Philanthropy and Power: Ethical Decision Making in a Volatile World


Caren Croland Yanis is an independent advisor and a member of the Board of Visitors at IU’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Caren was the Executive Director of the Oprah Winfrey Foundations in the 2000s, and then the President of Crown Family Philanthropies before starting her own firm, Croland Consulting, in 2016.

It’s long been known that power imbalances exist in philanthropic giving but identifying those imbalances may yield some surprises. Lopsidedness in the philanthropic sector goes beyond the donor-nonprofit relationship. It crosses generations and vocations. Inequities live in the myths and assumptions, and the very way we think about philanthropy. Here’s where we need a paradigm shift.

Grantor/Grantee Relationships

Inherent imbalances in the relationships between donors and nonprofits are straightforward: donors have money, networks, time and authority, and non-profits need those resources to do the work they set out to do in the world. Keep in mind that 75% of public charities, according to the National Council of Nonprofits, have less than six months of reserves on hand and 10% only have enough to keep the lights on for thirty days.

For charities, navigating the power imbalance may mean life or death, and for donors, it’s the difference between being told what you want to hear and reality. Anand Giridharadas, author of the controversial book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” said, “I’ve found that real change escapes many changemakers because powerful illusion guides their projects.” Bryan Stevenson has the solution to those illusions when he talks about the importance of “being proximate" to the communities we invest in and working closely with the people who will be affected by those investments. Often that takes a lot of time, but inevitably it leads to stronger results.

Assumptions about Resources

I was giving a talk a few weeks ago to a group of fundraisers and I asked, given the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US, would it make sense for organizations working on similar issues to collaborate? Immediately a hand went up and a long-serving fundraiser suggested that I might be a little naïve because there are finite resources in the field, and everyone is competing for them. This logic is familiar, but it’s based on a false construct. There are many donors, individual, family, and corporate, capable of donating funds other than those they have allocated to philanthropy.

Recently Schmidt Futures held a conference for philanthropic advisors that generated significant current and potential collaboration on solving big problems. They created a post competitive environment where advisors could share solutions to “wicked problems”, get to know one another and collaborate on unlocking capital from donors who care deeply about those wicked problems and are waiting for solutions.

In 2021 close to $485 billion dollars was given to philanthropy (Giving USA) in the U.S. alone, but it’s important to keep in mind that much of that money flowed into private foundations and Donor Advised Funds, where it can sit for a few, or many, years before making its way into the philanthropic ecosystem. So even though those dollars are designated for social benefit, activation is in the hands of the donors.

Governance and Tipping the Scales

Let’s face it: in family philanthropy there are no natural predators. If a foundation runs afoul of the IRS or the state Attorney General, shame on them and their advisors. Of course, we’ve seen private foundations paying for family vacations, and engaging in self-dealing. Those activities are both clearly unethical and illegal. Staying compliant is low hanging fruit.

Family foundations benefit when the governance model, and specifically decision making, is designed to empower everyone at the table to participate and be heard. Generating equity around a family foundation boardroom table means having a codified set of rules, an agreement that frames a process for decision making. One tool that encourages trust, is for family board members to call one another by first names in the boardroom. When G2 Members refer to their parents as Mom and Dad, which are terms of endearment under other circumstances, the power is squarely placed along generational lines.

Family leaders looking to preserve and ensure that family values are passed down, can count on equity and inclusion as a solid tool for making it happen. Key here is that the as the world changes, emerging generations will carry on a donor family’s intent because they are empowered to contextualize family values to fit the changing times.

Donors who lack trust in the next generation have been known to exert dead hand control in their estate planning, literally controlling behaviors from the grave. But intense focus on control can backfire and end up causing more problems than it was intended to solve, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Uncounted Capital

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, came up with a different way to ensure his values, and the values of his family, are protected. Patagonia, a B-Corp, has been donating 1% of profits each year to environmental causes. Chouinard is now giving the entire company to charity. He laid it out in a public letter in September, “100% of the company’s voting stock transfers to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, created to protect the company’s values; and 100% of the nonvoting stock had been given to the Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature. The funding will come from Patagonia: Each year, the money we make after reinvesting in the business will be distributed as a dividend to help fight the crisis.”

Power imbalances in philanthropy are baked into the model. Chouinard’s approach creates a different paradigm, one designed to protect donor intent, and maintain focus on the environment as our planet warms.

Collaborations, informed decision making, and approaching problems from a place of abundance and not scarcity can even the scales just a little, so we can all focus on solutions to the world’s most wicked problems.

Digital for Good: A Global Study on Emerging Ways of Giving

Government and philanthropic organizations increased virtual support and coordination to provide pandemic relief, and diaspora and local communities continued to support the giving environment in South Africa and Kenya during the COVID-19 pandemic 

Philanthropic organizations in Kenya and South Africa have similar philanthropic environments. In Kenya, a moderate philanthropic environment (at an overall score of 3.50),[1] is largely fueled by strong cultural heritage and informal philanthropic giving, with increased support in recent years from the government and philanthropic alliances to boost the country’s formal philanthropic environment. In South Africa, the modest philanthropic environment (at an overall score of 3.51),[2] is compounded of historic, social, and cultural public engagement, which has promoted philanthropic values, with growing support from the government through legislative measures to support philanthropic organizations and giving.

The global outbreak of COVID-19 has significantly affected the philanthropic landscape in both countries. Findings from the 2022 Global Philanthropy Environment Index (GPEI) show that in both Kenya and South Africa, donations from the public, increased collaboration among donors, and funding and resources leveraged by charitable organizations delivered services to vulnerable communities. At the same time, many philanthropic organizations lost funding support and even collapsed. The 2022 GPEI also found that philanthropic giving and funding support increased in both countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to provide emergency and essential services.

Now, the latest study: Digital for Good: A Global Study on Emerging Ways of Giving project explores some of the emerging vehicles of philanthropy that have become more prominent in recent years, such as crowdfunding, mobile giving, workplace giving, retail giving, and online volunteering.

The emergence of new giving vehicles in Kenya and South Africa is facilitated by a culture of philanthropy and developments in digital technology

The spirit of philanthropy has always lived in Kenyan civil society in the tradition of ‘Harambee’ which brings people together to support local development. In South Africa, the values and practices of ‘Ubuntu’ ties people together to the larger community and environment through their authenticity and humanity. The advent of the digital economy and network allowed both informal philanthropy and charitable activities through formal philanthropic organizations to evolve in both countries.

In Kenya, crowdfunding and workplace giving have emerged as new forms of philanthropy with a familiar spirit and intention as promoted by Harambee. Researchers at the East Africa Philanthropy Network (EAPN) note that the rise of mobile technology and mobile payment has popularized crowdfunding and solidified it as an alternate form of fundraising source. The decrease in traditional sources of funding due to and during the COVID-19 pandemic also strengthened the use of crowdfunding, along with workplace giving. Workplace giving is a relatively new giving vehicle in Kenya but was a perfect match to meet demands of diversification of funding sources to philanthropic organizations.

In South Africa, emerging giving vehicles such as crowdfunding, retail giving, mobile giving, payroll giving, and virtual volunteering, were propelled into the limelight by the COVID-19 pandemic. The research unit at Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa highlights how vehicles, such as crowdfunding, recorded greater philanthropic activity due to the needs brought forth by the global pandemic. The increased internet penetration and social media outreach have also strengthened mobile giving, virtual volunteering, and crowdfunding in the country. Retail giving and payroll giving in South Africa also benefited from technological and social innovation, but the core value of Ubuntu also made new giving platforms more adoptable.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption and use of new giving vehicles, such as workplace giving, retail giving, and mobile giving

The increase in internet penetration, digital media and networks, and mobile technology, presented an opportunity for South Africans and Kenyans to connect with the outside world during the pandemic lockdown, as well as help vulnerable people and communities outside their neighborhoods. As traditional funding and grant resources halted or ceased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society and philanthropic organizations turned to innovative ways of securing funding and resources.

In Kenya, as researchers at the EAPN note, “crowdfunding and workplace giving became alternative forms of raising resources both locally, and among employees of organizations to fill the gap that had been left by the closing of international funding sources.” Technology-based fundraising and crowdfunding tools were especially successful during the pandemic as the lockdown did not impose any restrictions on the outreach, use, and collection of donations through platforms such as M-Changa and M-Pesa in Kenya. Similarly, both crowdfunding and workplace giving emerged as successful new vehicles due to their accessibility and ability to foster a sense of community through helping others with COVID-19 related needs.

Our research partners in South Africa highlighted that “the popularity of new giving vehicles in South Africa witnessed exponential growth during the pandemic.” Crowdfunding platforms in South Africa, such as Backabuddy, JustGiving, Islamic Relief, and many others, witnessed an increase in uptake and use during the pandemic. Retail giving also experienced growth in the early stages of the pandemic, due to individuals donating part of their shopping basket to designated relief collection points in various shopping malls and stores. Many people also opted to increase their donations through loyalty cards. A similar rise in mobile giving, payroll giving, and virtual volunteering was also noticed.

Looking onward: Understanding philanthropy in the local context and further expanding new giving vehicles

The philanthropic ecosystems in Kenya and South Africa have been transformed and revived by a wave of digitalization and the collective experience of enduring a global pandemic. The potential of continuing social and digital innovation and introducing new philanthropic practices in both countries presents to be promising and encouraging.

The study in Kenya revealed that philanthropic organizations in the country want to explore and navigate the local ecosystem to raise funds and resources. The use of social media for outreach, and mobile money transfer for payments, links both avenues back to the Harambee spirit to promote and stimulate growth in local communities. Workplace place giving has also worked through the spirit of using local resources to intervene in local situations. Other vehicles with immense potential to grow philanthropic investments and culture in Kenya include social entrepreneurship, legacy giving, impact investments, tax giving, alumni giving, and endowment building. The researchers at EAPN emphasize that,” these depend on building a proper giving infrastructure and an enabling philanthropy environment.”

In South Africa, “the recent increases in uptake and continuous democratization of philanthropy where everyone has a chance and potential to be a donor” presents the greatest area for strengthening giving. Understanding the bridge between conventional philanthropy and local, informal philanthropy will be crucial in tapping into several new philanthropic avenues in South Africa. Only a handful of charitable organizations are utilizing the new giving vehicles that recently emerged in South Africa, while public donors are still not fully informed on how to give through such vehicles. The future of South African philanthropy will include increased focus on education of the new giving vehicles as channels of giving, while also developing knowledge and capacity for organizations to adopt and implement new giving vehicles into their own practices.

About the Global Study

The Digital for Good: A Global Study on Emerging Ways of Giving report explores the most recent development of philanthropy in partnership with organizations and experts in eight countries: Brazil, China, India, Kenya, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. By exploring the emerging vehicles for philanthropy, this global study offers new insights for civil society leaders, philanthropists, and the public to better understand and shape the ever-evolving state of philanthropy.

Such a global study has the ability to develop the global network of philanthropy researchers and to build capacity in countries where philanthropy seems to have the potential to grow rapidly in the following years. It also provides a better understanding of global trends in philanthropy while putting a spotlight on local developments as well.

“Working collaboratively on an international research project provides observed and lived context on how the practice of philanthropy is unfolding within local communities and societies, while bringing an outside perspective which when combined with internal experiences can create a desirable knowledge synergy.” — Wycliffe Nduga Ouma, Research Associate, The Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment (CAPSI).

“Such a research collaboration promotes knowledge exchange, skills building, transfer of knowledge, and visibility of research and philanthropic partners. The potential to grow the culture of documenting philanthropy practice is huge, particularly from an African context.” — Evans Okinyi, Chief Executive Officer, East Africa Philanthropy Network (EAPN).

East Africa Philanthropy Network

East Africa Philanthropy Network (EAPN) is a voluntary membership organization that brings together local charitable trusts and foundations in East Africa with the primary aim of promoting and growing a culture of giving. The network’s mission is to provide a collaborative platform that champions, connects and co-creates innovative solutions to advance philanthropy in East Africa.

Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) South Africa

Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa (CAFSA) is an independent non-profit organization that promotes and facilitates effective giving, volunteering, and social investment. While being a wholly South African organization, CAFSA is also a member of the international Global Alliance of the Charities Aid Foundation, headquartered in the United Kingdom (CAF UK). The organization’s mission is to increase and enhance giving and social investment, and to stimulate the corporate sector to embrace developmental values. CAFSA further seeks to support social entrepreneurs.

Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is dedicated to improving philanthropy to improve the world by training and empowering students and professionals to be innovators and leaders who create positive and lasting change. The school offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy through its academic, research and international programs, and through The Fund Raising School, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, and Women’s Philanthropy Institute.


Wycliffe Nduga Ouma, PhD is a Research Associate at The Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment (CAPSI) at the Wits Business School. With over 8 years of research experience, Wycliffe is also a consultant for CAF South Africa on various projects including employee volunteering programs, knowledge management, and Thought-Leadership.

Evans Okinyi is the Chief Executive Officer at the East Africa Philanthropy Network (EAPN). Evans is a seasoned non-profit executive with over 9 years of progressive experience in networks management, policy formulation & implementation, and stakeholders & partnerships.

Mike O’maera is part of the Program Support team at the East Africa Philanthropy Network (EAPN). Mike is an experienced communications & knowledge expert with 15 years of experience in research and knowledge fields and is well-versed in communication for development.

Shivant Shrestha is a Research Associate at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Shivant is a part of the team on global philanthropy and cross-border giving, including the study Digital for Good: A Global Study on Emerging Ways of Giving. His other research areas focus on environmental philanthropy, climate giving, and public engagement in climate science.

[1] On the scale of 1 (indicating the least favorable philanthropic environment) to 5 (indicating the most favorable philanthropic environment). The global philanthropic environment was moderately favorable (with an average overall score of 3.63) in 2018-2020; but Sub-Saharan Africa had a less favorable philanthropic environment with an average 3.33 overall score. Kenya received the fourth highest overall score among the ten countries of this region studied in the 2022 Global Philanthropy Environment Index report.

[2] On the scale of 1 (indicating the least favorable philanthropic environment) to 5 (indicating the most favorable philanthropic environment). The global philanthropic environment was moderately favorable (with an average overall score of 3.63) in 2018-2020; however Sub-Saharan Africa had a less favorable environment for philanthropy with an average 3.33 overall score. South Africa received the third highest overall score among the ten countries of this region included in the 2022 Global Philanthropy Environment Index report.