Report: Philanthropy and COVID-19

Content Manager • 11 July 2021

  The COVID-19 pandemic has served to lift the lid on various dynamics in the field of philanthropy that had come to be taken for granted over the past several decades. Foremost among these is the North-South relationship in philanthropy that has long been characterised by an unequal power balance. While there have always been high levels of philanthropy in the Global South, many resource-poor organisations have received their funding from well- resourced foundations based in the Global North. These foundations have set the parameters within which various programmes and interventions are identified and resources allocated to them.

    In this report, we investigate how the current pandemic has affected this structure – and we have identified deficiencies in the current arrangements that cry out for rectification. In doing this, we carried out extensive interviews with leaders of social purpose organisations (SPOs3) and foundations in the Global South – including, for example, the West Africa Civil Society Institute, Indonesia for Humanity and the King Khalid Foundation – and combined these with large amounts of secondary data. Our findings reveal a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is clear that the urgency and unexpectedness of COVID-19 has shaken up the existing mechanism for identification of programmes and fund disbursement. As public health came to attract the vast majority of resources in this period, old understandings of who should play what role in the North-South relationship have been seriously called into question.

   This interrogation of traditional arrangements has resulted in several promising developments in the months since the pandemic swept the world. To begin with, we found grantees and Global South SPOs to be asserting themselves on the basis of their superior knowledge of local needs and imperatives. Secondly, as a result of the unique conditions created by COVID-19, we also found grants becoming less restricted and grant- makers becoming more flexible in their allocation and approval processes – something that many have been advocating for some time. Thirdly, we found Southern SPOs creating intra-regional collaborative networks, working together to share knowledge, data and to pool capabilities in the wake of this unprecedented crisis.

   Whether this ‘awakening’ on the part of local organisations will lead to more permanent changes remains to be seen – and that is why the Centre for Strategic Philanthropy decided that this report should be a manifesto for lasting change sparked by COVID-19 rather than a simple chronicling of events over recent months.

As the report says in its Conclusion:

“The shift in the power dynamic that our research revealed is clearly nascent, fragile and patchy. However, it shows some early indications of practices that if nurtured and retained could potentially transform the relationship between Global North and Global South philanthropic actors. This in turn could lead to positive operational and policy outcomes that can help deliver more sustainable and scalable social impact.”


  Noting these preliminary lessons from how coronavirus has affected the philanthropic response to big societal issues, the report calls for three major steps to incorporate these learnings into the long-term approach of philanthropy to the grand challenges facing the Global South and beyond.

The three key steps proposed by the report are:

Fund Networks to build infrastructure, capacity and knowledge:

   Professional philanthropic networks in developing markets could significantly boost the development and the institutionalisation of Global South philanthropy. They can articulate the collective demands of the sector to local governments, global grant makers and the broader development community, creating stronger collective advocacy platforms. Investment in infrastructure including better data collection and analysis can help Global South philanthropy to align with the SDGs and channel Global South SPO input into policy frameworks.

Increase partnerships between Global South governments and Global South philanthropists:

   Promising partnerships between governments and grant-makers in the Global South to respond to the pandemic underscore the potential for such South-South collaboration, which the report urges should become more prevalent. Such collaboration offers governments much needed additional capital and social innovation, while providing Global South SPOs and grant-makers an opportunity to align with national development policy and scale up proven successful initiatives faster.

Build resilience by funding core costs:

    The crisis has engendered simpler, faster and less complex application processes that have more rapidly freed up funding for more flexible purposes where previously it might have been earmarked. This is a welcome development and something that many in the sector have long advocated. Yet despite this pandemic-induced flexibility, the ‘holy grail’ of philanthropic finance – unrestricted grants for core costs – seems a long way in the future due to ongoing aversion to funding ‘overheads’. This report argues that it is a pernicious myth that financing the core operations of SPOs is somehow less effective or less important than direct programme funding. The pandemic-induced focus on resilience underpins this point.


For more information, please see the full report attached below. 

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Photo credit: Ben Masora on Unsplash.


The views expressed in the article and the report attached are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the SDG Philanthropy Platform. The SDG Philanthropy Platform is a global initiative that connects philanthropy with knowledge and networks that can deepen collaboration, leverage resources and sustain impact, driving SDG delivery within national development planning. It is led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and WINGS, and supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Ford Foundation, Oak Foundation, Brach Family Charitable Foundation, and many others.