The Editor’s Post: Attacks on democracy threaten “everything we’re doing” – Skoll awardee

Speakers at the Skoll World Forum say it's time for donors to get political and focus on systems change. This week’s view from the Pioneers Post newsroom.

This week’s Skoll World Forum in Oxford was full of feel-good stuff – inspiring women leaders, powerful stories of positive impact, and at least one giant disco ball. 

Things were less cheery when the conversation turned to politics. In a session about the relationship between the donors and the “do-ers”, one attendee said that funders often came with the disclaimer that “we’re not political” – which led to the “do-ers” being “boxed into looking for technical solutions to political problems”. 

Elsewhere, discussing innovations for democracy, Felipe Estefan, vice-president of the foundation Luminate, acknowledged that philanthropy had “for too long shied away” from politics. “It is hard when you're trying to shift power, and you're trying to at the same time avoid the spaces and the people at the centre of power,” he said. 

Ian Bassin of the nonprofit Protect Democracy, which was awarded the prestigious (and lucrative) Skoll Award for Social Innovation last year, was particularly unflinching. “All of us, no matter what we do, have to be contributing on this topic,” he said, because if we lose our freedom and democracy “then everything we’re doing is in danger”. Everyone in the audience should therefore consider what they could do as part of their work “to protect the system of government that allows us to pursue whatever our goal is… Come up with one thing, and add it to your priorities for this year.”


Train the donors

Systems thinking, systems change, systemic investing – not necessarily new ideas, but terms that are increasingly present on the conference circuit. Addressing the broader picture sounds smart – it avoids what one speaker described as “paracetamol philanthropy”, and instead focuses on the root causes of the illness. But it’s also difficult, and often uncomfortable: contemplate all the ways in which you influence a system and you’ll probably find some that aren’t so positive. 

Rohini Nilekani, a leading philanthropist in India, reckons we’ll soon see a lot more money focusing on systems change. In her own country, she said, younger generations coming into significant wealth were less attached to traditional views of how to spend family money. “There’s a lot of freedom and a lot of openness… I see a new era of philanthropy coming in.”

One way to usher in that era more quickly, many would argue, is to change the dynamic between donors and do-ers, whereby “capacity-building” goes in one direction only. Addressing the Skoll Foundation boss, Don Gips, Nilekani proposed an idea that prompted loud cheers from the room: “You need to create a conference where social sector leaders get to train donors.”

In case you missed it

Last Friday, after our weekly newsletter went out, we learned from Social Enterprise Mark founder Lucy Findlay – who is also one of our WISE100 women – that the social enterprise accreditation and standards body was going into administration. You can read our story here, and we hope to bring you more detail soon.

Finally, our editor Julie Pybus will be in Abu Dhabi for AVPN’s Global Conference from 23-25 April. Do get in touch if you’d like to connect during the event.


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Top photo: [Left to right] Felipe Estefan, Ian Bassin and Áurea Carolina at the Skoll World Forum 2024 (courtesy of the Skoll Foundation).