Meeting My Philanthropy Peers in This Incredibly Small, Incredibly Big World of Ours

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Meeting My Philanthropy Peers in This Incredibly Small, Incredibly Big World of Ours
by David Biemesderfer, President & CEO, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers
Re-posted with permission from the author.

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of attending a global conference in Mexico City that brought together people who work for philanthropy associations, networks and support organizations across the world. It was an honor to attend the event as a representative of the Forum’s network of regional and national philanthropy-serving organizations across the United States.

The conference, WINGSForum 2017, was presented by WINGS (Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support), a global network of organizations that support philanthropy, in partnership with local WINGS member Cemefi (Centro Mexicano Para La Filantropía). The conference brought together about 300 participants from more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, South America, the Middle East and North America.

I felt at home immediately at the conference; I was with “my people”–folks working diligently for infrastructure organizations that play a critical role to advance, inform and support philanthropy. On the one hand, the conference reaffirmed that in many ways we are living in an incredibly small world. For example, I talked to conference participants from numerous countries who are grappling with many of the same operational and leadership issues as the Forum’s U.S. members: how to attract and retain members in the philanthropic sector; how to operate a sustainable business model; how to balance serving your members with being a leader in the field; and others.

On the other hand, my experience at the conference made me realize that in other ways we are living in an incredibly big world. Despite the many challenges and problems that the United States is facing, the conference reminded me how lucky we are in the United States to have one of the most fertile environments for philanthropy in the world. Our philanthropic environment can always get better and stronger, of course, but it is admired and envied by our peers across the globe—that sentiment was shared with me often during the conference. I heard about how charitable donations are taxed in some countries; how some countries have no laws for forming private foundations; how many countries are fighting growing governmental efforts to close the space for civil society—the “shrinking space” for civil society was a consistent discussion topic throughout the conference.

One highlight of the conference was the release of a new WINGS report that offers a new global picture of philanthropy infrastructure organizations. The report, which is based on a survey of WINGS members, offered a number of insights on the history, composition, challenges and capacities of the global philanthropy infrastructure space. Among the report’s key findings:

  • Financial sustainability and understaffing are the two biggest challenges, by far, faced by philanthropy infrastructure groups worldwide (this is consistent with the major challenges faced by Forum members in the United States).
  • Involvement in advocacy is increasing for infrastructure groups (also consistent with U.S. trends), although the groups’ top activities center around the creation, dissemination and sharing of knowledge.
  • 80% of spending on philanthropy infrastructure is in North America.
  • Philanthropy infrastructure groups’ main source of income is donations and grants, followed by sales of goods and services, and membership fees (based on some conversations I had at the conference, membership fees seem to be a larger source of income for U.S.-based groups than for groups in many other parts of the world).

The report provides a comprehensive and powerful picture of the important role of philanthropy infrastructure worldwide for building better and stronger philanthropy. For people like me whose work in philanthropy is, for the most part, completely U.S.-focused, the report provides a helpful global perspective and context.

To get a better feel for the vibrancy, richness and complexity of the conference, you can check out the conference Storify here and here.

I don’t know if I’ll have the pleasure of attending the next WINGSForum in 2020 in Kenya. But I know that in the coming years I’ll continue to treasure and cultivate the connections I’ve made with my infrastructure peers in our incredibly small, incredibly big world.

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