If I had a $1,000 for every time I have heard a philanthropist say that philanthropy was harder to get right than business, I would be, well, wealthy.
Business is openly based on trading goods and services as transactions. A narrow transactional approach requires only loose ties between people. Philanthropy is based on serving others through compassionate action. To meet its aspiration, it requires deeper ties and connections.
In social change we can’t move faster than the speed of trust. There will always be transactions in philanthropy, as in all aspects of life, but to be effective in philanthropy transactions must be secondary to, and in service of, compassionate relationships. But holding compassionate relationships requires different skill sets, and different support infrastructure. If you want to have philanthropic impact, you have to do the work of deepening relationships.
The present global pandemic gives us a new view on the importance of trust to drive and sustain meaningful change.
Until we have a vaccine, we have five ways to fight the virus: Social distancing, contact tracing, testing, isolation (quarantine of those affected and exposed), and treatment.
As we look at how countries have used and not used these tools, a surprising pattern (at least for many historically top-dog countries like the U.S. and Britain) emerges. Countries with strong ties of trust between the public, government, and business have been better able to mobilize all five of these weapons against the virus.
Prime examples are Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and Germany. Some politically authoritarian countries with a recent history of virus-driven behavior change have managed partial success, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and China. And countries with governments whose muscles have been wasted by growing inequality, social distrust, and polarization have had greater difficulties containing the virus. In this category, we are witnessing the failures of the United States, Britain, Brazil, Spain, and Italy. A major blind spot in some, but not all, of the richest countries has been revealed. Wealth, global power, and the political traditions of constitutionalism and liberal democracy do not seem to be the determining variables for success.
Top-down control models and bottom-up self-help approaches are each necessary but not sufficient to tackle our big societal challenges. We need both top-down, effective institutions of government, science, technology, investment, philanthropy, and media, and bottom-up: family and local community commitment and activism.
But most of all, we need everyone in effective, high-trust relationships based in compassion.
Those who aspire to move from good to great philanthropy are necessarily taking on a prevailing mindset and set of institutional arrangements that default strongly to loose ties. The core practices of great philanthropy, such as seeking to "serve" rather than "help," are far less well understood than the practices of business.
One practical step to raise our awareness of the limitations of the current transaction-based system of philanthropy is to get serious about measuring what we value – high-quality relationships. A growing number of philanthropic organizations are using the Constituent Voice method to do this. One food bank in New York City, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, has released this simple, short infographic that shows how it changed its program after leaning in on its relationships with those it seeks to help.
I have had this virus and I hate it. (Well, I am pretty sure I had it, but I live in London where testing is not sufficiently available.) But I am grateful for the insight it offers to us. COVID-19 helps us see that philanthropy’s best and highest role is transformative – to create the conditions for systemic change through a mindset based in deep, compassionate relationships of trust and mutuality.