Philanthropy Under the Magnifying Glass: What are Short and Long Term Priorities?

5 min read

“There’s never been such an existential challenge to the future of the nonprofit sector,” according to Ford Foundation President Darren Walker.[1] This sentiment was echoed consistently by speakers and delegates over the course of the AVPN Virtual Conference 2020 Philanthropy Day, as was the view that the COVID-19 pandemic is placing the philanthropic ecosystem under the magnifying glass from several different perspectives.

In the immediate term, philanthropic organisations are breaking down silos between “donors” and “doers”, doubling down to make sure those who most urgently need support receive it.  On the flip side, organisations are also applying a more far-sighted lens to critically review their strategy for resilience, relevance and impact in the face of some longer term challenges.

Short Term Focus: Speed over Perfection

In the face of COVID-19, service providers have had to rapidly meet the urgent needs of adversely affected communities, especially the vulnerable and marginalised – with this work oftentimes falling outside an organisation’s regular programme work.  Susan Bautista-Afan, Managing Director, ABS-CBN Foundation aptly described a situation no doubt many others are facing:

“The requests for support are constant and the first round of assistance provided has mostly expired; many Philipino workers have returned from overseas and are without work; and censorship is an increasing problem. Without philanthropic efforts, we will likely see increased violence, civil unrest and contamination.”

Funding organisations have been working to accelerate the disbursement of funds – one tactic proving successful for larger organisations has been to pursue “speed over perfection”. Leong Cheung, Executive Director of Charities and Community at The Hong Kong Jockey Club (both Hong Kong’s largest taxpayer and non-profit organisation) has dramatically reduced the processing time between funding request receipt to funding disbursement from 5 months to just 2 weeks.

Looking Closer

Looking slightly further out, It is widely anticipated that giving will decrease as economic activity slows, yet demand for services will continue to grow.  Donor fatigue is likely to become problematic, particularly in countries such as the Philippines and Australia which have been hit by consecutive crises.  Coupled with this is the greater public scrutiny of philanthropic organisations as donors seek improved transparency with respect to fund disbursement and impact measurement.    

On a more positive note, the public is increasingly drawing linkages across key  priorities – climate change, migration, public health, and inequality.  In recognising that these issues are complex that no one organisation can tackle, there is an appetite therefore to support broader systems change.  The traditionally siloed and often risk averse philanthropy ecosystem is ripe for change.  These themes were explored during the Funding Systems Change in Asia session and summarised by Iqbal Dhaliwal, Global Executive Director J-PAL:

“It’s less about the amount you spend and more about how you spend it to affect systems change – doers and donors need to be flexible, nimble, pivotable and collaborative – systems change does not happen in a linear fashion.” 

Shared Vision and Action

In discussing longer term philanthropic strategy, the resounding themes at the Conference were collaboration, innovation and opportunity.  The formation of partnerships, including public-private ones, where visions are aligned (and ideologies are parked) can be a powerful strategy for reducing risk and achieving scale and impact.  The Hewlett Foundation is one of many strong advocates for donor collaboration to achieve far greater impact. Its Population and Poverty Research Initiative (PopPov) brings together researchers, funders, and other stakeholders to engage policy decision-makers with the results of its research to improve economic outcomes: 

“Our PopPov fund brings together 16 partners to address the intractable, multigenerational issue of poverty to achieve impact we could never deliver alone – so far it has accumulated around USD 2.6 billion.  Grantees get bigger grants and there’s a pooling of donor expertise to maximise impact.”  Lindsay Austin Louie, Program Officer, Effective Philanthropy Group, Hewlett Foundation.

Other innovative strategies being adopted by philanthropic organisations include the LUI Che Woo Prize of USD 2.5 million per recipient for exemplary efforts to advance world civilisation. This is a unique, global and cross-sectoral award made to individuals and organisations across three categories (sustainability, welfare betterment and positive energy).  Encouraged by the collaboration between laureates the LUI Che Woo Prize has generated, it is now focused on building an academy that will bring together a larger community of innovators who will also work to ensure the Prize continues in perpetuity.  Similarly, the Prudence Foundation runs a global grant-based contest in disaster technology innovation to scale solutions that can alleviate the impact of natural disasters in Asia. 

Harnessing high-impact  opportunities is also central to longer term strategic planning.  Islamic finance is one such example that has significant capacity to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): somewhere between USD300 billion and USD1 trillion is raised per annum via Zakat (the 2.5% of unused saving Muslims donate to charity), and “if Zakat is applied and institutionalised properly, it can mobilise local economies, and poverty will not be an issue in the Muslim world,” says Khaled Khalifa, Senior Advisor and Representative to the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, The UN Refugee Agency.  Similarly, legacy giving in Japan is rising as the population ages – annual inherited assets are estimated to be USD 370-460 billion, and around 21% of people are interested in legacy giving.  Masataka Uo, CEO of the Japan Fundraising Association sees this as a huge opportunity for a new wave of philanthropy in Japan that is focussed on social innovation; the association is launching a platform in October to help family philanthropists to achieve impact in this area through their legacy giving.

Achieving the SDGs by 2030 is a crucial timeline for the philanthropy ecosystem to work with. And whilst currently under the magnifying glass, philanthropy may come under sharper scrutiny over the next ten years. Now is the time to ensure plans for the next 10 years are resilient, innovative, measurable and built on collaboration. 


[1] See New York Times “Leading Foundations Pledge to Give More, Hoping to Upend Philanthropy” June 10 2020. The Ford Foundation is an AVPN Knowledge Partner and was represented by Pradeep Nair Regional Director at the AVPN Virtual Conference 2020.


About Author
Sarah Hadley
Sarah Hadley AVPN Virtual Conference 2020 Reporter, Deputy Director CBMRT AVPN

An economist by training, Sarah has extensive business, government and non-profit experience across four continents. She is currently Deputy Director of the Center for Biomedical Research Transparency, a US-based non-profit dedicated to promoting greater transparency in biomedical research.

Sarah lives in Singapore and spends her spare time swim training, reading science fiction and exploring social enterprise projects to increase training/employment of people with disability in the green economy.