Financial crunch heralds a different future for philanthropy

Foundations who fund philanthropy expect the current economic meltdown means they will have to do more with less. But most assured the audience at the IUCN congress’s debate today on how philanthropy can contribute to a sustainable future that they are in this business for the long term.

Maria Blair, Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Photo: IUCN/Group J. Muntaner

“We will not stop funding projects tomorrow and although the trend is to do more with less, we will try to make it a smooth transition,” said Ken Wilson, CEO of the US’s Christensen Fund.

He expects the financial crisis will force a fundamental rethink for foundations such as his, especially seeing as most fund their activities from the return on financial investments. “Just as we are trying to have an economy which does not require economic growth, the foundations will need an economy that does not require financial growth,” he said.

A second longer term trend is the end of the US dominance in philanthropy which characterised the twentieth century as wealth has accumulated in Asian and oil-producing countries. For Maria Blair, Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, this also means a change of strategy. “This has opened up new opportunities as a catalyst and shown us the importance of working with local partners, often businesses rather than local foundations,” she said.

Speaking from the floor, Stephanie Meehan of the Inuit Polar Council, asked for guidance on how organisations representing indigenous people can best work with the philanthopists.

“Indigenous people are the poorest and most marginalized people, but we can offer some of the most promising solutions for the planet,” she said, adding that Inuit people can demonstrate a level of adaptability that no one else can. For Ken Wilson, harnessing indigenous wisdom and creativity is key to the work of his organisation as “it offers solutions that democratic society does not seem capable of.”

The debate then moved onto the question of the trade-offs philanthropists face. Graham Smith, Chair of the Toyota Fund for Europe, acknowledged this is one of his biggest challenges. “We are committed to sustainable mobility, but we have to face up to the consequences of automobile use, both in its manufacture and external costs,” he said, and this goes from technological design right down to individual habits. “We can’t preach a sustainable future and then use totally inappropriate company cars ourselves, we have to take the right steps and try and inspire others to do the same,” he added.

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