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A Sobering Takeaway from the WINGS Forum, Mexico City

March 5th, 2017

Richard Marker

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 gathering of the WINGS Forum. It is held in a different part of the world every three years, providing an opportunity for national and international philanthropy support organizations. For all of my international speaking, teaching, and advising, our advisory firm Wise Philanthropy only joined WINGS this past year, and this was the first Forum I have attended.

The conference was peopled by thoughtful and caring philanthropoids from many countries, continents, and organizations. The energy was genuine and the engagement with the unfolding nature of the field was impressive. Most of the issues that confront the philanthropy sector are generic, but the cultural and legal diversity are what provide the differentiating nuances throughout the world.

Philanthropy did not emerge in the United States despite the views of many who think otherwise; nor does the USA have a monopoly on good and highly sophisticated philanthropic giving. However, for a variety of historic and legal reasons, the institutions of philanthropy have reached a more developed flowering in the USA than many other places. As a result, there are more affinity organizations and professionals than elsewhere. Sitting in these sessions, I was reminded of the many ways in which there is much to share – and to learn – with and from our international colleagues. As one who has taught and worked with funders from so many places, I cherished the dynamic exchanges.

Yet, there was one theme that emerged throughout that, for me, was the single most significant takeaway from the days in Mexico City: the shrinking of the civil society space. In too many places, there are new laws that limit who can register, what they can do, and what are the related risks for operating. If the volunteer/nfp/ngo sector is the most independent, too many governments find that independence to be threatening. If civil society thrives because of our sector, intolerant governments are increasingly looking for ways to restrict and limit what we do and how we do it.

For much of the world, this is not new or news. It is news that the closing of civil society has been spreading even as quickly as democracy has been challenged in so many places. That alone would be sobering enough. But there was an underlying discomfort that transcended even that, the fragility of the sector in the United States.

The strength of American civil society and our philanthropy ecosystem have given derivative, and sometimes financial, support to those elsewhere in the world. American advocacy for civil liberties around the world, its history of civil society’s resilience, and the mandated independence of voluntarism have served it well – and provided a benchmark against which other societies have measured themselves.

But recent political trends in the United States have raised questions whether the sector is fragile even here. Threatened challenges to voting rights, civil liberties, immigrant protections, reproductive rights, and unrestricted religious rights have sent a chill both here and elsewhere.

In fairness, there is a profound difference: those nations where civil liberties have already eroded to the threat of life, or the space has already closed to a narrow corridor are in a very different place from the USA where the threats are hanging in the air, or in suggested legislation. For a couple of generations, Constitutional liberties were sacrosanct and the role of civil society was deeply respected. Neither is assured today. The resilience of the sector in the United States may yet prevail, but pain has already been inflicted, and there are already cracks in the foundational confidence.

The WINGS Forum was primarily concerned with the large world beyond the shores of the USA. Strengthening the extraordinary national associations, developing strategies to reinforce the effectiveness of civil society in those places, even where the space has already closed, providing peer learning and encouraging courageous and impactful philanthropy all, quite properly, took precedence over a preoccupation with the American dilemma. But I couldn’t help come away from those fruitful days with a sense that we not only have much to share, but also we have much to protect. All of us know, and must work to guarantee, that no society can thrive without a vibrant and secure civil society.

Everywhere in the world. Yes, even in the United States.

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