Build Back Better: A Role for Philanthropic Scaffolding


By SCI's Martin O'Brien and Avila Kilmurray.

PHILANTHROPY is in a good position to start making sense of our jumbled reaction to the current pandemic, and how we can build back in a way that tackles structural racism and systemic inequality.  Philanthropy has a particular responsibility to respond to the inequalities revealed by COVID and graphically underlined again by the recent police killing of George Floyd. 

To their credit, many philanthropies have already responded to the pandemic, being flexible about grant terms, offering no cost extensions and, meeting unexpected operational costs.  But, most importantly, they are listening to partners about what is needed.

Others have gone further.  They are increasing spend, contributing to pooled funds alongside crisis grant programmes.  Some are designating funds for specific groups particularly impacted.  Others are working with activists to tackle the repressive and discriminatory use of emergency laws.  In short, the best of philanthropy is doing what it does best - working to make a positive difference in difficult circumstances.

One important, although arguably predictable, insight is that those closest to front-line conditions are well placed to be immediately responsive.  Community-based and activist Foundations can have their finger on the pulse of where need is greatest and how to meet it.  Community Foundations, Women’s and Human Rights Funds, and those focused on peacebuilding, the environment and social justice are already primed to deliver resources through a partnership approach.  A recent Foundations for Peace Network call ( spoke about how to anticipate the changing risks that communities are facing and enabling people to address them.

It is essential that philanthropy embeds and consolidates its collaboration, agility and flexibility. As one activist recently suggested, we need to move beyond the ‘egos, silos and logos’ if we are to Build Back Better.  Philanthropy also needs to ensure that it does not spend too much time on the urgent while ignoring the strategically important.  It must take advantage of its privileged position to reflect and create the space for thinking and listening to where opportunities to Build Back Better really lie.  Now is the time to think about what should come next; to move beyond the crisis response to grasp the opportunities for change offered by the crisis itself.

 Build Back Better

Graffiti on an apartment block in Santiago, Chile, sums up the challenge – No volveremos a la normalidad, porque la normalidad era el problema (‘We won’t go back to normal because normal was the problem’).  The pandemic is holding up a mirror to our world.  What we see is more striking than any library of heavy tomes.

Those most vulnerable to infection and starvation are people who are poor. The majority of ‘essential’ workers are low paid, under-valued and often of migrant background.  People from black and minority ethnic communities are disproportionality reflected among the dying.   That’s the wider structural context in which Mr Floyd’s killing can only be viewed. 

The stars are brighter without pollution and governments can introduce policies which they would otherwise say are impossible.  The homeless can be housed if governments see rough-sleeping as a health risk.  Hospitals can be built quickly with public money if required.  The need for effective public services is clearer than ever.  What is deemed ‘common sense’ can be turned on its head given determined political leadership.  The Obama mantra of ‘Yes we can’ is resounding through societies where such leadership is being exercised.

Philanthropy should embrace the same approach.  What does a fairer more compassionate world look like?   How do we get there?   It’s time to have more ambitious objectives.   How do we change the reflection in the mirror?

The old problems that need new questions asked of them include the nature and impact of deepening inequalities; dismantling structural racism, the climate emergency; creeping political authoritarianism; and a geo-political order that privileges militarised security over human security.  There are choices to be made.  There is power in supporting activism that sparks people to make choices.

Thinking in terms of human security centres the importance of investing in publicly funded healthcare and recognising social and economic rights that assert human dignity.  UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has made a powerful call to put people centre stage, preparing the ground now for emerging from this crisis with more equitable and sustainable societies, development and peace.  (COVID-19 and Human Rights: We Are All in This Together – April 2020).  

Social Change Initiative (SCI) Fellow, Celia McKeon, has long argued that the proper goal of national security should be the common good of people, taking account of social and ecological contexts, rather than military stock piling or xenophobic competition.  In short, replacing bullish individualism with mutually beneficial solidarity. We are seeing lots of examples of such solidarity.  Shop workers made redundant in a branch of Debenhams in Dublin have mobilised to raise funds for garment workers sacked in Bangladesh through the closure of this UK-based firm.

Human security must also be placed in the context of a sustainable world.  COVID-19 may be wreaking havoc but it will likely be less harmful than the climate emergency that we are creating ourselves.  Any stimulus plan to address the emergency should not waste the opportunity to link publicly funded bail-outs to promoting climate and ecological resilience.  Rescue funding needs to be climate proofed, with specific support for developing countries, many still recovering from the ravages of exploitation.  It should also look at prioritising building community wealth over individual wealth.  Any suggestion that environmental or health and safety regulations should be glossed over in the interests of reconstruction and ‘growth’ need to be rejected.  Building Back Better can only be realised if it is accepted that we are all in this together, but that the poor and dispossessed can no longer pay for our plans.

The Role of Philanthropy

In the coming period where should philanthropy be putting its resources?   Given the diversity of philanthropy there are multiple options.

It should be providing more support for local community action and the infrastructure of organisations that enable people to work for change.    Philanthropic investments must enable those people who need the change most to be at the forefront of setting the agenda for action and implementing it.   Particular attention must be paid to the voices of young people, women, indigenous people, black and minority ethnic communities, and those who are excluded, seeking out those who are not normally at the table and resourcing them directly.  This can be done by working in partnership with community-based Foundations and social movements committed to inclusion.   

Philanthropy can also resource people to think through what the new normal should look like. Hidden precedents are revealing – the UK Government only cleared its debt to buy out slave-owners in 2015 – debt restructuring is a realistic alternative to austerity measures.  Policies such as Universal Basic Income and Green New Deal can deliver a fairer, more sustainable world. The current stratospheric levels of inequality must be addressed.  Equally, we cannot allow the siren voices of established interests to pose public health in opposition to ‘economic recovery’.  Human security requires both, in a manner that will not create the conditions for future pandemics. There is a need to invest in new ideas and solutions to old problems.

Philanthropy should invest in shaping the public narrative on the need for change.  For example, the new awareness of who are ‘essential’ workers demonstrates our reliance on migrant workers.  This allows us to shift public discourse to highlight our interdependence.  A narrative rooted in social and economic rights that protect human dignity and security should replace that of untrammelled economic growth.  Naming structural racism and systemic inequality and putting resources in community led advocacy must be key to any response.    

Philanthropy can work collaboratively to ensure that insidious conspiracy theories that are about blame and misinformation fail to cap the stories of community solidarity and compassion.  The stories that we tell of these days must celebrate people from all backgrounds and ethnicities who did what they do best – care and cater for others.  These people must not remain under-valued and under-paid.  Philanthropy must ensure that the common-sense narrative of the next period sees systemic change as not just possible but achievable.  This requires investment in social movements and activists, but also in the ability to hold power to account, through effective advocacy and access to high-quality accurate information.   Now is the time for greater investment in public advocacy and independent media.   There also needs to be much more literacy, accountability and transparency around public spending.  

When old problems need new questions asked of them, philanthropy is well placed to under-write the process.  Cutting-edge philanthropy has helped people come through the worst of times, it can now work collaboratively to help envisage and pilot what Building Back Better means in practice.