By Omega advisors Katherine Fulton & Mark Valentine

This essay was completed on April 20, 2020, to coincide with the first meeting of the advisory board of Omega: The Resilience Funders Network. While Omega’s efforts had been underway for some time, the context had now radically shifted, and this essay is an attempt to look at some of the implications of this shift. In Covid-time, three weeks can feel like three years. The facts on the ground continue to evolve quickly, and if anything, the list of critical uncertainties continues to grow. That said, we stand by the essence of this essay, and its key point: that philanthropy in response to the immediate crisis is important, but by no means sufficient. We lay out a number of questions about how philanthropy is organized, and we question a number of existing assumptions. We feel confident that these questions will remain vital, even as the particulars about this crisis continue to evolve.

The present moment used to be the unimaginable future.

Stewart Brand

In January, as the new decade began, we were already living in a world that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Now suddenly we are all living in a future that would have been unimaginable even a few weeks ago. Uncertainty is piled upon uncertainty, in a dynamic situation that has turned us all into amateur epidemiologists and scenario thinkers.

Philanthropy will be a small, though not insignificant, part of the story that will unfold in the months and years ahead. As our friend Michael Lerner once wrote, in a very different time, philanthropy’s fate is “to exercise discretionary power at a time when vast, potentially cataclysmic, changes confront us.” 

Right now, as we write in mid-April 2020, individuals, corporations and foundations are reacting and responding to the initial phases of the crisis with urgency and generosity—and shockingly, so is the federal government.

The Omega funders network is both nascent and tiny. Yet it exists to inspire us all to think bigger, to confront the large and complex inter-relationships that the current crisis has thrust into consciousness. It invites us now to reimagine what is possible for the role that philanthropy could play at this pivotal moment in history.

We have both participated in a number of the early Omega conversations in recent years, when the challenge was how to draw attention to its hypothesis—that the world was facing multiple stressors likely to interact in unpredictable ways to create transformational change, and possibly catastrophe. 

Now the challenge for all of us is how to keep up with the deluge of information, changing daily, while thinking ahead about the options this crisis is opening and closing. We believe in Omega’s basic premise, that by coming together we have a better chance of making sense of what is happening, which is the first step to wiser action. We offered to put a few reflections and questions in a preliminary form, in the hopes of stimulating your own reflections and catalyzing the Advisory board’s conversation in late April. 

What follows are a few different lenses on the situation—not an argument or a coherent essay. We have tried to organize each fragment around a key question. And we certainly have more questions than answers.

Making sense: What is this moment?

Though Covid-19 is now the leading cause of death in the U.S., as pandemics go it is not a particularly large one when measured against the plagues through the ages. It is the response to the virus that has already locked in major shocks to our economic, political and social life that we are barely beginning to comprehend. What also makes it unique is that everyone on the planet is facing virtually the same crisis at the same time. 

The extent of the uncertainty is so great that some leading thinkers in the future/scenario space have classified the Covid-19 outbreak as a Singularity. This term is most often used to refer to a moment in time when technological innovation–such as the advent of fully conscious artificial intelligence–ushers in a new era resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization. In a more general sense, a Singularity is an event horizon beyond which we cannot know anything. 

If this moment is just such a phase-shift, it will make a mockery of many if not most of organized philanthropy’s carefully designed theories of change. Some of the old incremental trajectories that we can hope to nudge or deflect will become closed windows, while completely new windows of opportunity will be opened. 

If the world gets lucky…if a treatment is quickly found that makes the disease less lethal…if bold government action lessens the economic and social impacts…then terms like “singularity” may well be rejected as hype. 

But as the shutdown of much of the U.S. entered its second month, it was increasingly clear that the most positive scenarios were growing less plausible and the darker ones more plausible by the week. “There is no going back,” wrote The Atlantic monthly’s science writer Ed Yong in mid-April. “The only way out is through—past a turbulent spring, across an unusual summer, and into an unsettled year beyond.” 

As the initial response fades, and the suffering grows, there will surely be growing pressure on funders to help ameliorate acute crises in communities around the country and the world as people lose their livelihoods and cities struggle to deliver critical services with diminished finances and a reduced work force. 

At the same time, for those funders with the bandwidth, this an opportune time to reconsider their core strategies and even the programmatic structure of their institutions. In other words, this could be the perfect time to stop launching initiatives designed to ameliorate the worst aspects of the current system and, instead, engage in design thinking about the next system. 

In this sense, perhaps the most profound and beautiful description of this moment came from the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, in her Financial Times essay published April 3: 

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. 

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” 

The other side: What will be the contours of the world we are entering?

The pandemic has clearly elevated for all willing to look the deep inequities in our time. The simple truth is that those with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable to the virus. Amongst that population are the poor among us who’s health has been compromised due to inadequate nutrition, housing, and local environments that often feature contaminated water and soil. More often than not, these are communities of color that have been underrepresented politically and all too frequently abused economically in the US and across the globe. And it is this same population that often lacks adequate access to health care. More broadly, with millions of US workers already filing for unemployment in the span of a few weeks, we are reminded that approximately 40 percent of the US population lacks sufficient savings to survive a financial shock of $400 or more. 

This then is the starting place for the world that lies on the other side of the portal. The metaphorical ground is still shifting as you read this, but we offer two lenses from scenario thinking with which to view the emerging landscape: prudent assumptions and critical uncertainties (framed as key questions). 

Prudent Assumptions

For the moment, we’ll set aside all the speculation around the reach and length of the pandemic. We’re all updated daily on the hopes and fears regarding vaccines, antibody tests, and whether or not herd immunity is a tantalizing possibility or a mirage. What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of people will die globally and healthcare systems will face extraordinary, possibly crippling, pressure. 

Looking at the economy, millions of people are out of a job and many of these jobs will not return. Thousands upon thousands of small businesses will no longer be viable. Inequality, already acute in the US and many other countries, will be exacerbated. While the disease does not discriminate based on income and net worth, in an economy where thousands of small and medium-sized consumer service businesses disappear, well-paid knowledge workers and those in the finance-sector will be spared the worst of the economic fall-out. Globalization itself will face renewed scrutiny as countries confront demands from their citizens to be less reliant on other countries for their supplies of grocery staples, energy, and medicines. 

Certain patterns and practices –social distancing, contact tracing, and having your temperature taken every time you enter a public space –may become permanent fixtures of our daily lives. This will be driven, in part, by governments adopting more intrusive personal surveillance techniques in order to control the spread of the virus. We’re also likely entering an era where we will be forced to be more public about our health status as part of our participation in the economic and social sphere. 

All units of government – from the local to the global – will now be burning through cash reserves (if they have them) and will soon likely be forced to cut programs and services. This also will result in laying off people, which will, turn, exacerbate the unemployment crisis. Cities, in particular, will face difficult choices as critical services, like public transportation, will be cut back in response to declining demand as well as cuts in support from general tax funds. 

Nonprofits will be asked to step into the breach created by government contraction. However, they too will not be exempt from the expected economic fall-out as foundation endowments take a massive hit, fundraising events are scrapped, and individual donations decline as individual wealth and savings are diminished. 

Critical Uncertainties & Key Questions

What we cannot know is much greater than what we can. But we can certainly see some of the newly visible questions that could inform conversations within Omega and its expanded network. We are sure you will have others to add to these: 

  • Is this the moment for a surge in popular support for an enhanced safety net and public investment? To jumpstart a recovery, it seems likely that most countries with the resources to do so will both put as much money in the hands of consumers as possible and embark on massive public works programs.  In the near-term, what are the opportunities embedded in the various stimulus packages to reinvigorate the US’s moldering infrastructure and provide job (re)training to the newly unemployed? Can the various stimulus packages under consideration serve as the foundation for a “green new deal?” Will universal healthcare and universal basic Income (UBI) go from being fringe ideas to becoming enshrined in national policy? Is this the moment when a new, more equitable, social contract might be constructed in the US?
  • Are we willing to trade personal privacy for protection from disease? The countries that have been most effective in managing outbreaks have been those that have been most aggressive in surveilling their population.  Are we now entering an era of even more intense personal surveillance?  Will these same tools of ubiquitous monitoring be adapted to controlling personal behavior? Or will be able to enact sufficient safeguards for privacy and civil rights?
  • Will we now experience a surge of sentiment toward radical localization? The disruptions in supply chains for everything from basic commodities to pharmaceuticals has alarmed people heretofore blissfully ignorant from where their orders on Amazon Prime came. Is this the beginning of the death of globalization? Will we now embark on an era of radical decoupling and independence when it comes to everything from agriculture to energy to pharmaceuticals to manufacturing? If so, how will developing countries, many of which are addicted to an export economic model adapt? Domestically, does this present an opportunity/challenge of jobs shifting away from services and back to manufacturing and commodity production? Or does it simply portend the advent of more automation?
  • Does this moment create the conditions for the imminent rise (or fall) of cities and regions? For more than 30-years various futurist/pundits have predicted the rise of the mega-cities and regions. Does the advent of Covid-19 make that more or less likely? On the one hand, density is now seen as an enabling condition for the spread of disease, and some expect significant outward migration as hallmarks of urban life – restaurants, cafes, and arts institutions – fail as they struggle to adapt to a new order in which communal gatherings are discouraged. On the other, historically cities are also the locus of the majority of economic activity in most countries and likely will be the wellspring of recovery.
  • Is this the moment to accelerate progress on climate and energy? A confluence of a dramatic decline in demand and a squabble over production between Russia and OPEC has led to a steep decline in oil prices calling into question the viability of a whole host of oil and gas enterprises. Will the US rush in to buoy failing oil and gas concerns? Will a movement toward economic resilience make fossil fuel energy sources more precious? Is this a moment of triumph for renewable energy technologies? Or will a crumbling network of global supply chains limit access to the critical metal resources that are vital to most renewable energy technologies?
  • Are we now sufficiently persuaded to reverse ecosystem fragmentation? Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease that crossed over from an animal speculated to be a bat or a pangolin. It joins a number of other zoonotic diseases including Lyme disease, West Nile virus, rabies, and Ebola. One thing they all have in common is that they are more likely to emerge when humans penetrate, fragment, and disrupt intact ecosystems. The logical response is to stop and protect these places and think of them as buffers, however, the inexorable logic of extraction suggests the opposite. Will this strengthen support for local and national conservation measures as well as the UN-directed effort to protect 30 percent of the world’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems by the year 2030?

This litany of questions raised above invites a sector-by-sector analysis. However, the problems and opportunities highlighted share some underlying systemic roots. Indeed, these roots lie at the heart of the Global Challenge. 

At the core of the matter is an inequitable economic system that leads to a disproportionate amount of wealth being consolidated into the hands of a tiny cohort of the super wealthy. It is this same economic system that only values what can be traded for profit and nearly completely discounts the life creating and saving functions performed by functional ecosystems. And the economy is propped up by a political system that stifles rather than amplifies participation. Both our politics and commerce are plagued by a fractious global information ecosystem easily corrupted by malicious elements that prey on people who lack the skill to parse propaganda from fact and where respect for science and expertise of all sorts is greatly diminished as everyone is invited to be their own “expert.” The painful truth is that many of the fortunes that power philanthropy have benefited enormously from the existing economic system. One question on the table is whether or not the custodians of these fortunes are willing to marshal their resources to reinvent this system even if it means diminishing the financial value of their institutions over the long-term? 

Stepping back: What does this moment mean for philanthropy and Omega?

Holding all these realities, existing and new, is a lot to ask. Finding a way to do so, however, is one of the main reasons that Omega exists. Sometimes you have to make the problem bigger before you can find the smarter and wiser way forward. 

Philanthropy as a field has actually been doing the opposite of this for the past two decades, as new donors from technology and finance, and a new generation that champions business strategy methodologies and the use of market-based solutions, have together pushed an approach generally called strategic philanthropy. Under this rubric, the primary unit of analysis has been measurable outcomes benchmarked against shorter time horizons framed as a means of ensuring focus and organizational discipline. Often at the heart of the most favored ventures are heroic entrepreneurial leaders to whom the new donors, themselves usually entrepreneurs, can easily relate. 

Elements of this approach have strong resonances from the history of organized philanthropy in the 20th century. As Michael Lerner discussed in his essay “A Gift Observed,” philanthropy has three long traditions: patronage, charity and system change. The early 21st century version of system change over-corrected to a technocratic approach that works fine for well-bounded problems (such as getting existing vaccines to millions of poor children). But it may well be exactly the wrong approach for the present moment that demands more integrated, holistic and generative approaches to support the new ideas, new leaders and new institutions that will be required. 

Unfortunately, philanthropy as a field forges into this challenging moment hobbled by: 

  • Institutions traditionally prone to fragmentation and specialization of effort and potential solutions, and the difficulty of learning in integrated ways;
  • A tradition of independent action and autonomy, with little to no ability to implement strategy, both of which are often accompanied by a refusal to cede control over resources and strategy to actors on the front lines whether that be the public or nonprofit sector;
  • Institutional cultures that tend to default to slow and cautious decision making, and, despite widespread rhetorical commitments to behaving as learning organizations, with few effective feedback mechanisms in place to ensure decisionmakers possess adequate knowledge about the matters upon which they are deciding.

Of course, some visionary leaders and institutions manage from time to time to escape these dilemmas and take courageous and visionary action. The small cluster of right-wing donors who, over the span of four decades, have invested in coordinated, experimental strategies to wrest power back from the “liberal elites” who gave rise to the New Deal/Great Society in the United States is perhaps the most publicized successful example. But many sub fields, including the creation of the Environmental Health movement, have also achieved success in transcending some of the structures that limit philanthropic effectiveness. 

One of the central problems in tackling the Global Challenge is how to conceive of what analysts sometimes call “the unit of analysis.” The whole system problem is, frankly, overwhelming. Where do you start to address it? Yet an inability to grasp complex systems leads to reductionist thinking, which, in turn creates a predilection for specialization. So, there’s real logic to the way the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors have organized themselves. However, it is well past time to acknowledge that the typical, 20th century style organization— the place that most philanthropy invests, for practical and legal reasons—is likewise usually way too small to effectively confront the system dysfunction that propels the Global Challenge. 

That’s one reason recent decades have seen a proliferation of “affinity” groups within philanthropy covering virtually every possible issue area, identity, ideology, region and philanthropic tribe (family foundations, venture philanthropy, community foundations, corporate philanthropy), etc. Here, the unit of analysis becomes issues affecting women, or how to achieve civic engagement, or gathering all the funders who care about Boston, and so on, across dozens and dozens of communities of practice. New technologies, new research units and new institutional capability (including the now ubiquitous consulting firms serving the field) all make it possible to reflect on emergent patterns across and among organizations in ways that would not have been possible a few decades ago. 

Slowly, some of these affinity groups have evolved (or spawned) from learning environments to become platforms for coordinated collaboration. Of course, there is nothing new about pooled funds within a shared framework, as exemplified by the long history of the community foundation and entities like United Way. But the past decade has seen the emergence of larger, more focused collaborative grantmaking platforms. This is fueled, in part, by the fact that there are now many more foundations and large donors than in the past, with very large sums of money. A 2019 study by Bridgespan determined that more than 70 percent of aggregated giving funds (which is one type of cooperative effort) have been launched since 2000. Very large new efforts, such as Co-Impact, The Audacious Project and Blue Meridian Partners, have been founded just in the last few years, already raising well north of a billion dollars from a small handful of large donors (both institutional and individual). Similarly, some of the older and better led of the hundreds of community foundations are now experimenting with using initiatives and becoming intermediaries in ways that are antithetical to the old models of simply serving donors. 

At their heart, these new efforts are attempts to find a new unit of analysis that is smaller than the Global Challenge but bigger than an organization—a field, a new kind of solution, a type of actor, a city, a region, a new cluster of actors that blend fields and approaches, and so on. From all of these newer efforts, one might even imagine that the early 21st century may be in the process of inventing new more networked forms of philanthropic endeavor that will ultimately be as significant as the invention of the foundation form itself 100 years ago. 

Omega’s value in this historic process is to call attention to the Global Challenge as the several dozen intertwined global stressors that, synergistically, are leading to steep ecological decline and imperiling the future of humanity. Against this backdrop, philanthropy, at best, has ameliorated the worst tendencies of the global system that has caused these stressors. To some caustic observers, philanthropy is little more than a sophisticated mitigation strategy for capitalism run amok….designed, in effect, the wear down the rough and sharp edges of our rough and tumble economic system where wealth (and the power associated with it) is unfairly distributed. 

While philanthropy isn’t responsible for the pandemic it is at least partially responsible for the underlying weaknesses exposed by the havoc wreaked by it. The question is whether this is time to do more of the same, but smarter, and, perhaps with more money? Or is it time to think about a different integrated approach that, for example, could facilitate the emergence of a new form of globalization that both emphasizes collaboration as well as universal regard for the environmental and human rights? At the same time, is there a complementary movement toward creating more local resilience so that communities have some insulation against future global shocks? Will funders exponentially increase their support for efforts not just getting the odd candidate elected but overhauling the political system to make it more dynamic and responsive to the governed? 

Fundamentally, the Global Challenge is fueled by the maldistribution of money and power as well as array of perverse economic incentives that classify the planet’s ecological collapse as a cost of doing business. The fortunes that power philanthropy have benefited enormously from the existing system. Are they willing to marshal their resources to reinvent it even if it means diminishing their own value over the long-term? 

These are the kinds of questions that we can anticipate will be discussed as a result of this crisis—both within philanthropy and from outside it, by a newly empowered generation of critics. 

All of us, at all levels including government and business, have been working inside broken models, designed for a different century and different context. Now, all of a sudden, this new moment, full of a crisis and urgency and hope, offers us an invitation to step back. To reset. To look at history on the move, and where it might take us. What is the smartest and wisest contribution that Omega might make to make sense of this unfolding tragedy and opportunity?

The opportunity: Is there a new way to think about organized philanthropy’s purpose and role?

The late, great systems thinker Donella Meadows left us with a model for intervening in systems that argued that the deepest, most difficult and ultimately most effective point of intervention is to shift the mindsets and paradigms that underlie behavior. These are the most deeply held beliefs that drive a system or were used to design it. At moments in history such as the one we are clearly living in now, old mindsets/assumption/paradigms begin to fray and decline, sometimes quickly, precisely because they no longer fit the emerging reality and evidence of new needs. 

Looking ahead, it seems quite clear that the role of the sectors—government, business, civil society including philanthropy—may potentially be resorted in this moment, precisely because the arrangements that have governed since WWII globally, and since around 1980 in the U.S, are now strained to the breaking point. 

In this light, it is very interesting to take a deeper look at the mental models that govern institutional philanthropic practice (setting aside the relief and charity that will drive much of the initial response to the crisis). To do so, we will leave you with an intriguing set of powerful insights from a long-time participant in and observer of philanthropy, James Allen Smith, now vice-president of the Rockefeller Archive Center. 

In his 1999 essay, “The Evolving American Foundation,” (from the collection Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector in a Changing America), Smith concluded his historical overview with an extended discussion of how often philanthropic leaders have relied on scientific metaphors to define purpose, role and success. 

His discussion is much more nuanced than this summary, but its essence goes like this: 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, biomedical science’s advances inspired the use of germ theory as an intellectually compelling metaphor for philanthropic practice. Individual diseases could now be linked to a specific cause, and that cause once identified could then be eradicated. “Germ theory offered an insight that held out great hope for philanthropists and social reformers who believed that longstanding problems of society could not only be understood through scientific investigation but that the problems themselves could be permanently eradicated or prevented,” Smith wrote. Hence, the famous “root cause” theory that drove early organized philanthropy. The result was the proliferation of specialization and professionalization not just to conquer particular diseases, but also spreading to economics, sociology and political science. 

After many decades of learning and questioning, eventually after WWII, a new approach began to emerge based on engineering, operations research and systems analysis. As government grew, “the role of the foundation was often to design, build, and test the programmatic models which would then be adopted by government.” 

Smith then jumped forward to the end of the 20th century, before the enormous growth in new wealth that has driven so much of philanthropy since, considering whether there was a new compelling metaphor that might emerge. Reflecting on the tragedy of AIDS at that moment, he speculated that the answer might be the Age of the Virus. 

Not only were viruses one of the principal threats to humanity (and likely to remain so), they pose a very different problem than germs and usually resist being reduced to a single cause. “The viral metaphor compels us to think in more complicated ways about cause and effect relationships and the nature of our philanthropic interventions…Thus, the age of the virus requires institutional structures that are capable of applying new knowledge quickly, that can respond effectively even in the absence of complete knowledge, and that are less bureaucratic in their operations.” The new challenges also require, he argued, “new organizational linkages, whether among foundation or across the nongovernmental sector, government, and business.” Further, “the complexity of responding to the virus requires the invention of new structures and multiple responses, not unlike multiple drug therapies.” 

It is not hard to see the implications of Smith’s metaphor as a challenge to the single point solutions so much philanthropy has focused on in recent decades, and indeed, even to the notion that there is any lasting solution. Smith concludes that the viral metaphor helps to complicate the short-term optimistic spirit that has driven and sustained so much of philanthropy, and instead insists on lasting disciplines that are needed in the age of the virus: “knowledge-building, surveillance, adaptiveness, flexibility, and patience.” 

One might now argue that these are among the approaches that the world most needs to better prepare for the unpredictability of the Global Challenge. The word “resilience” had not yet come into common usage when Smith wrote, but it wouldn’t be a surprising addition to his list, as a way to encapsulate what we need as we learn our way into the future. 

As Omega attempts to reframe its narrative and find its role, perhaps the age of the virus is a catalyst not just literally, but metaphorically as well. 

Omega members Mark Valentine and Katherine Fulton have both been actively involved in philanthropy for more than three decades—as funders and strategic advisors. Prior to working for many major philanthropy organizations as a strategist and program advisor, Valentine was a Program Director with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where he actively designed new approaches to conservation grantmaking and also pioneered new crosscutting approaches to grantmaking. Fulton spent a decade building Monitor Institute into one of the nation’s leading social sector consulting firms; has published and spoken widely on the future of philanthropy, impact investing and social change; and has been a leading strategic advisor to major foundations, high-net-worth donors and large nonprofits.

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