Philanthropy as acupuncture: It's not about the size of the needle, but where you put it

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Dec 19, 2012
by Louise Hallman
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Philanthropy as acupuncture: It's not about the size of the needle, but where you put it

Balancing a country’s civil society chi in times of transition and change "Philanthropy is acupuncture" said Salzburg Global Fellow Hakan Altinay

“Philanthropy is like acupuncture,” declared Hakan Altinay, senior fellow for global economy and development at the Brookings Institution, during the Salzburg Global Seminar session on ‘Philanthropy in Times of Crisis and Transition: Catalyzing Forces of Change’.

It’s not about the size of the needle, he explained, but where you put that has the biggest impact. This, he argued, could especially be said about philanthropy in times of crisis and transition. 

The amount of money philanthropic foundations and other donors grant to NGOs and their projects is less important than which NGOs and which projects, and in which areas—geographic and societal—these projects operate.

In the audience were 28 philanthropy experts, hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds, from those working for big foundations in the USA and Europe, to those working in regional, local and community philanthropy in countries of recent crisis, such as Libya, entering a new transition phase (e.g. Egypt), as well countries in prolonged transitions and prolonged crises, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, respectively; all arrived at Schloss Leopoldskron, Austria, to share and compare their own experiences and expertise of working in such countries.

Times of great political change and crisis can open up a country to philanthropy in a way not previously seen before, or simply offer a new partner by way of a change of government. 

But whilst new bodies into which philanthropic foundations and other donors can deftly push their monetary acupunctural needles might appear through times of crisis, several key issues still arise.

First and foremost, where do you put the “needles” of funding? What are the key issues and causes to be funded? Which are the best NGO partners to fund to deal with and promote those issues and causes? How do you deal with the multiple transitions that may be happening at the same time at different levels and in different area of one country?

“If we’re good and put needle in right place, we’re effective,” Altinay elaborated. If the needles are just poked in where they are not needed, i.e. the funding is not well-placed, then: “we just annoy people!”

Times of crisis might open up new areas of need, particularly in governance capacity building, but as countries move into times of transition, many of those same challenges from before the upheaval still exist.

“When people leave the squares, it’s poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, women’s marginalization and economic disempowerment—all of the issues we were dealing with before, we’re dealing with now, only in a more open and honest environment,” offered one Fellow working the Middle East and North Africa.

But in the MENA region, there is an identified “matching problem” – not only matching money to issues but also matching funding with local donors. 

Time spent ensure the best match might seem slow, but it will be well spent when it means that the impact is better assured.

If the area for “treatment” has been identified, just who is the acupuncturist? And for how long should the treatment be administered?

International, local and individual philanthropy all have their roles to play. As countries enter crises, large international foundations are able to swoop in and pump in vast sums of money very quickly. 

They have the human and financial capital to mobilize swiftly. But just as quickly, they can leave.

“Foundations need to ensure they have a humane exit strategy,” recommended one Fellow, to avoid sudden losses of funding for small NGOs and to aid transition.

But in turn, NGOs also need to always plan for the big donors’ exit.

If the big international donors are assumed to be leaving once the crisis is over, local philanthropy needs to be ready to be involved for the long haul, beyond the crisis and throughout the transition.

Local philanthropy often gives local NGOs the legitimacy they sorely need, especially if such times bring with them a wave of new found nationalism and/or a renewed distrust of “foreign agents”.

But often these local philanthropic organizations lack the capital to fund large projects, leading NGOs to seek funding from multiple donors; multiple donors means multiple reports and higher workloads piled on already stretched resources. 

Besides giving the larger grants, this is where larger international or more experienced foundations can help, by helping to establish networks of donors that can work together rather than in silos or worse, competition. 

This networked approach can help towards that all important “humane” exit strategy and ensure continued sustainability of civil society organizations, long after the big boys have gone home.

Individual donors, too, can play an important role in building NGO capacity in crisis and transition countries as they can often help avoid the (sometimes vindictive) bureaucracy faced by NGOs when trying secure funds from institutional donors.

Individual giving can often be more speedy and flexible as well as offering an independence and credibility, but it can also be more narrowly focussed and less ambitious.

However, as one Fellow pointed out: “You can’t get a better buy-in for a larger donor than proving you have ‘crowdsourced’ lots of small donations.”

All these funders are needed to ensure effective treatment, and the most effective treatment is long-term investment; we’re not talking 3-4 years but 20-30 years.

Besides the ‘where’ and ‘who’, there is also: how?

In times of limited funds, particularly in Europe, some donors have moved from cause-led grant-makers to impact-led grant-makers.

This means NGOs must work harder for their donations and can lead to short-sightedness in transition countries as donors push for quick returns on investments and measurable impact—something not always possible in countries of great social change.

Strategies are needed. “How do you do a strategic plan in a fast changing society?!” exclaimed one exasperated Fellow. Indeed, who knows what the post-Arab Spring Middle East will look like in 20 years?

“Strategy is about knowing how to manage what you can’t control,” came the reply.

Once the body, limb, needle, method and acupuncturist have all been identified, it still leaves the question: what is trying to be achieved? What chi is to be rebalanced?

Periods of crisis and transition are inherently political, and philanthropists need to think politically—after all, the new regime might not be the same enemy as before—but this doesn’t mean they should necessarily act politically. 

Philanthropy should support civil society, but it shouldn’t have to replace the government, with one Fellow warning against getting into the “neo-liberal position of funding what government should provide” (in this case, garbage collection).

Just as new governments might not turn out to want as much change as the revolution hoped, not everyone in philanthropy wants social change and justice—some donors want stability and continuity. 

After all, philanthropy writ large has no overarching guiding philosophy. It is a tool to catalyze change, not the catalyst itself.

But at the same time, all donors—large and small, international and local—need to realize that by being in the field and acting in field means they are ultimately effecting the actions of the field. 

You, the donor, the acupuncturist, with your needles of funding poking into various different areas and depths of a country, over various lengths of time, are changing the balance of the country’s chi, and affecting its transition, whether for better or worse.


Experience and knowledge shared at the Salzburg Global Seminar session ‘Philanthropy in Times of Crisis and Transition: Catalyzing Forces of Change’ will be expanded upon with further research for the upcoming publication on working in countries of crisis and transition to be published by the Institute for Integrated Transitions and the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement in 2013.