Charity in the Face of Collapse: The Need for Generative Giving not Strategic Hubris

In recent months, I have talked privately to more third sector workers, activists, philanthropists, religious leaders and government officials who seek to be useful in the world at this difficult time. They have been reflecting on what it is they could be doing and supporting with their funds, networks and know-how.

People involved in funding charitable activities have a particular challenge, because climate change risks undermining everything. Whether you sponsor a school, human rights organisation, lifeboat, museum, donkey sanctuary or something else, it is all going to be affected by climate chaos and a societal collapse. Crucially, the threat of imminent societal collapse poses a challenge to normal notions of prudence within charitable foundations. Why only spend the earnings or a share of the endowment each year when we have such a short window for action to reduce the scale of the catastrophe ahead?

brown ship steering wheel
Photo by Maël BALLAND on

This topic of likely collapse is so huge and all-encompassing that it affects everybody in every part of the world in every professional practice, in their work, family, community and political lives. Last year I wrote about the various forms of collapse-acceptance and the ways I have been seeing people integrate this into their lives and the choices they are making professionally and personally. Since then I have been on my own journey. As I have a background in non-profit and foundation strategies and performance, writing a report for the UN over a decade ago, I am interested in how activists and grant makers are exploring where to focus their energies and funds. To aid your thinking, I am going to list some of the approaches I have heard people taking, before explaining why I have taken a different path with the launch of the Deep Adaptation Forum. I share these ideas because if you are someone who could provide grants for others, then you have an important role to play as the world wakes up to our predicament.

First, you could decide to attempt to reach the most powerful people in the world in terms of decision-making power and the ability to move money and seek to help them understand, decide and implement what to do to buy societies some time before a societal collapse, reduce harm during the process and plant the seeds of a new way of life. Who might such powerful people be? In my experience of working with board level executives of large organisations and top politicians, I know they are limited within what their roles allow. Therefore, some people are now looking towards engaging the billionaires and leveraging their power to promote wider change. Let’s call this the Benevolent Billionaire strategy.

Second, you could decide to reach out to those who are disproportionately affected by climate chaos, because of our concern for human rights, equality and justice. For instance, you might seek to help disadvantaged communities to become more resilient to future financial or food shocks, or the breakdown in law and order. Or you could try to increase the voice of people from marginalized groups within countries and worldwide, on policies in general and climate adaptation in particular. With this approach it also makes sense to focus on young people and helping them to prepare. Let’s call this the Solidarity Forever strategy.

Third, you could decide to begin from where you are at, and therefore look at what skills and networks you have that you could re-purpose for this agenda. You could do that even if the people and activities involved might not be the most important in terms of systemic or scalable impact. Your reason could be that you would know what you are doing and who you are talking to. So, if you are working in investment finance, you might seek to bring “deep adaptation” into your investment work. Let’s call this the Step-by-Step strategy.

Fourth, you could seek to raise awareness about impending collapse, as fast and as wide as possible, without an allegiance to any one approach to reducing harm. That might involve you joining a civil disobedience campaign, getting arrested, tweeting a lot or just having tough conversations with colleagues, friends and family. Let’s call this the Shout-it-Out strategy.

Fifth, you could take time to re-discover what it is you most love doing, now that your old stories of identity, conformity, respect for the system and for incremental change no longer hold true for you. That might mean you drop everything, sell your house and retrain as a yoga teacher, breathwork host, or documentary film maker. No, this isn’t fiction. I’ve talked to many who are exploring such a path. Let’s call this the Live-a-Little strategy.

I suggest these names for the different strategies to make it easier to discuss (for instance, leave your comments below). I have been supporting such responses in a number of ways in the months since my Deep Adaptation paper came out (downloads from the top right). But I see they all have some limitations. Benevolent Billionaires can prove elusive and once engaged tend to have their own ideas, set hard from a past of ego-affirmation. A Solidarity Forever strategy soon comes up against the realisation that while people can do some things in their local communities, they aren’t really in control of most means of resilience. And working street-by-street really doesn’t seem to match the urgency of our challenge. A Step-by-Step Strategy soon invites confusion, apathy or ridicule from people who are busy on their normal work and wondering “what’s got in to you”. After such set-backs you can begin to wonder why you are seeking to influence a profession that probably won’t exist in 10 years. I can report that the Live-a-Little strategy feels wonderful. Until it doesn’t. And you begin to desire to be doing something a bit wider. If you are that-way-inclined, then the Shout-it-Out strategy also feels wonderful. Until it doesn’t. And you begin to wonder whether waving placards, avoiding police batons and hoping government wakes up will impact much in the long run.

As I wrote at the start, this agenda affects everyone you know and all aspects of their life. That’s why I have found it difficult to give all my focus to one of those five types of response I listed above. So what should receive our attention and funding?

A typical strategic approach to grant-making is where the funder asks a person or organisation to present an argument about what is important to do for a specific target group, with a clear theory of change and mechanisms of accountability. That sounds very sensible, and far more professional than the kind of grant-making that seeks to make the donor look good (or less bad). But given the predicament we are in, I do not believe the typical approach to be suitable for all forms of philanthropy. Because to focus on that approach would reflect a hubristic view that we can predict the future, control reality, as well as the idea a donor has a better view than others. Instead, none of us really know what the heck to do right now as we face unprecedented times. Therefore, I see the importance of helping people, whose acceptance of likely collapse is affecting them deeply and transforming their approach to work and life, to find each other and co-create initiatives of all kinds. Therefore, the Deep Adaptation Forum and its associated social networks is not based on a strategy for enabling change other than helping people come together around this agenda and explore ideas from a spirit of compassion, curiosity, respect, and agency. That means we still believe that there are things that can be done to buy humanity time, reduce harm and enable learning, perhaps awakening, within these difficult times.

Within the Forum we are pursuing these aims by supporting the formation of professional groups, from coaching to schooling to farming, where people are enabled to meet by videolink. We professionally facilitate those online meetings as well as train volunteers to do so. We are also supporting in-person dialogues that use open space facilitation to respond to the issues that participants wish to discuss. We have launched monthly online Q&A sessions with relevant experts. The Forum is and will remain free and activities are produced through voluntary work and small donations that are paid direct to freelancers. Many new projects may emerge over time, from the participants themselves. To guide that emergence, we are clear about how we wish to both embody and enable loving approaches to our predicament. That might sound obvious, but on this topic some people take discussions towards preparing for violence, while others say that nothing is worth doing at all.

Aside from the Forum, what kind of philanthropic or grant-making philosophy could be useful today in the face of increasing climate-related disruptions to our way of life? If you are providing grants for specific services to the disadvantaged, such as victims of environmental catastrophes, famines or wars, then questions of efficiency and traceability are important. However, this kind of grant-making does little to address the causes or risk factors behind the such troubles. To work on that, invites us to support wider efforts at education, cultural change, governmental reform and economic reform. In that arena, my experience in giving and receiving financial funding is that the most interesting and powerful impacts and the best relations are where four things are made explicit.

First, that the funding is a gift. It is not about the funder trying to build their own profile and power or to control the recipient. It is a statement of faith in the person, their organisation (if they are within one), the general domain of action and the unfairness of our societies which create such divisions between those with funds and those without.

Second, that the funding is to empower the recipient to work on the issue domain as they determine, where the forms of action may change as the recipient learns along the way and as situations evolve.

Third, that the grantee shares the grant-makers’ philosophy of responsiveness to those with less power in society, and so does not impose their solutions on others. This leads to a form of cascading downwards accountability to push back against power injustices in society.

Fourth, that the funder and recipient agree to a means of ongoing communication which is like that of honest and critical friends, rather than one seeking to please the other. The extent of communication is agreed between the two and might simply involve a bimonthly email update and video call.

I will call this approach Generative Giving. It recognises that the wisdom is not within the funder, but is found through dialogue between the funder, funded and those affected. The likely impact is not increased by more spreadsheet entries in either the planning or reporting. Instead it is increased by basing relations in a spirit of gift, trust, empowerment and dialogue. It is the kind of approach that the freelancers of the Deep Adaptation Forum have benefited from greatly. If you share this philosophy, we would love to hear from you (via the About page).

I realise that if you work as a grant maker in a foundation then it is not so easy to fund activities in the way I have just described. In the pursuit of professionalism and accountability the field of charitable giving has been twisted into a bureaucratic process, overseen by trustees who assume a quiet life and don’t rock the boat. Well that boat is about to sink. Given that we face societal collapse due to climate chaos, the financial assets that support philanthropy will evaporate in the process. The power of the philanthropist only exists within this society and our systems. Therefore, it would be prudent to spend down an entire endowment within the next ten years to try and buy humanity time, reduce harm and seed what might come next. If that means changing the core rules of a charitable foundation, or flouting them, then so be it. Now is the time for trustees and grant-makers to rebel against a stifled approach that is not fit for our time of crisis.

5 thoughts on “Charity in the Face of Collapse: The Need for Generative Giving not Strategic Hubris”

  1. To love is to “live a little”, I think. To love the visceral act of being alive.

    It is really helpful to see the different subcategories of activism and how they all have a significant niche. I came to understand my own some years ago and come to terms with my sphere of influence, as well as the wider ocean of my sphere of concern.

    I have the embarrassing conversation quite a lot now. It’s as if I embody the archetype of the doomsayer. It’s lonely. People do definitely think something’s got into me. Sometimes the grief overwhelms me and i cannot breathe with the sadness. Yet to be cracked open like that means the love comes flooding in, too. If I am to witness the end of days then I will be glad I had eyes to see the wild garlic as it burst into flower and hear the oyster catchers calling over wild, windswept moors of my beloved Pennines.

    I have no money I’m afraid, but I am a good fundraiser! Always happy to do a sponsored run. Over the moors to where the wild birds fly.

  2. I have been a part of a 501c3 Non profit enviro NGO that refuses to compromise since 1998. We have many successes, even won a case in the US Supreme Court in the late 90s’, but have never attained any level of serious funding because we won’t sell out. I am a full-time ecosystem advocate that has never seen a paycheck for such in 20 years.
    RE: Solidarity Forever strategy. I have practiced since the early 1990’s but mostly for species that don’t have representation. I have worked with local indigenous people with limited effect although most tribal governments in the Pacific NW are appendages of extraction industries and US Government policies.
    RE: Shout-it-Out strategy. I have immersed myself in this as well since the 1995 or thereof mostly in the so called EF! movement but it has never reached a critical mass of people. I’m hoping this will change with extinction rebellion groups springing up all over the globe but my associates from the last few decades hold no such enthusiasm.
    RE: Benevolent Billionaire strategy. I have tried this on and off for decades as well but it has never been successful. I know several millionaires in my community who know of our work but they do not fund much that makes much of any difference. One individual pays for environmental polls and surveys to be done across the western US but to what affect?
    RE: Step-by-Step strategy. I do believe more efforts and funding needs to be directed at tangible efforts that actually build community resilience for the lowest income areas first and foremost. I live in one of the lowest income areas in Lane County, Oregon where the majority of my community members live in travel trailer parks, old mobile homes and dilapidated housing but the only plans the city and county has is gentrification which will drive most of my community into homelessness. The opposite of building resilience but will build more tribalism conflicts.
    The Eugene, Oregon community at large even though portrayed as liberal and progressive does little to nothing to address any of the serous matters at hand. Eugene and Oregon in general is awash with greenwashing corruption to the highest levels of government and this makes it very hard to see any real change happening until full on collapse is upon us. (Here is a major article published in March 2019 in the Oregonian barely scratching the surface of the corruption us no compromisers have faced over the last 30 years under Democratic Governors ). I hope to proven wrong regarding “only collapse will spur action too late” but regardless I am not planning to abandon my responsibilities to the Cascadia bioregion.

    Thanks for your efforts and perhaps we can stir up some real change somewhere on the globe before hard collapse is upon us.

  3. Hi Jem,

    I and ALLFED have recieved this kind of funding.

    Much of what you suggest is already being done, but with a different vocabulary: Effective Altruism, X-risk, Global Catastrophic Risk, Long Term Future.

    The Centre for Effective Altruism and it’s allied funds are heavily involved in this. It has spawned a global movement of idealistic, mostly young “effective altruists” somewhat like the green students and idealistic volunteers of the 1980s/90s, but distinctly more techy, numerate, speculative and hard-headed. To see them relaxed, check out EAglobal and EAx and EA facebook groups. Philosophers involved include Toby Ord, Pete Singer, and other roots include the MIT Poverty Lab (Esther DuFlo et al)….

    … and yes, billionaires are involved, especially from the silicon world, for example Jaan Tallin (Skype founder) funded CSER Cambridge.

    I don’t think that that work is identical to your aim for the forum, and the emotional shift is in some ways more central here, and collaborations will emerge here that wouldn’t come out of EA*.

    However, a lot of the thought on short term, medium term and long term risks to humanity has already been done quietly and with a lot of rigour by EAs, the GCR and X-risk research community, Willis Research, DoD, UK Foreign Office, Global Challenges Foundation and even more mainstream bodies (often using real risk data and Monte Carlo/Bayesian analysis, not cautious IPCC projections or hopeful speeches from Paris) so we don’t need to re-do that work, and could actually be a little more grounded in data, fuller assessments and realistic timescales rather than fear/speculation when it comes to short term and medium term collapse scenarios or cascading scenarios.

    Also EAs and GCR/X people have done a lot of thinking on what should be prioritised, in various sectors and with given aims, and on how to be less wrong over time with spending and research choices. Learning from this could help us save a lot of time. and this is time which, if you’re right, we don’t have too much of.

    Some cautions for anyone who can get put off by first impressions:

    1. With so many young techy types, they do worry very much more than most people about “bad AI” scenarios aka “The Singularity” which would be an artificial intelligence takeover. I used not to worry about this much at all, but since recently listening to a lecture on the choice tree, which outlined the risk-hazard dilemmas for governments, I DO get why some really intelligent people see this as a really serious and possibly inevitable human extinction risk, perhaps as early as 2040, and as yet we have no even slightly viable prevention or recovery strategy. Even runaway climate change just isn’t in the same category. (Try googling “Is climate change an X-risk?”)

    Whether you agree with that or not, please don’t let the many discussions about AI risk obscure that they do a lot else besides.

    2. Watchwords for strict, full-on EAs are “important, tractable and neglected”. Climate mitigation does not qualify well on the second criteria, and not at all on the 3rd. So only a subset of EAs will be very interested in climate collapse or DeepAdaptation framings [though I sometimes get them interested in “cascading scenarios” and we could try “multiple hazards”].

    Because of this, some (not all) of the philanthropic funds connected to this community just aren’t interested in climate change funding, or conventional adaptation, and even with those that are more open, an application from us would need to show a much higher effectiveness than other potential approaches to environmental work, and/or a quantifiable new benefit to millions which couldn’t been better or cheaper or more reliably secured by (eg) sending on malaria bed nets or cash transfers.

    However, I and ALLFED have done well with funding from this community, and I think we fit well into at least one strand of the DeepAdaptation agenda, so don’t let the criteria put you off too fast, and, better yet, the criteria may actually help us for better proposals.


    * EAs have a rather open agenda and risk landscape, whereas (so far) this forum apparently focuses only one one trigger (abrupt or runaway climate change) and one scenario type (global societal collapse, undefined duration). Finally, EAs come in a vast range of flavours with some interestingly odd directions of travel and astonishingly different interests. I suspect that DAs / DeAds, on the other hand, are largely green-ish left/liberal boomers and genX, no longer unambivalently hopeful about conventional climate mitigation and wanting as a high priority a biodiverse sustainable planet without mass starvation.

  4. I don’t know much about crowdfunding but have three questions:
    1. Does Deep Adaptation have charitable status, and if so what is the Charity registration number? Tax relief can make a big difference…

    2. Have you thought about matching funds, and The Big Give, which usually happens in the Autumn…?

    3. How can individuals make a donation or leave a legacy in their Will?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.