“To live an ethical life is not self-sacrifice, but self-fulfillment.” Peter Singer
Ethics play an important role in the life of an individual and society. In our everyday actions and behaviors, we often judge ourselves and others on the ethics of our decisions. What happens when philanthropic practices are guided by ethics?
We have all heard horror stories of ‘philanthropy gone wrong’. Funds being sent to ineffective or, worse still, damaging organizations; funding skewing the distribution of resources; or the dysfunction of a system favors the fundraising and marketing experts, rather than looking at design, service delivery, and impact. Perhaps a more ethical approach to philanthropy, that weaves in best practices, may address some of these challenges and be a more effective way to do good.
Over the last five years, we have learned some important lessons at One World Children’s Fund and we have witnessed some incredible stories of success. Encouragingly, there is an abundance of fresh ideas and, an eagerness to introduce ethics, values, and best practices. New approaches reflect the need to be more thoughtful, respectful and compassionate in how we manage philanthropic funds. Gone are the days (or they are at least slowly being buried) where we rely solely on marketing, pity, and charity - and a new evidence-based, nuanced, and ethical sector is emerging from its ashes.
Thought leaders and movement builders such as Grassroots Forward Fund, Thousand Currents Academy, The Centre for Effective Altruism, EDGE Funders, and PEAK Grantmaking all challenge us to reflect on how we practice philanthropy and how we can make the most impact with every dollar and decision we make.
In this post, I would like to share five important lessons I have learned along the way, through discussions and collaborations with some of the above organizations and networks, and other values-driven partners. These lessons offer some practical guidance on how philanthropy can be ethical philanthropy:
1) Listen: Who has a seat at your table? Engage in participatory grantmaking practices, that encourage and value diverse voices and include the very people you hope to serve. Your priorities and goals will be much more aligned with the community’s needs. Programs will naturally breathe sustainability, and you will find a community of support for when times get tough - which at some point they will.
2) Reflect: What is driving your decisions? What are your values and are they manifested in your practices? How do you define success and why? What mistakes have been made and what did we learn? Taking time to ask these important questions periodically as a team are key to creating goals and will nurture partnerships that are rooted deeply in humanity’s needs.
3) Love: Philanthropy is by definition the love of humanity. How does your philanthropic practice express love for humanity? I remain cognizant of the fact that decisions made thousands of miles away in California can have a real impact on the lives of families and children thousands of miles away in communities around the world. Philanthropy can be a tool to express one’s love for humanity. When done well, it can help amplify the best virtues of what it is to be human. Every conversation and interaction that takes place, I remember the value that One World co-founder, Patricia Savitri Burbank instilled in me - compassion. Take time to remember that each individual is a person with a full life and the right to dignity, respect, and love.
4) Focus: What are you trying to do and why you? Doing good is not merely a hobby. Personally, I bear the responsibility to do the most good for the well-being of the world as a moral duty. The focus of each individual and organization will vary. For One World, our focus is ensuring grassroots organizations access the resources they need to best serve communities. We have taken time recently to ensure that we focus on our strengths and contribute to building an equal world in a way that is best suited to our skills and experience.
5) Evolve: Nothing is permanent. What worked yesterday, might be irrelevant today. What didn’t work yesterday, might be just what you need today. Don’t believe you always have the answers. We are currently evolving the One World program to adapt and leverage recent developments in the sector. Changes such as the introduction of crowd funding; new technology that opens up global communication with ease and speed; the desire among emergingh philanthropists to build global partnerships with effective social changemakers. Change is by no means easy, there is a need to apply the lessons learned. It can be daunting and risky, but thoughtful evolution of our work is critical to being effective and relevant within the sector, and within the lives of the people we serve.
So, what happens when we learn these lessons? The following success story inspires me to continue challenging myself and to continue to learn, and give thought to how ethics are applied.
Health and human rights in Uganda
Obed Kabanda is the founder of ACODEV, an organization that is working to transform communities through grassroots - led programs that focus on safe motherood, child protection, HIV prevention, anti-violence, and human rights protection. For years, Obed and his team slowly built the foundation of a strong and effective team that gained the trust of the communities in which it worked, and designed programs that were participatory and community-led. Under the shadow of huge international organizations working in East Africa, their work went largely unnoticed outside of Uganda, and vastly under funded.
In 2014, One World began collaborating with Segal Family Foundation (SFF), a US based funder focused on community-led development in sub-Saharan Africa. Through the SFF team, we were introduced to Obed and began the process of developing a partnership with ACODEV. Beyond the required due diligence, we listened to their needs. We reflected on how their mission could be communicated to funders in the US, so as to highlight their impact. We fell in love with their work, their values, and their mission. We focused on how we could best be of assistance and ensure they get the resources they need. Lastly, we evolved our program to fit their needs, we didn’t force a round peg into a square hole.
Since then, not only have we collaboratively raised more than $600,000 for ACODEV and their community led , public health programs, we have walked side by side with Obed and his team as allies. We have cut out the middle man, saving thousands of dollars that would have ordinarily gone to fund administrative salaries of international staff. We have played a small role in seeing ACODEV launch plans and construction for a new Leadership Center that will serve the entire region. Lastly, we have laid the foundations to replicate this success through co-hosting cross sector workshops and presentations in Africa and the US, advocating for grassroots led development.
More than the collective financial results, the impact in people’s lives has been astounding. More than 350,000 women have accessed maternal health services. More than 400,000 children have accessed life-saving services, including immunizations against the big six killer diseases, deworming,and food supplements.
Following the path to best practices and ethical philanthropy might not only be the right thing to do, it might be the most effective thing to do.
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