Syndemic – Stanford’s Lucy Bernholz on philanthropy and digital civil society in 2021

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Each year the global philanthropic community eagerly awaits the release of the annual Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society, Blueprint series. An institution for more than a decade, the Blueprint is produced by Stanford’s Lucy Bernholz and aside from reviewing the winds of change influencing philanthropy and civil society each year, the Blueprint also makes predictions for the year ahead.

Perpetual is grateful for a wonderful relationship with Stanford’s Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Over the past five years Perpetual’s Philanthropy Team have hosted Lucy and other members of the Stanford PACS team in Australia, inviting them to share insights, approaches and learning with Australia’s philanthropic and civil society leaders. With Covid-19 limiting travel, this year we asked Lucy to add some Australian context to her Blueprint view on what we can expect from philanthropy in 2021.

Blueprint 2021 in Australia, Lucy Bernholz

In December 2020, I released my twelfth annual industry forecast: Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society, Blueprint 2021. This edition of the Blueprint differed from previous volumes in several ways. As a result of the pandemic and my inability to travel, the 2021 edition is more focused on the USA than its recent predecessors. So, I’m delighted to have this chance to try to contextualise some of what is in the Blueprint for Perpetual’s clients and partners and other civil society colleagues in Australia. 

The Blueprint lays out the current (as of December 2020) state of syndemic crises in the U.S. Syndemic refers to situations in which a pandemic, such as Coronavirus, takes hold in a population that is already threatened by endemic inequality and racism. To understand situations with two or more crises it’s important not to think of them as separate, but to recognise the ways in which they entwine, mutate and accelerate each other.

In the case of 2020, I use the term to capture the mutually exacerbating nature of a viral pandemic, entrenched white supremacy, indefensible wealth inequality, and climate change. The paths forward in addressing any one of these issues has to account for its intersections and amplifications of the others.

This is particularly challenging to philanthropy and nonprofits, most of which establish themselves with singular missions or siloed and parallel programmatic pursuits. Making positive contributions toward those pursuits in these times requires rethinking the boundaries we draw around our work, the people we prioritise and support to do the work, and the ways in which we define success. This has been true always, but now seems required. The interdependence of viruses, humans, other species, and the planet makes these systemic connections clear.

And so our strategies for change need to also become more consciously interdependent. One example, which may have resonance in Australia, is the ways in which digital technologies contribute to more visible, vitriolic, and violent collective acts of racism and hate. Certainly, it’s important to think about the design, regulation, and use of these technologies in thinking about solutions; and it’s incumbent upon us to address racism and hatred itself.

A very different example, looked at with similar attention to systems, is to consider the role that tax systems that incentivise great wealth accumulation (and, perhaps, more philanthropy) also play in driving economic inequality and poverty.

Australia’s parliamentary political system and rules about voting may insulate it from some of the most egregious undemocratic practices of the U.S. system, but the damage done to our governing institutions over the last four years (and five decades) is not unique. The fragility of democratic institutions may be specific in each context, but the global trend toward autocracy and the roles that corporate megaliths are playing as privatised governors of speech and assembly, are shared across countries.

It’s a critical time to ask what roles philanthropy and nonprofits play in countering these forces. And to honestly ask such a question first requires the willingness to admit that the sector is not always on the side of the angels.

Just as private funding flows to organisations focused on combatting disinformation, it also flows to associations whose tactics include manufacturing confusion and spreading lies. The breakdown of meaningful oversight of charitable and political organisations in the US may not be part of the problem elsewhere, but the use of information as a weapon to divide and sow mistrust knows no geographic limits. 

The Blueprint draws hope from the work of people around the world looking to build more just systems and organisations as part of the recovery efforts. The commitment of tens of millions of people to brave the streets and a deadly virus to organise, to vote in the face of great odds, of journalists to find and write the truth, and the flourishing of mutual assistance networks are some examples.

In 2020, foundations and donors of all kinds found new ways to move funding faster, eased some of their operating hurdles, and support community-defined and led efforts at change. Times of syndemic crises are difficult to live through but prime opportunities to question the status quo, change hidebound organisations, and demand public policies that offer people hope and support.

Many foundations and nonprofits quickly created new ways of working, and they should ask themselves hard questions before returning to old practices. They can also take inspiration from their ability to adjust quickly in moments of crisis. If change is possible, why not pursue more of it?

Syndemic crises force us to reconsider the boundaries we draw, the practices we’ve built, and the public policies we can put in place. We should relish this newfound creativity and be brave enough to carry forward with questioning the old and imagining better futures.

Need more global insight?

Perpetual’s ongoing partnership with Stanford’s Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) provides a wide range of practical and theoretical tools and ideas for Australian NFPs and philanthropists. Contact Perpetual on 1800 501 227 or use the form below if you’d like even more global insight.

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