Conference Part 1/2

This past week I attended a conference hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation titled: The Role of Foundations during Economic Crisis.  There were about 250 attendees in total.  Participants came from European countries and the United States, with a majority from Greece.  The conference was two days long, and topics ranged from discussing philosophical underpinnings of charitable actions, to debating the role of media in communicating the progress of NGOs.  With frequent coffee networking breaks, and social events to visit the Acropolis and museums, there was an immense amount of ideas exchanged.  While looking at the Parthenon I overheard a conversation about the challenges of getting medical supplies through various countries customs departments to the people in need.  There was something eerie about looking at a legacy of humanity while hearing about a very real threat to that legacy.  It makes one feel the distance between what has been, and what is.  But for me, it was a realization that showed that to improve what the situation is today, one must go through a process.   No one can fix a problem immediately, with one solution, with one team, with one plan.  Instead, the problem must be digested and understood, people must be mobilized around it, and mentalities must be shifted to make systemic, permanent improvement.  So yes, I was able to enjoy both the Parthenon and the conversation about health supply access because I felt that both were part of the road to improvement.  One provided inspirations for hope while the other provided motivation for change. 

The first theme that I would like to discuss is the value of being flexible versus focused.  Or, the value of structure versus fluidity.  The point is, where is the balance between leaving some wiggle room for change as the moment presents itself and maintaining a direction as to not get so general that no actual improvements can be made?  Specialization means that one can be an expert at what they do, everyone goes to them when they have a specific problem.  But, what if there are other problems out there that take precedent and you can’t deal with them because that is not your specialty?  I suppose it all comes down to your goal.  Do you want to help as many people as possible in whatever capacity you can or do you want to deal with only one problem so that over time that one thing will no longer have to be a problem?    

Okay, so that’s the first thing that is up for debate.  Now, let’s overlap that with the idea that philanthropy, the act of giving, inhabits a very special niche in society.  Why?  Because, it can reach into corners of society that are forever untouchable to large public government institutions or the private sector.  For example, the private sector can recognize that limiting a certain product could cause increased demand thus allowing its price to increase without losing consumers, causing an overall increase in bottom line profit.  However, the private sector cannot see that an increased profit may not capture the fact that a large sector of the society that used to buy the good is no longer buying the good due to its increased price.  Yet, public institutions cannot distribute goods in a way that is efficient and highly tailored to what the society is able to absorb.  As a result, people are still left without a good because the process of getting it, even if it is free, is too arduous.  In a certain sense, philanthropy is able to respect the little guy and the big guy.  By providing the support to those organizations that have the bird’s eye view of society (often times public institutions such as a national food bank) and those organizations that solve niche problems in society (NGOs that work on specific issues such as women’s health/reproductive rights), philanthropy picks up the slack of each market.  Philanthropy, as practiced through foundations, fills the gaps left by the public and private sectors because the goal is to achieve as much social good as is possible, not profit or not total equity.  And one more fun fact (well really one more complication to the conversation here), did you know that in the UK philanthropy is classified as one thing while foundations are classified as an entirely different thing?  What does this mean?  I have no idea.  But, it does prove the fact that maybe we should start seeing foundations as a third sector with its own set of rules.  The private, public, and foundation sectors…I kinda like the sound of it. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s