By Trent Stamp & Cathy Choi

The problems philanthropy seeks to remedy are big, messy, and complicated. Yet far too often, we try to combat them with simple responses.

Faced with child hunger, we focus on giving children food; but we don’t connect that work to creating a national minimum wage, even though the vast majority of food-insecure children in the United States have working parents. We try to fix homelessness without embracing foster-care reform, despite knowing that half of Americans experiencing homelessness spent time in the foster-care system. We create initiatives to alleviate the climate crisis by promoting recycling and beach clean-ups, without building in advocacy for substantive policy changes that stop pollution at its source.

Read the full article…Philanthropy’s Problem with Single-Issue Solutions, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

by David Bonbright

The times are calling us to find and address root causes: A global pandemic, deepening inequities, worsening natural disasters, a tsunami of species extinctions, rising authoritarianism around the world, and polarization fuelled by AI-driven tech.

Why are these trends persisting? What can we do beyond plastering over the cracks? How can we reimagine the institutions that drove progress for some, but not all of us? While it is always important and necessary to redress symptoms, to salve real suffering and hardship, right now we need to focus our philanthropy on the root causes of the issues we are facing.

This is a moment to dig deeper, and look at what it takes to address the problems that sneak up on you so slowly that you don’t see them until it is too late.

Read the full article Two Questions Philanthropy Must Ask in This Urgent Moment, published by Giving Compass.

By Birju Pandya

The recent group discussion around the ‘Underestimating the Challenges of a Ghastly Future’ (UCGF) paper felt quite lively and meaningful to me, grateful for the opportunity to attend!  As I took in the discussion, I had a few reflections come up, which I offer below in the spirit of furthering the dialogue.

The first time I came across the idea of ecological overshoot was about a decade ago, in 2012.  I was working in the field of impact investing and came across a person who, in almost hushed tones, mentioned to me that the climate scientists we were hearing from (who were already concerning), were just the ones being platformed.  There were others, whose research and ideas weren’t being trumpeted, whose findings were more dire.  He also shared with me leaders of other ways of connecting to ecological wisdom – for instance, he asked me if I had heard of the Archdruid, John Michael Greer.  This sent me down a rabbit hole.

Since then, I’ve been diving deeper into an inquiry of breakdown.  It has included elements of my own, as I saw the fragility of my own psyche in the face of such large questions.  In recent years, I have found community around this inquiry, and have seen much larger numbers of people become ‘collapse aware’ at some level.  I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the pioneers of an inquiry that’s born of allowing in some of these uncomfortable findings.

As part of this, I’ve been actively involved with the work of Jem Bendell, Scholar’s Warning, and Deep Adaptation Forum.  These are oases that seem to be grappling with similar questions – how to invite the scientific community to more directly speak their truth.  With Covid-19, the mainstream view was to present the science with a cautious tone meant to maximizing the saving of lives, not necessarily to keep up lifestyles.  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with ecocide, for a variety of reasons.

The early research on the topic of climate grief seems to be that talking about these issues, in broad and narrow forums, supports individual and community wellness, despite the intensity of the topic.  There are even those who say that it is the difficulty to name these possibilities, and experience the grief that accompanies them, that forms the basis for their manifestation.  Of course, human development exists on a spectrum, and not all may benefit from engagement, but I have seen how this same topic framed in multiple skillful ways can reach across values divides.

In recent times, I have been exploring how cosmology plays a role in how we metabolize breakdown.  In the eastern traditions, cyclicality is fundamental – just as there is a spring, or a Satya Yuga, or a True Dharma Age, there is a fall, or a Kali Yuga, or a Dharma Ending Age.  But of course the soil does not go anywhere.  Regardless of the times, there is something that transcends.  In Mahayana traditions, they speak of the importance of a Bodhisattva approach to life – a path of unconditional service with no aim to optimize outcome.  Perhaps that concept is prescient for these times.

What the UGCF paper brings up in me is an inquiry of ‘how to be,’ as much or more than ‘what to do.’  In our community, we know of many who are engaging with deep collective leverage points, from systems of economics to systems of governance – whether in those domains or the more mundane, the inquiry remains relevant to me.  As for me, I’m currently taking these questions into the embodiment domain – feeling tones, shadow work, grief work, and creating the space for others to head in a direction where the logical mind alone may not explore.  I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on what came up for me in this broader discussion, hope to listen and learn from others as well.

by David Bonbright

If you watched the excellent series on the Chernobyl disaster, you can see with perfect hindsight why many say that Chernobyl was the proximate cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

You can see it in the way incentives drove bad decisions, which reinforced each other. This is what complexity science calls a positive feedback loop. The recent winter storms in Texas offer another teachable moment, illustrating how failures in one system cascade over to other systems. Freezing rain and snow break the electric and heating grid. Pipes break and the water system collapses. Transport stalls and stores are not restocked. An already overstrained health system drops more services. The science points to more of these breakdowns – and, let’s be clear, there is no credible dissent to the science. In this light, isn’t it time to prepare for it “just in case”? We’re Living in a Global Polycrisis: It’s Time to Build Resiliency, by David Bonbright, Giving Compass.  

Thoughts stimulated by the ‘Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future‘ paper

By Laurie Laybourn-Langton

I was born at the end of the eighties, this side of Hansen’s testimony to the US Congress and before the first Scientists’ Warning and Earth Summit in 1992. Much of the subsequent mainstream narrative on the environmental crisis seems to have been akin to warning fellow crewmates on a ship of a far-off storm. A small deviation in course would avoid disaster in the future. It is of course challenging to learn that, in the intervening thirty-odd years, the bearing was not changed, and the ship accelerated, as so many warned throughout. We are now well into the storm and heading deeper, as this paper so thoroughly reminds us.

This next stage materially changes our strategies for shared survival. What to do? First, it’s important to recognise that progress has been made – and is mixed. Mainstream political appreciation of the enormity of the climate challenge has improved markedly over the last few years. Some progress has been made in relation to appreciation of biodiversity loss. Yet the same cannot be said of the dire state of other parts of nature. Comprehension of the emergency as encompassing the critical destabilisation of the Earth System as a whole – a destabilisation that could soon overwhelm our agency – is functionally absent.

Crucially, progress is starting to be made in eroding a globally preeminent market fundamentalism. Behind the glare of the Green New Deal sits an array of ideas and practice on ownership, investing, wellbeing and so on, with increasingly influential communities organising around them, across north and south. The neoclassical, neoliberal paradigm of the last many decades is theory, practice and narrative, entrenched across the politics and economics determining societies’ structures and their resultant dynamics. Its unassailable position came at precisely the wrong time, eroding collective capability and shooting us further up the exponential curve of the Great Acceleration. Supplanting it has always been a necessary pre-condition for altering course. This process is accelerating, though too slowly, and too often in relative ignorance of the Earth System crisis and some of its wider socio-economic antecedents, particularly inequality and global economic power imbalances.

The 2020s could be dominated by two major stories. Firstly, neoliberalism is finally gearing up to act on climate breakdown. Following the election of Joe Biden and China’s commitment to net-zero, COP26 could be ground zero for a status quo triumphalism, founded on ubiquitous net-zero targets backed by increasingly positive rhetoric and action from major actors across the finance system. Such progress is, of course, welcome. But as we head to 2030, the reality of meeting steep decarbonisation targets could (predictably) crash up against the constrained policy set mandated by the political-economic mainstream. It is harder to discern a coherent status quo effort on biodiversity loss and biogeochemical stabilisation. The Dasgupta review of the economics of biodiversity – commissioned, significantly, by the highly orthodox UK Treasury – may portend a shift in the biases of mainstream economics, but late is the hour for reviews alone.

Secondly, the consequences of having entered the storm will mount as we head to 2030. The temperature rise will be approaching 1.5C, if it hasn’t already reached higher, and 2C won’t be far off. Damage and disruption will be growing and compounding. This is an emerging state of non-linear stress, transmitted through interconnected social and economic systems, and of saturating complexity and destabilisation. The wondrous accommodation afforded by the Holocene being over, we arrive on a new planet and in a new normal, an extreme normal. No normal. The Great Transition to save us from the downsides of the Great Acceleration will now have to be delivered during a Great Turbulence. Great.

By this point, the vertiginous stakes will be obvious to all who dare look. In turn, it could be increasingly difficult to avoid slipping down either side of a cultural saddleback. On one side, a largely ignorant, increasingly hysterical optimism, guaranteed by the rapid rollout of cleaner technologies, the promise of large-scale bio- and geo-engineering, dubious definitions of what constitutes net-zero, euphemistic conceptions of resilience and justice, and “one more heave” toward market perfection. On the other, a fatalism, often straying into misanthropy, that sees no possibility of any type of effective collective response, captivated by an eschatological cliff-edge “collapse”. These cultures are already here as we fight against 1.5C in the relative stability of a 1.2C world. Imagine them at 1.8C, 2C, 2.5C.

Both perspectives hold merit, and both lack credibility. They are a product of a world of binaries, a world that can be definitively “saved” or could definitively “end”. Yet so much has already been lost and the end of much of the current world is precisely what is needed. Biophysically, binaries are but one feature of a complex, dynamic problematique – and a frame we must therefore employ with the upmost caution.

Human activity is critically destabilising the Earth System. Swift, transformative action started around the time I was born might have limited the re-stabilisation effort to the span of a generation or so. This didn’t happen. So now, astonishingly swift and transformative action is needed just to avoid a maelstrom of feedbacks, which could rob us of our agency over those factors driving or slowing environmental breakdown. By definition, this action will have to be undertaken as the cacophony of destabilisation grows. Stuck in a storm, the primary objective is to steer out, lest the ship be overcome. Yet attention gets diverted by fear and sickness, a hole in the hull, crew abandoning their posts and grasping for the lifeboats – all of which could overwhelm the collective effort to steer out of the storm. Only if we successfully navigate this period can we afford ourselves the opportunity to get on with the main job: a vast, multi-generational effort to re-stabilise the Earth System and to live more harmoniously.

The central factor constraining the credibility of the optimists and the fatalists is an analysis of the medium term. While the former seems to under-appreciate the scale, pace and consequences of the emergency, the latter skip to the extreme end of possibility, lost in a fog of “methane burps” and inchoate “near term social collapse”. Ultimately, a world of rampant feedbacks holds little hope, of course. But, to draw on the common cliff-edge analogy, we would be wise to focus more on understanding and pre-empting the bumpy, alien typography onto which we have now strayed from the smooth road of the Holocene, and not just the sheer drop that awaits us in the distance. There are grades of ghastly future through which we will first pass.

In this emergent reality, the struggle to re-stabilise the Earth System will have to occupy the saddleback between these two cultures. Any period of rapid, paradigmatic political-economic change has been prosecuted by an ecosystem of influence, ranging through civil society, business, academia, formal politics and so on. As the stakes and destabilisation grow – and as more people join it and its power grows – this ecosystem will have to evolve to deal with the realities of being in the storm and not just warning about it. I offer three potential areas of evolution.

Firstly, the story will have to change. Telling the truth will always be a critical task. So many people still do not know the realities of climate breakdown, let alone of biodiversity loss nor of these crises as an overall destabilisation of interdependent natural and human systems and the complexities therein. The project of educating them, with care and compassion, will forever continue. But the loci of those stories carrying the truth will have to shift. The mess will be all too obvious, including to regressive political forces rehearsing the catechism that “liberal elites knew, they did nothing, now we must protect ourselves and take what’s left”.

Explaining how bad it is will increasingly have to come alongside even more powerful stories that explain why this is happening, how it came to this, and what we can all do together to fight for a liveable future. While it will be harder, if not impossible to justify the pre-2019 approach of marginalising environmental narratives that were open about the peril we face, greater destabilisation will throw up a range of other tensions and potential narrative risks. Fear and violence are alive to exploitation in scarier, less stable times; the victory of an openly barbaric, eco-nativist political narrative is an unthinkable but, as yet, unacceptably probable outcome. We must be wise to political as well as natural system feedbacks. This means fashioning a candour befitting the times and which sustains the unshakable belief – no matter what happens and against what may feel like unassailable odds – that our collective efforts can and will lead to change and to healing.

Secondly, and following directly, it will become even more important to extend the inclusive, inter-sectional politics that is growing across the world. An unstinting focus on greater equality is critical. We may be occupying the same ship as it heads into the storm, but the conditions are and have long been very different across the crew, as are the levels of responsibility, for the mess and for the response, and of capability. Put bluntly, we have little chance of marshalling an effective effort to re-stabilise the Earth System without it being and feeling like a shared endeavour.

This necessarily means doubling down on efforts to shift beyond the neoliberal paradigm – and any other that is not compatible with effective re-stabilisation – developing a political economy capable of equitable transformation, or, in the words of the IPBES, a “fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”. That means talking about power, who has it and how, and working to dismantle those structures and dynamics holding back a collective, inclusive effort. Just as the current impasse over global vaccine distribution is partly about the business model of pharmaceuticals and economic competition, a collective response under conditions of environmental breakdown is about the power structures of the global economy.

A high inequality, low cooperation world leaves us with little options. Instead, it gifts a wealth of potential for an increasingly barbaric eco-nativism, which waits in the wings for the siren call of division. In fighting it back, we need to tell positive, practical stories of shared hope and renewal, as, among other recent examples, Kim Stanley Robinson did us the great service of doing in his most recent book. Struggles for more economic democracy, a new fiscal-monetary policy settlement, and other debates in political economy are as inseparable from the struggle to re-stabilise the natural world as questions of equity and historical injustice. Yet they are still not at the forefront.

Thirdly, we need strategies and leadership that are robust to continuing the fight under conditions of growing destabilisation. This challenge is particularly acute for younger generations. The median age of European political leaders is 52. Emerging Millennial-age leaders, such as US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will reach this age in around 2040. Fighting against 2/2.5C in a 1.5/2C world could be considerably different from fighting against 1.5C at 1.2C, as we do now. Leaders in the coming decades face an unprecedented challenge: to rapidly transform socioeconomic systems in a last-ditch attempt to re-stabilise the Earth System while contending with accelerating environmental breakdown and compounding societal destabilisation.

A failure of leadership under these conditions could fracture humanity’s capability to mitigate environmental breakdown at all. We may have one shot over the next few decades at realising a critical threshold of transition lest natural systems destabilise beyond control. This is the moment, and timing is crucial. So, getting power is only a step, a necessary but not sufficient condition. The competencies of leaders will be even more important, determining whether that power is used effectively under unprecedented conditions. Certain strategies and approaches employed in more stable times, even those from the late 2010s, might not be effective in the coming decades. Stability can breed complacency.

Action can be taken to better pre-empt and be equipped for this future, a new, explicit frontier of activity across those in climate, environmental and justice communities. This necessarily involves engaging with issues that are out of the comfort zone of these communities, or can sometimes be seen in an oppositional frame, such as defence and military strategy, the wider frontiers of foreign policy, and so on. These are the subjects that people will gravitate toward as destabilisation grows and it’s important that a wider perspective complements the existing frames and conclusions of these communities, which are well advanced in their study of the destabilisation to come.

This is about developing a far more sophisticated understanding of the medium term, drawing on insights from a diversity of these and other communities, including disaster response, human rights, historical social and economic justice, and indigenous knowledge. It means better using the unprecedented foresight that helped us identify these unprecedented threats, going beyond binary invocations of it being “too late” as the existential threat grows, or an understanding of the future employed singularly as a tactical cautionary tale to spur action in the present so as to avoid these prognostications becoming a reality.

“I’m sorry we’re leaving such a fucking mess,” said James Hansen, sometime around the 29th anniversary of his congressional testimony. For my generation and those below, this is our inheritance. It is maddening but it is. Alongside the grief, as the fires rage and the fear grows, we need stories of focus, struggle, and hope as we head into this next phase, battening down the hatches with a voracious resolve to fight for a future against the lashing fury of this storm

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a researcher and author, including of Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown, published by Verso Books on 20th April 2021. He tweets @Laurie_L_L.

We report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action.

 We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future. The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends. The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals. 

Paul Ehrlich et al., Frontiers in Conservation Science.. Read Full Article

By Mark Valentine and Katherine Fulton

May 2020

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 and 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 overcorrected 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 3 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.

Image: strikers at Pixabay

This was first published on Michael’s blog, Angle of Vision.
The first thing to overcome with the coronavirus is fear. The virus is certainly dangerous. The likelihood is we will need to learn to live with it. A “new normal” will emerge with its own protocols for traveling, meeting, caring for each other, grieving those we lose, and living our lives. Perhaps there will be a vaccine. Certainly we should do everything we can to protect ourselves. But that is different from living in fear. Hafiz said it well:

Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I’d like to see you in better living conditions.

The coronavirus is a poster child for the world we are living in now. Many think that climate change is the only existential threat. In fact the greatest threat of all is the Global Challenge—the completely unpredictable interaction of several dozen global stressors—environmental, social, and technological.

The coronavirus illustrates how perfectly predictable threats (viral pandemics) disrupt  profoundly interconnected and fragile global systems. Financial markets, supply chains, consumer behavior, tourism, healthcare, and both national and global events are all affected by the virus.

The virus was entirely predictable because experts know that this is what happens when humans move ever deeper into fragmenting ecosystems where viruses jump from their animal and other hosts to human beings. We know more lethal viruses will appear again as they have repeatedly in the past.

The Global Challenge consists of several dozen global stressors. Other names for the Global Challenge include the global problematique, the human dilemma, and the online acronym TEOTWAWKI—the end of the world as we know it. Scientists call the Global Challenge a wicked problem. Here is the Wikipedia definition:

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem…Because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Think of the Global Challenge as the “perfect storm.” We are in a period widely called the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene can be envisioned as an evolutionary bottleneck. The biosphere—and all the biodiversity it contains—has entered a bottleneck: a funnel created by the sum total of all these global stressors. Only a portion of life as we know it will emerge. Whether humans or some successor species will be part of what emerges is unknown. What kind of world we/they will inhabit, with what kind of values and norms, is also unknown.

But fear, hopelessness, and cynicism aren’t the only choice in the face of this perfect storm. We have lived through many perilous circumstances on our journey so far. The black plague killed one third of the population of Europe. Fortune favors the prepared.  The best way to face the perfect storm is to acknowledge its reality and to prepare for different forms of what the visionary scientist Jem Bendell has called “deep adaptation.” While Bendell’s use of the term deep adaptation refers specifically to the climate crisis, the term is equally applicable to the perfect storm of the Global Challenge.

Some believe the Global Challenge will inevitably lead to civilizational collapse. The situation is far more subtle, and indeed more hopeful. Nate Hagens, one of the great thinkers on the Global Challenge, believes it is far more likely humanity will “bend but not break.” William Gibson, the science fiction writer, puts it well when he says “the future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.” It is in the nature of the Global Challenge that we can’t predict what combination of global stressors will result in what outcomes, when, where, or how. This view is called being “trigger agnostic.” We don’t know what will trigger what, when, where, or how.

There is authentic hope for us here. We can hope to “bend but not break.” We can hope that cultures and civilizations will find unanticipated ways to adapt to the perfect storm we are facing. We can hope that “deep adaptation” leads to courageous and creative new forms of resilience.

We know the world won’t look the same in 20, 40, 100, or 200 years. But we can hope for and fight for the survival of the core values we take to be at the heart of what it means to be human. We can hope for the survival of love, wisdom, and compassion for others and for the creation.

We can hope to build a better, wiser, more caring, more just and greener world on the ashes of the old world.

Resilience is not something we need to teach people. Resilience flows directly from the deepest human instincts of loving and caring. We instinctively seek to survive ourselves and to help all those we love and care for to survive and flourish. In fact, we often care more about others than we do about our own survival.

As the perfect storm envelops us—as the future shocks become ever more intense and frequent—people all over the world face the existential question of what they and those they love will need to survive. Refugees have to decide what to carry with them. Those who stay where they are have to decide what they will need in order to stay.

Human beings have certain irreducible needs. Air, warmth, water, food, shelter, clothing, community, health care, safety, a shared story about ourselves, and some sense of hope and meaning in our lives. Fear, cynicism, and despair are rarely the best strategies for survival and resilience. The coronavirus cannot be contained. Many among us will be affected by it. But it is far from the greatest challenge we face in the years and decades ahead.

Courage and hope are the most interesting way to live.


by Stanley Wu, Coordinator, the Resilience Project, Commonweal

When Pacific Gas and Energy (PGE) was determined to be responsible for the devastating Camp fire that killed at least 86 people and resulted in tens of billions in damage, they filed for bankruptcy and changed their tactics. The public outrage over their recent CEO bonuseslobbying, and political investments rather than fixing old and accident-prone infrastructure, was swift and accurate.

That was last year. Today as I write this in the dark at home, 185,000 people are being evacuated just north of San Francisco, and PGE has shut off electrical power to 1.3 million people. Potentially historic winds and low humidity at the end of a dry summer can develop almost any spark into a life-threatening fire that can spread faster than you can run. PGE has calculated that dealing with the public and political outrage, and plummeting stock, is cheaper than being responsible for another catastrophic fire.

The implications of shutting off power to cities and counties should not be glossed over. County hospitals and health care facilities are running on backup generators and are scrambling to ensure they can maintain diesel supplies. Public utilities that provide water and sewage are trying to calculate how long their drinking water reservoirs will last before running out. These are serious times, and as Gov. Newsom said: “I could sugar coat this, but I will not. The next 72 hours are going to be challenging.”

For the first time, many Californians are being confronted with the reality of making everyday decisions without electricity. Fundamental realizations are developing as people negotiate the basic questions of their livelihood. Will water still run from our faucets and will the toilets flush (yes, for now)? How long will the food stay safe to eat in my refrigerator (place cold ice in there to help it keep cool longer)? I have a solar system so I’ll have electricity (not likely, they are designed to turn off when the grid goes down).

In my neighborhood, after we lost power and my wifi network went down, my landline was useless and I could no longer send or receive text messages because the local cellular towers were also not being powered. People around me could not make emergency calls if they needed to, and how were we going to receive evacuation notices and updates about potential new fires in their areas? Needless to say, this is an unexpected predicament for most, and an extremely dangerous situation at the least.

We will eventually come to the end of this ever-growing fire season. Houses and infrastructure will likely be rebuilt, the power will be restored, people will go home and forget to execute on the ideas they had to ensure their safety in future emergencies. In addition to the grief thousands will endure, rage will boil, blame will fall on PGE, and calls for accountability will flow through the veins of public discourse.

Here is the thing—there is no doubt California will experience catastrophic fires again and we can be certain millions will be without power for days if not weeks in the coming future. There are over a 149 million dead trees as a result of years of drought, heat, and beetle infestation. 18 million died last year alone, and these trees could be match sticks for a careless person, lightning strike, or wind storm that topples a utility power line. Housing developments will continue to expand into fire prone areas. Yearly averaged temperatures will continue to climb upwards, and droughts will likely become more severe.

Furthermore, PGE operates 106,681 circuit miles of electrical distribution lines and 18,466 miles of interconnected transmission lines. Anyone expecting one of the largest utility companies in the United States to overhaul their aging infrastructure better not hold their breath, especially since PGE has already filed for bankruptcy. It is time for us to take a hard look at this truth in the face. The probability that we will tackle enough of these issues—climate change, infrastructure, land use policies—in a meaningful way, is low.

Reactionary preparations set in hours leading up to the power shutoffs are not enough. I visited Target, Best Buy and Home Depot to find they were all sold out of small cell phone battery packs, flashlights and people were trickling in to mill through the empty sections. At best, these products will help people maintain an extra day or two of cellphone and flashlight power before they need to be replaced or recharged. Thankfully, most people are still able to drive to packed café to charge their devices, and order takeout food.

Within hours of the shutoff, local gas stations and grocery stores were drained of their ice, batteries, and booze. In my neighborhood, Safeway was letting people shop in a dark store, one at a time, and accompanied by staff, and were not accepting credit cards. How many people actually have the recommended 2 gallons of water per day per person stored? Do people have extra cash, medical prescriptions, a first aid kits that is the base line of preparation? There are plenty of psychological barriers such as discounting the future, that make it hard to really prepare. My sense is people treat their resilience like their earthquake kits—something to knock off the to-do list. And we need so much more.

Non-government organizations, journalists, philanthropists, churches, and motivated citizens are starting to work on these difficult questions. It is time for us to start focusing on what we as individuals, families, and communities can do to increase our resilience and abilities to cope with a challenging future, especially one with limited resources.

Over my battery powered AM/FM radio, I just heard that the winds are expected to pick up, and a “red flag” warning was just issued over the next few days. It seems likely our power will be off for an extended period of time, and more evacuations were announced. My computer batteries are running low, and it is time to drive somewhere to purchase more ice, if I can find any, and connect to a network to let my family know I am okay.