Community Philanthropy must reflect on power

“Modelling a different kind of participatory philanthropy, where ordinary people can feel their power through the act of cooperation is a very powerful idea”, says Jenny Hodgson in Johannesburg. Interview. Español

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Jenny Hodgson Francesc Badia i Dalmases
22 December 2016

Jenny Hodgson. Some rights reserved.

This interview is part of a series done in Johannesburg at the World Summit of Community Philanthropy (1-2 December 2016).

Francesc Badia:  Thank you, Jenny, for having DemocraciaAbierta here, as media fellow at the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg. It is a wonderful venue and such an impressive conference with so many people from so many countries. My first question is about the summit’s motto: Shift the power. What does it mean for you?

Jenny Hodgson: I think that in development we do not talk about power enough. Sometimes we presume that because we are all sitting together in the same space, we fail to see the unequal distribution of power. I have been working on community philanthropy for years now - in Russia, East Africa, South East Asia and now South Africa - and I have seen how development has not only not empowered, but disempowered people. But I can also see how the community philanthropy organisations, which are starting to grow resources - local resources - and work with local groups, need to be very aware of how they use their power. We are not talking about creating more gatekeepers or more power-holders: there is evidence of emerging practices in this field that show ways to balance power. I think that, generally speaking, as institutions, we do not think enough about power, we think that we are having horizontal, equal conversations, but unless we reflect on where power resides and acknowledge it, we are not being very truthful.

FB: I can see from the dynamics of the conference, from its narrative, that this is a key issue. How do you think the power of money plays in philanthropy.

JH: Philanthropy is a very difficult term. Its meaning is powerful and it also represents huge power. I think that the idea of people feeling compassion and empathy and acting on that, and how this translates into acts of civic participation, is a very powerful idea. But I also understand that in many parts of the world where philanthropy is an emerging phenomenon, where there is a big gap between the rich and the poor, philanthropy becomes associated with access to power, influence, public relations, lip service. Also, when people have resources, they tend to think that they have the knowledge too. So, modelling a different kind of participatory philanthropy, where ordinary people can feel their power through the act of cooperation, of pooling resources, is a very powerful idea which also applies to democratisation: if you are paying taxes, you learn to realise that this buys you the right to have a voice. We are seeing that where people are engaged in horizontal philanthropy, they are participating, and they think that the accountability that is owed to them should be reflected in the public sector as well. I think that this is a particularly important aspect: as we are seeing with the philanthropic sector emerging in the global South, this voice of participatory philanthropy is really critical. I was in China a few weeks ago. There are 5.000 private foundations currently operating there. I have been going to China for some years, but it is only on this last trip that I have seen that Chinese foundations are realising that they can have all the money in the world, but unless they reach people, their money will not do anything. There is a steep learning curve here and it is a critical time for participatory philanthropy - for institutions which can reach deeper and further into communities. That is critically important.

FB: From your experience in different worlds - Russia, South East Asia, Africa, China - do you see their political architecture making a difference in how the local community philanthropy works, how the funds are distributed? You are working in countries that are emerging democracies, and others that are crumbling democracies, and still others where democracy is not on the cards.

JH: I think the contexts are very different and interpretations of the role of the State are also different. I think that almost everywhere we are seeing the retreat of the State in one form or another, and this is creating new demands and new spaces. So, most of the people we work with are saying “don't we have resources, couldn't we organise resources, and isn't there something in between public resources and resources of the corporate sector or private philanthropy, and how do we claim these spaces?” I think this is part of a big transition that civil society at large needs to go through. From the project funding model, we are actually moving to constituency building. The danger is that, in this current environment where there is a growing hostility towards external resources, many NGOs feel weak, some of them are even closed down, and the weapon governments are using to close them down is “you are not legitimate”. Imagine if in the UK or the US, an NGO was funded by China... we would find it not legitimate. I think this is the part of the architecture of development aid that was never really factored in: community philanthropy is not about money, it is about constituencies, and constituencies can be made up of people who support your cause, people who care about your cause, but also people who give money.  Where the contexts are different, the strategies are different. Russian community foundations follow the principle of having the representation of local government as a third-party member on the board, because they feel that, unless you engage government at that level, you are going to be threatened. So, you try to negotiate these spaces where institutions do not substitute local funding, but can complement it. This is critically important. The models, the approaches look different, but the principles tend to be the same.

FB: I do not see UNDP, or other intergovernmental organisations, taking note of this emerging role in development. Is it too early for them to realise it, or is it their structures, too bound to the nation state, that do not permit it?

JH: I think that the current structures of development aid are flawed. I think that the structures of multinational development organisations are flawed in that they are accumulating power centrally. And although we are starting to see international NGOs moving South, the decisions, and the infrastructures, are shaped in the North. So, it is a nod towards local, but I do not know if it is always all that local. You see some of the UN agencies getting very active fundraising locally in countries that are traditionally beneficiary, and they have the machinery to do that. I think it comes down to power, and I do not think they realise that they are undermining local civil society. I have been with a global society fund for over 10 years, and we have been very intentional about building evidence to prove that our development model works, weaving a narrative from the ground up and, by and large we have been almost entirely invisible. On the other hand, the word philanthropy is not perceived as being sufficiently activist, so it is a language issue. I would say that the idea of asset development by the masses is very powerful.  On the other hand, I do think that there is a big question about the conversation NGOs really have to have about whether they really want to give up power. I see it so often: we have partners around the world who are doing a great job, and then their staff members are recruited by international NGOs because they can afford to pay more. It is almost an extractive process.

FB: Yes, and not the other way round. My last question: what do you imagine will be the final message of this conference? What would you like to convey? After having had 360 people working together for 2 days, and all the effort, do you think that it is too early for a conclusion, or a vision?

JH: You know, my organisation has a big name but only 3 staff members. So, we operate in a way that is shared by many of our partners: we do a lot with very little. I hope that one thing we have done is to demonstrate the power of networked power. It is not about big institutions. There is a power, an appetite, and we have suddenly moved in from the shadows into the light. I think there is still a long way to go. We climbed what we thought was a mountain and it turned out to be a small hill. There are still mountains to climb. But I also think now is the time, there is a convergence of donors looking to do things more effectively, there is an emergence of private philanthropy, there is an emergence of thoughtful leadership in the field, and we have never been at this point before. So, it is up to us, collectively, to take this forward. But only if we can mobilise the power. Then, we could make some changes, but it is a steep hill ahead.

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