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Philanthropy, government and our fraying social contract

Jane Wales opened The Global Philanthropy Forum this week with the idea that today’s social contract is fraying – but also evolving. The social contract she speaks of is the means by which societies allocate priorities and resources when addressing shared problems – or more simply put, the understanding that we must all look out for one another.  In his special address to GPF delegates, Former Prime Minister and head of three foundations, Tony Blair, was more poignant in stating that when any community focuses in on their own challenges – as many must do during these financially challenging times – we lose the appetite to help others.

So what is the role of philanthropy in reinvigorating the social contract?  To the former Prime Minister, not surprisingly, the answer is intertwined with government’s role and begins with government’s responsibility to encourage and advance, if not just protect, the unique role philanthropy can play. Governments by definition are designed to manage, not change; to reward caution; to abhor risk.  Philanthropy on the other hand is creative; it seeks to disrupt; it challenges the status quo, not accommodates it.

To Blair, philanthropy does not replace government but compliments it. Yes, philanthropy can go where government dares not and thus can spur innovation and new solutions – the aspect most exciting to him. Yet there is another powerful role philanthropy can play. “The real challenge facing government today,” Blair said, “is to change itself; to become more strategic; to become more empowering instead of controlling.”  And partnerships with philanthropy could play a significant role in this reform.  “The power of this collaboration is enormous, but it is just being recognized.”

It is the cross sector partnerships that expose government to the creativity of philanthropy and draws government out of its comfort zone that Blair focused on; however, he did share an extreme example of philanthropy’s impact on government with the work of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, a foundation that provides in-country staff and expertise to help newly established leaders in Africa execute their plans. Through his own experience as Prime Minister, Blair learned the chasm that exists between what you want to accomplish and how to get it done, and his foundation now leverages his experience, resources, expertise, access and network to play a unique roll that is not or cannot be played by others.

Certainly, the intersection of philanthropy and government can be a powerful force for change.  Indeed, sustained change of significant scale is often difficult to accomplish without government – and arguably, without philanthropy.  Not all donors wish to venture into this dual sector arena though, and for them Mr. Blair offered an additional takeaway from his African Initiative. “The best of philanthropy is not just about giving money,” Blair said, “but about giving leadership. The best philanthropists bring the gifts that made them successful.”  If more of us bring more of ourselves in to our philanthropic work, it is easy to see how, thread by thread, philanthropy can weave a stronger social contract back together.


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