, which are ideally placed to integrate social and environmental goals.

The second question comes from the late American philosopher John Rawls, who asked: How much inequality is fair? He considered it to be bound up with a twin question regarding liberty. Without doing any kind of justice to one of the most studied philosophical arguments of the 20th century, I’ll jump to one of Rawls important formulations, the difference principle, because I believe that it speaks powerfully to the present moment in which we are rebuilding our economic model root and branch. 

The difference principle states that inequality is acceptable as long as it works to the advantage of the worst-off. This implies that everyone is starting from the same place and needs the same resources to thrive, however. A practical application that advances equity would be to redistribute power and resources based on the specific needs of those who have been left out.

Wrestling with this question in gatherings of diverse stakeholders is how we will build the relationships and accountability mechanisms to transition from a model based on growth to one based on everyone thriving. If stakeholder capitalism means anything, it means that those who have been most marginalized and exploited get the final say on new solutions and a path forward. A collateral benefit of this will be that the new goal of everyone thriving will necessarily also mean living within planetary boundaries. 

As philanthropists, we can direct our funding to organizations that are helping society ask the right questions and are closest to the communities that have been impacted most by inequitable systems.