What does Brexit have to do with Place Based Philanthropy?

great briitain leaves european union metaphor

Let me state right up front, I have nothing new to say about Brexit itself on top of the millions of words already written and said. I may have my opinion, but I suspect we will all have to wait until this plays out over the next few months or years.

But Brexit does bring to the fore lurking issues in the philanthropy world that are reflective of major challenges we all need to face up to. After all, the underlying issue for most UK voters was: “to what ‘place’ do we belong?”

For the vast majority of us, from a philanthropy perspective, “place” has a lot to do with the first claims on our resources. But what do we mean by “place?”

Once upon a time, “place” was self-evident. One lived in a particular physical community, with a particular subset of people who shared a religion or national origin or ethnic background. And when one thought more broadly about place, it was likely the place from where one came or, perhaps, a more expansive vision of the community where one lived. There was no question what and where had primary claim on ones charitable giving.

On a micro level, things begin to change as families spread out. When 3rd and 4th and 5th generations live in many locales, what is the “place” that has a claim on those families? And do they feel any sense of nostalgia or loyalty to the communities and the institutions of their onetime roots?

The plot thickens when we acknowledge the increasingly transient nature of what we mean by community. We are all part of multiple communities, including countless virtual and temporary ones. Today, for most younger people and for many of us not so young, we simply assume that transiency. We are parts of political groups before elections but not after, we are parts of social groups convening for someone’s birthday, we are alumni/ae of universities, schools, companies, employers, apartments, and who knows what else. We have religious connections, family connections, neighborhood connections… Yet, even when these connections are long term, they frequently only come together for limited purposes and for limited times. When making philanthropy choices, which ones count? As any of us who have worked with multi-generational families on their philanthropic decision-making can attest, this is the stuff of energized board meetings.

But it doesn’t end there, and now we are inching toward the Brexit question, or at least some of the underlying issues it represents.

Once upon a time, that is in the 18th and 19th centuries and even much of the 20th, the nation-state was the model of modernity and the organizing principle that bridged ethnicities, regionalisms, dialects, creeds, and economies. It provided identity and protection. It gave financial stability and a sense of empowerment. It also led to the apotheosis of the nation as idolatry, massacres of many millions in the name of national sovereignty or some evil manifestation thereof.

The nation state proved illusory, or, at best, short term. We now know that there really is no such thing as a self contained national economy or the guarantee that a nation-state has any better values and behaviors than any other. Further, there is no such thing as a major challenge that stops at a national border or is contained within a municipality. [e.g., climate change; migrations; infectious diseases; even transportation; etc.] And if one adds cyberspace and cyber-speed, these issues are as present as one’s smartphone and as vivid as one’s twitter feed.

Where does “here” begin and end? If “nation” doesn’t suffice, what does?

“International” is a reality. For some it is an ideology, an ideal, an enemy, a threat. Or, perhaps, a market, an adventure, a vision.

“Localism” is appealing to some. We should eat locavore, shop locally, vote our local interests. But it is also limiting when it is the wrong growing season; it can restrict life style options; reduce our access to diversity in people and ideas.

“Ethnicity” has appeal for others: After all, if we don’t take care of our own who will? And isn’t our rich history and culture worth celebrating? But that can be limiting when doors close for marriage rites, and the other becomes suspect simply by being “other.”

“Religion” can be a secure space for many. It provides nurture, meaning, community, ritual. But for some that can mean exclusivity of truth, the demonization of the non- or other-believer, or a literalness of texts written in times and places long gone.

It would be nice if “families” were a safe space. And, gladly, it is for many. But, as we know, for too many it is just the opposite – either physically or psychologically.

Or, perhaps, none of these are as real as the transiency of “virtual communities” – the only commonality is the temporary nature of relationships.

What is clear is that this is a time of anomie and dislocation for all too many throughout the world. There are few commonly held truths or visions of what civil society means or what organizations or institutions or governing bodies can accomplish. And on top of that, there is a worldwide diminution of the value of human life – and I don’t simply mean by terrorists. For example, when nations and political and religious leaders deny the existential threat of climate change to vast swaths of the world, that is a diminution of the value of human life. When the world is paralyzed by the massacres of citizens and the migration of millions, admittedly an incredibly daunting challenge, it is a diminution of the value of human life. When some in the US feel that gun-toting anarchy, based on a feeble and specious interpretation of constitutional rights, takes precedence over the safety of us all, that is a diminution of the value of life.

Now, I am sure that many of you are now saying – even if all of this is correct, and it surely is sobering, what does all of this have to do with philanthropy?

It underscores the unique privileged role that private philanthropy can play, and the profound responsibility that goes with it. Private philanthropy, at least in the United States, remains largely unfettered and agnostic. We can fund whatever we want based on our own subjective preferences. It must be for the public good but that is a very broad category indeed.

To be sure, that can mean that we can be self indulgent in our choices. But it also means that we can take initiatives and risks to address deep systemic issues in way that no other sector can. We may not always be right – failure is ok – but we can always remember that we have the unique privilege of redressing wrongs, reaffirming rights, restoring social weal, and reassessing the social compact in ways that can make the difference, do make a difference. At a time of such radical social upheaval, and political disarray in far too many parts of the globe, our courageous investment of philanthropic capital has never been more essential.

We may and must continue to fund locally, however we may choose to define “local,” but, in our thinking and planning, we must, we must, we must think of the entire world as our “place.” It is.

Richard Marker advises funders and foundations on their philanthropy strategy through Wise Philanthropy, and teaches philanthropists and foundation professionals at both Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and NYU Academy for Funder Education.