“The nature of philanthropy has a very close, unfortunate relationship with colonisation, imperialism, and neo-colonisation. It is a tough question that all of us have to consider and deal with.”

-Anasuya Sengupta
Most people would agree that philanthropy exists to improve equity. Helping to create a fairer, more just society is why the majority of us get involved with this game. We all strive to make a difference in people’s lives and right wrongs, to use our privilege to create positive change. Yet when the spotlight turns inwards, few funders are prepared to acknowledge their complicitness with an uncomfortable reality: there is a chasmic power imbalance between funders and grantees, and we need to reframe the power dynamics in philanthropy.
Because it has money, philanthropy thinks and acts as if it knows best. It sets the terms of engagement and uses its own metrics to define success. This is hugely problematic in the funder-grantee relationship. Pleasing the funder becomes the goal rather than the mission, and grantees steer away from their original intent to execute their funder’s plans. Furthermore, those plans are often shaped by very particular worldviews. Most new money in philanthropy comes from a highly entrepreneurial business world. There is little enthusiasm to target support at ideas or groups that disrupt the status quo or question the ‘market always knows best’ narrative. Take Bill Gates, for example. His reluctance to support a Covid vaccine waiver stems from his almost-religious advocacy for the intellectual property rules that made him one of the wealthiest men in history.
But if social change is the desired outcome, we must upset the applecart regardless of our fondness for apples. We do this by redistributing our power to fellows; enabling their ideas, not ours. We trust those with intimate knowledge of the issues they face and support their thinking with the right resources. Money is one of the resources we provide, but it is accompanied by a support system and the collective power of a fellowship. Working together openly enables growth, resilience, learning, and progress.
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