Social Compact In A Changing World: How Philanthropies are Grappling with Growing Scrutiny and Critique

Throughout Europe and the U.S., many are pushing back on what they perceive as an inappropriate influence on public policy by private funders and questioning the power dynamic that enables wealthy private funders to impose their solutions to social and environmental problems without being required to involve the affected communities. Even the pundit world reveals this critique, with the subtitles of recent books speaking volumes: The Elite Charade of Changing the World of Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All, and Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better of Rob Reich’s Just Giving.

Globally, the rise of populism, discontent, and illiberal tendencies have led to accusations that philanthropy is being used as a tool to further a political agenda or consolidate power. Moreover, foundations that engage with socially and politically sensitive issues often find themselves targets of campaigns to delegitimize their work, philanthropic intent, and funding sources.

In response, dozens of governments around the world have proposed or adopted laws that restrict how non-governmental organizations operate or receive philanthropic funding. At the center of this debate is the “social compact,” an entity’s explicit or implicit agreement with society about the value it creates. Social compact encompasses concepts such as accountability, legitimacy, transparency, and public trust. For governments, corporations, nonprofits and philanthropies, the social compact can change as a result of shifting external circumstances, political and economic conditions, or prevailing views on private wealth and public responsibility. A philanthropic organization’s social compact can also reflect shifting notions of how it views its role in society, demonstrates value, interacts with stakeholders, and expresses accountability. 

Given the increased scrutiny surrounding private philanthropy, the time is ripe to explore the social compact as applied to philanthropic institutions, and how those entities are interpreting shifting social norms and adjusting to new realities.


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