Blog: Philanthropy that benefits

CEI Nordic Director, Arild Bjørndal, wrote this opinion editorial focused on how philanthropic (and corporate social responsibility) funding can be of the greatest benefit to society, recently published in the Norwegian business press.

Read the English translation below.

Every year, philanthropic foundations (and a number of large private companies) hand out billions of Norwegian Kroner (NOK) to non-profit organisations in the Nordic countries. These are important funds that can help disentangle social problems where neither the public sector nor the market has a solution.

Philanthropic support does a lot of good in many local communities. This is important. Communities are where people live, children are born, and life prospects can improve. Together, citizens, volunteers, business and the public sector create good communities. And private donors and foundations have a fundamental role to play in these local ecosystems.

But if foundations are to contribute to actual and lasting improvement, they must prioritise the challenges they want to help solve, and concern themselves with how to create change. They must come together in strategic partnerships that can spend more money per area, over time. They must partner with entities with coalface experience of the social problem at hand, and that can support quality implementation and the path to scaling. Partners that can gather information before embarking, on what knowledge already exists, and communicate findings afterwards – about what came out of the effort.

Too much funding is spread too thinly. The result is many individual projects that do a measure of immediate good, but that rarely expand to create systemic change in society over time. Enthusiasts do a fantastic job all over the Nordic countries and we couldn’t get by without them. But if philanthropy is to support social entrepreneurship well, it must be done in ways that contribute to resilience and sustainability.

Numerous foundations and companies have useful goals and are contributing to important projects in the field of childhood: counteracting exclusion, promoting inclusion, creating opportunities for children in vulnerable life situations, and improving mental health among young people. Philanthropy should continue to identify and prioritise precisely such societal challenges. They can also contribute to new solutions in areas such as climate and culture.

The Gates Foundation has shown how an ambitious gift strategy can set the agenda and influence how governments and civil society work. Another example is the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), founded at MIT and supported by Community Jameel. Together with expertise partners, Nordic philanthropists can create equally important results – for example, in better supporting the raising of children. There is no reason why Norway (or any of the other Nordic countries) should not be widely recognised as the best country in the world to grow up.

Public authorities usually focus on traditional measures. Philanthropy is freer and should be a source of funding, first and foremost for those with new ideas and creativity. The funds should only in exceptional cases be used to supplement society's responsibility for financing basic research, which by its very nature is long-term and fragmentary. And philanthropy, should, of course, not support the operation of services for which the public sector is responsible.

The state, in my experience, has little to offer philanthropy. In my field of childhood, it has taken years to come up with priorities for a couple of big initiatives in Norway that have yet to become local reality anywhere. I’ve found it is far more useful to cooperate with municipalities and volunteers locally, and with companies that have significant experience with problem-solving. Partnerships with strong centres of expertise that will help create new and useful solutions can build bridges from resources to results.

If we are to make progress with complex and seemingly deadlocked problems, this will require a prioritised effort over time. Small projects here and there, with timelines of a year or two, are not going to do the job. Funders must be ambitious and dare to develop major, long-term missions. These missions must be based on the best of what we know now (quality data and research) and at the same time reward innovation and creativity. Simple but reliable evaluation must be built in, as well as good implementation practice and the prerequisites for scaling. 

In partnership with expert communities and through cooperation with local actors, such as municipalities and volunteers, philanthropy can promote social inclusion, improve living conditions and increase quality of life.

CEI runs the Kids First! project with support from the Kavli Trust, the foundation that owns and distributes all profits from the Kavli Group to good causes. In Kids First! CEI is working together with local communities across Norway to strengthen cross-disciplinary and cross-sector initiatives that support improved outcomes for children.