Ecosystem Philanthropy

Philanthropy is changing. Some of the changes are reactive: adapting to a changing world. And some are proactive: recognizing that conventional giving is often ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

I am borrowing the term “ecosystem” to refer to philanthropic approaches that attend to the ecosystem of giving (downstream, midstream, and upstream) of which they are a single part. An institution of this kind not only views their beneficiaries as an interdependent network (downstream from the donor organization), but also sees their own institution as one of a whole network of philanthropic organizations (midstream cohorts) working together, and questions conventional models that tell them what charity is, and seeks out new models to inform how to engage holistically (upstream from the donor organization).

Perhaps most importantly, this new approach to philanthropy requires a systems thinking perspective: the ability to look at an issue area and discern symptoms from causes, and conscientiously choose at which point in the complex system to intervene. This is philanthropy as a continuous experiment carried out by a learning organization that has come to terms with the role of uncertainty in complex systems, rather than philanthropy as an intervention to “fix” problems.

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Winners Take All - The Elite Charade of Changing the World book cover
How to Become a Progressive Philanthropist, by Toni Schwarz

“…I want to make the case that the highway to human progress is becoming a progressive philanthropist.”

Going Upstream: Philanthropy’s Role in Advancing Justice, by Crystal Hayling

“The phrase ‘going upstream’ is often used to describe getting to the source of the problem. But the problems aren’t just ‘out there.’ Habits of inequality live within us and our institutions as well.”

What is a just transition for philanthropy? (Justice Funders)

“Because philanthropic wealth comes from these historic (and current) extractive practices, philanthropy has a moral obligation to repair these harms and carve a new path forward…”

Ecosystem Grantmaking: A Systemic Approach to Supporting Movement Building (Akonadi Foundation) (PDF)

“…we fund not only organizations that are doing base-building work but their key allies and partners as well.”

Additional Related Resources

“A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) indicates a wide gap between aspirations and impact: 67 percent of foundation CEOs surveyed believe that philanthropy has the potential to make a significant difference in society, yet only 17 percent believe it is doing so.”

Reimagining Institutional Philanthropy, Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Alison Powell, Willa Seldon & Nidhi Sahni 

“At a time when philanthropy is globally growing in volumes and diversity of forms, it is important to raise thevquestion at a strategic level and provide the tools for funders and civil society actors to develop, and sometimesvreshape, the infrastructure that they need to address growing social challenges.”

Pg 3, What makes a strong ecosystem of support to philanthropy? by WINGS (Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support) (PDF)

“We should expect inequality to decrease somewhat as philanthropy increases … It has not,” writes Kevin Laskowski, a field associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Indeed, as Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, has noted, “the collective actions of 90,000+ foundations … after decades of work … have failed to alter the most basic conditions of the poor in the US.”

“How philanthropy benefits the super-rich”  The Guardian