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  • Rhodri Davies

Are Funders Changemakers Too?

For most of us, when it comes to identifying “changemakers” and “social pioneers” of the kind that the Charity Hall of Fame is aiming to showcase, our thoughts probably turn immediately to activists and charity workers doing things on the frontline. That is no bad thing – after all, these are the people who tend to make things happen through their determination, perseverance and leadership. In some cases they manage to do this despite having very limited resources, but most of the time significant and sustained social change requires financial resources too. So should we also be celebrating the role of funders as changemakers?

This might seem slightly at odds with prevailing narratives in the philanthropy world, which emphasise the need to shift power towards recipients and “de-centre” donors and grantmakers. But I would argue that we can do both: we can challenge the ways in which our models of funding have sometimes led to power imbalances and inequalities whilst still celebrating the positive role that many funders have played in driving positive social change. Indeed, to my mind, celebrating good examples of funding and grant making throughout history is one of the best ways of encouraging philanthropy to keep striving to be the best version of itself.

Taking a historical perspective on philanthropy is useful for a whole range of reasons, but one of the first things it teaches you is that the distinction between “doers” and “funders” is nowhere near as clear-cut as we often like to think. When we look back to the origins of modern philanthropy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the people being described as “philanthropists” (such as the prison reformer John Howard, who was the first to attract the label, or the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp) were almost all campaigners and social reformers. They may have been donors too, but this was not their main role; and they were certainly not passively doling out money for others to use on their behalf.

Over time things changed, and by the end of the 19th century there was definitely more of a sense of philanthropy as something which generally involves people with money handing it over to people working in charitable organisations in order to do good. But that doesn’t mean that philanthropy became an entirely passive pursuit; for one thing, there were still plenty of philanthropists who continued to combine financial support with active involvement in frontline work or campaigning. And even for those who did focus primarily on making donations, they often put huge amounts of time and energy into finding and supporting organisations and individuals.

In some of the most eye-catching and inspiring examples, we see philanthropy playing a crucial role in supporting social movements – often at the earliest stages, when these movements would otherwise struggle to attract wider public attention or to win over public opinion. This is something philanthropy has done many times throughout history, from the abolition of slavery and the criminalisation of child labour in the 18th and 19th centuries, through to universal suffrage, the right to access public land, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion in the 20th century. In each of these cases, philanthropic funders – both large and small –played a key role in supporting grassroots groups and social movements, so that they were able to take issues from the margins to the mainstream and eventually win major milestones of social progress.

Of course, the other big lesson from the history of philanthropy is that not all money is necessarily good money. Sometimes the way in which wealth has been created raises ethical concerns that undermine or totally outweigh any efforts to do good through giving it away. Increasingly, for example, questions are being asked about how we should deal with philanthropy that we now know came about through profits from slavery or other extractive practices. This is a complex and challenging issue, which the philanthropy sector is only beginning to get to grips with. But one thing it makes very clear is that celebrating philanthropists is by no means a risk-free enterprise, and we need to tread carefully.

In some cases things are fairly clear-cut: one would assume that we can all agree that slavery is bad, for instance. But in many other cases there is far more grey area to be navigated, since people may have widely differing (and often strongly-held) views on whether certain types of wealth creation are “OK” or not. Even in the cases where we all agree that money is “tainted”, there is often far less consensus on the question of what we should do about it. Is it sufficient to provide more historical context, for instance, or do we need to wipe the names of problematic donors off our buildings and institutions? Do we need to go further still, and demand that funders or recipient organisations whose wealth is tainted in some way make suitable reparations? Or is there a danger that we might end up applying the standards of the present to the past, and thus judging some philanthropists and their actions more harshly than we should?

These are difficult questions, for sure, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from celebrating the important role that funders have played throughout history and including them in the Charity Hall of Fame as it grows. In order to do that properly we may need to recognise not just the good, but also the bad and the downright ugly too. In doing so, we will get a better understanding of the challenges and complexities inherent in the relationship between philanthropic funders and civil society organisations; and hopefully we can use this insight to do better in the future.

Rhodri Davies is a well known thinker and commentator on philanthropy and civil society and is the founder and director of Why Philanthropy Matters.


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