Skip to content

Philanthropy in Transitions – A Defining Moment

MFG Archive, Profiles

Alliance Magazine recently hosted a panel discussion in London, focused on the role that philanthropy has to play in transitions. What follows is a video of the discussion, and some of the key issues and takeaways.


Barbara Ibrahim, founding director of the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairoopened the discussion by reflecting that four years ago, as the Arab Spring uprisings began, there was initially strong international interest in supporting transitions in the region.  As the transitions became more chaotic, ‘concern was not followed by investment’ – unlike the foundation response after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This was partly due to cultural differences that were hard to bridge, and partly to a global recession that left many foundations feeling less flush and more cautious in their grantmaking. But also, as Jo Andrews, director of Ariadne – European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights, pointed out, to a lack of ready knowledge in many foundations about these countries and how best to support them during a time of transition.


A few months later, Andrews helped to organize a fact-finding trip to Tunisia – to establish what the needs were, what funders were already active, and so on, so Ariadne members wanting to offer support would not be starting from scratch. Networks enable funders to ‘hitch a ride on other expertise’, she said. This can apply even in countries not yet in transition, like Zimbabwe, enabling funders to be prepared when the moment of transition does eventually come. Networks can also promote collaborations between foundations that wouldn’t get involved on their own.


What are the key needs of countries in transition? According to Chloe de Preneuf, programme coordinator for the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum, education reform is top of the list. Critical thinking and media literacy are vital – this is a huge issue in the Arab world, she said. All panellists were agreed on the importance of investing in civil society. De Preneuf stressed civil society’s key role as a watchdog, but also the fact that civil society cannot exist unless the regulatory framework is right.


When asked what philanthropy can do to help meet these needs, there were a few key points the panellists agreed on: first, the need to be there early and stay for the long term. Andrews suggested that foundations might establish a separate fund reserved purely for transitions to enable them to move quickly when the time comes. As shown by the Mott Foundation’s continuing work in Central and Eastern Europe since the early 1990s, funders must commit themselves for the long haul if they are to see the results they want.


You can watch the discussion below:


Second, funders need to be adaptable. As de Preneuf pointed out, they must be willing to tailor their response to the country’s needs: what worked in one country will not necessarily work in the next. For example, it is becoming increasingly difficult to transfer funds to charities in Egypt, as the government seeks to lessen external influences. One response by young philanthropists has been establishing social enterprises/companies in order to receive what is then perceived as valuable international investment. Charities are even de-registering and re-registering as social enterprises.


Third, said Walter Veirs, regional director for Central and Eastern Europe and Russia at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, foundations may need to take extra risks, for example by investing in promising individuals rather than always in organizations. Developing local philanthropy is another key aspect of Mott’s work in transitions.


Ibrahim stressed the inevitable conclusion from scores of previous transitions: ultimate success depends on social and political inclusiveness. Thus the prize for any intervention in a transition is to help achieve an inclusive political settlement. Yet the very idea of inclusiveness is counter-intuitive for almost everyone involved in a transition, including donors. Moving on from a ‘winner takes all’ mentality is vital, yet moving from an oppositional to a propositional stance, as Ibrahim put it, is extremely difficult. Hence the importance of working with the younger generation – which brings us back to de Preneuf’s emphasis on education and civics training for young leaders.  


What about more political interventions? Transitions are after all very political. US foundations tend to run a mile at the mention of ‘politics’, it was pointed out. There is also a danger that foreign foundations’ support for political processes will, understandably, be seen as outside interference. However, Open Society Foundations has supported institutions involved in the political process – though this requires a lot of money. Foundations can also play a part, in their role as ‘neutral convenors’, in supporting ‘processes’ such as consultations and conferences. Mott supported a conference looking at the future of Yugoslavia, Veirs remembered, though he clearly didn’t feel that this sort of support plays to Mott’s strength, which is really long-term, relationship-based support.


What about the potential harm to be done by interventions in transitions, it was asked – such as creating dependency on grant funding, undermining local businesses and distorting the local economy, and even encouraging sex exploitation resulting from the presence of NGOs? Panellists didn’t deny these were dangers, and that vigilance is needed.


What is the unique selling point or USP of private philanthropy when it comes to transitions, asked one member of the audience. Flexibility and long-term commitment, it was suggested, things that governments, restricted by elections and the need to appeal to voters, cannot. However, Andrews emphasized, on occasion there is nothing that private philanthropy can do because the conditions are not yet right. There are also limits to what private philanthropy can achieve due to the scale of funding needing.


Whatever the limits of what is possible, the very fact of defining the moment of transition and the opportunities this presents is itself a big step forward.

This article was co-authored by Caroline Hartnell and Holly Steel, and originally appeared in Alliance Magazine’s online blog. For further reading, we encourage you to read the magazine’s feature piece, entitled ‘Transition: an opportunity like no other.’ Be sure to follow @AllianceMag for further updates, and we look forward to sharing more of their articles in the future.

To stay up to date with the latest Markets For Good articles and news, sign up to our newsletter here. Make sure that you are also following us on Twitter.