Thursday, April 10, 2008

Global Philanthropy Forum 2008

This conference, now in its 7th year, continues to be one of the best gatherings of doers, funders, and thinkers. What I have always appreciated about this event, regular conference caveats aside, is that it makes a real effort to live up to its name - it strives for global participation (though it is always held in the US, usually in Silicon Valley) and it is a forum - people speak together. The need for global gatherings and those that bring together folks from all sides of an issue is gaining acceptance (see this Alliance interview with Steve Gunderson of the Council on Foundations about the upcoming Philanthropy Summit), but the GPF has been refining this practice since 2001.

The theme this year is one that speaks to an underlying premise for philanthropic action that is too often overlooked - social solidarity. Of course, that is my term for it.* The title of the conference is "Human security, human rights and the shared responsibility to protect: A conversation between elders and emerging leaders."

That is too much of a mouthful for me. Having listened to several speakers so far and mingled in hallways with activists and attendees from around the world, the topic on every one's mind is this: "How can we work like we're all in this together?" I like to think of it as a discussion about "with," and the end of "unto" or "for."

Shifting a discussion on philanthropy to really be about "with" is much more than a semantic shift. Philanthropy, or anything else (school reform, international aid, democracy) that is done unto others, doesn't work. We know this - intellectually and experientially. Yet we continue to establish organizations or financial products that divide us. This is beyond putting the "golden rule" into practice - the message is about not doing unto others, but doing with others.

The second part of the conference theme "elders and emerging leaders" takes the "with" a bit further. The American Jewish community has been concerned about "next generation" Jews for what seems like at least a generation now. Secular philanthropy is catching up to this concern - several new reports focus on leadership challenges and deficits. Everyone loves to talk about the "techno-generational" gaps. Again, the focus is usually on the gap, not on the connection. A new organization, TheElders, is playing a large role at the GPF this year and it offers an alternative frame for the old/young divide - we are in this together and there are those among us who have lots to offer - as global village elders. These are folks - you know the names (Desmond Tutu, Aung SunSuu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Ela Bhatt) - who've dedicated their lives to change and are recognize that their next best contributions rely on actively teaching and learning from those just starting out on these paths.

Conferences are what they are. Good ideas, lots of conversations, some entertainment, (hopefully) some provocation, and always that question of whether or not it was worth the time. Here's what is worth it - we are in this together. This is so simple, yet runs counter to so much of what we have claimed for philanthropy. Philanthropy fails when it separates givers from doers, them from us, and uses words likes "unto" or "for." Change relies on all of us. Giving and doing with others requires us to recognize that we have a self interest in making change happen - not hiding our solidarity, but working from it.

*Alicia Fernandez, MD, deserves some credit for this phrase in this context.

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