The field of polycrisis philanthropy is emerging, though less rapidly than the polycrisis itself. Distinct from climate philanthropy, polycrisis philanthropy recognises the interconnected nature of global challenges, from climate disasters and health pandemics to economic inequality and political instability.
At the heart of the concept of the polycrisis is the understanding that we face not just isolated crises but a cascade of intersecting crises. These intertwined challenges create compounded impacts. This understanding, defined succinctly by the Cascade Institute, views the global polycrisis as a scenario in which interconnected crises in various systems lead to greater collective harm than isolated crises. The implication for polycrisis philanthropy is the recognition that, as there are no longer ‘single’ crises, there are also no longer ‘single’ solutions. Siloed solutions to philanthropy will just not work under the polycrisis paradigm.
This understanding helps identify the important distinction, but also the connection, between climate philanthropy and polycrisis philanthropy. The former considers the climate crisis as a distinct threat multiplier and addresses its impacts through mitigation and adaptation strategies. The latter sees climate as interdependent with other global challenges, requiring integrated solutions. It focuses on systemic approaches that build collective resilience over more narrowly targeted interventions. This does not mean we do not believe a climate focus to be any less vital. But, understanding how it is nested within the wider polycrisis frame is an important awareness for practice.
West Churchman, an American philosopher, identifies the polycrisis as a ‘wicked problem’, one that has undefined boundaries, is difficult to intervene in and will vary significantly across regions with diverse experiences and interpretations1. This means, also, that it is impossible to ‘solve’ in any traditional sense. We have to find ways to learn to live with and through it.
It is the nature of this challenge that seems to overwhelm. And it is because needs and challenges differ so widely in their manifestation, and on so many dimensions that a siloed and traditional approach to philanthropy is unable to effectively address the nature, scale and speed of the challenges we face. The polycrisis necessitates a paradigm shift in philanthropy practice. It urges us to broaden our scope, to delve more deeply into the spectrum of intertwined societal and community challenges, to focus on systemic change and, above all, to adopt an inclusive, transformational and collaborative approach.
The goal of polycrisis philanthropy is not just theoretical understanding but practical action. It aims to foster systemic change through a nuanced, holistic strategy. Central to this is empowering ‘beneficiaries’ – local communities on the frontlines of overlapping crises (wherever those may be) – by shifting resources and agency, valuing local knowledge, promoting ‘home-grown’ resilience solutions and above all, recognising that disruption, discontinuity and uncertainty are what we can be certain of.
Building strategic hope to encourage others, based on lived experience, is essential. Connecting people, north and south, and convening conversations to share approaches, practices and learnings is vital to inspire and to harness the real potential value for all of our philanthropic contributions. The Impact Trust / RFN Resilience Practitioner Series is designed to do just this. As a peer-led long-form dialogue with a global community seeking to navigate the polycrisis, Practitioner Series conversations seek to create a safe but frank space for deliberative engagement and discussion. These conversations are not intended to ‘find solutions’ but to expand our ways of thinking and doing, making space for a collaborative effort to emerge. Sharing practices is vital to polycrisis philanthropy. It is what will take us beyond the theoretical notion of entangled crises to the practical action that can provide inspiration, models or lessons in what works and what doesn’t, for what contexts and what communities. And it can ensure that funding is leveraged through learning.
This also means that being fixed – whether in strategy or practice – is not conducive to ‘success’. The willingness to fail, experiment and learn from what works – and what doesn’t – is essential. Beth Sawin of the MultiSolving Institute highlights the importance of responding to the polycrisis through networks, communities, and organisations, collectively. This approach acknowledges the unpredictability of our times and the need for multi-faceted responses that address immediate needs, build long-term sustainable systems, and transform worldviews.
This perspective is not out of sync with the growing realisation in the philanthropy sector that we have to transform to effectively navigate the challenges of our contemporary era. It is reflected in the WINGS Philanthropy Transformation Initiative and embodied in many of its Principles, not least of which is Principle 10: Keep humanity’s future in sight and integrate the polycrisis lens. It is also strongly aligned with a ‘shift the power’ agenda, shifting the power towards collective resilience and community decision-making – whatever or wherever that community might be.
Polycrisis philanthropy, we could argue, reflects a coming of age of philanthropy, a recognition of our mutual reliance and impact on others in the 21st century. It is a call to address and redress the social governance of systems at the root. Meaningfully tackling the polycrisis is about fundamentally transforming the way we do things. It is about building collective resilience based on regenerative systems and fostering radical hope that is essential for both our collective – and individual – survival.
As a collaborative that has been working to define the contours of the polycrisis for more than a decade, the question “Is there a polycrisis ‘field’ in philanthropic practice (yet)?”, is one that has preoccupied the Impact Trust and Resilience Funders Network (RFN) recently. We believe it would be valuable to more clearly understand its presence in the funding landscape. As importantly, understanding what proactive work needs to be done to support philanthropy organisations in navigating the challenges, is an important part of our work in the polycrisis philanthropy field.
To further the understanding of the polycrisis, the Impact Trust and Resilience Funders Network is working with WINGS to present a ‘learning journey’ in polycrisis philanthropy. This programme, featuring conversations with diverse thought leaders, aims to deepen understanding and foster robust interaction to learn what support is needed and how we can provide it. More details on this will be shared in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions or want to understand more, please contact [email protected].
This blog was written for, and fist published by, WINGS.
1. The concept of polycrisis is not new. It echoes past discussions of the ‘global problematique’ raised in Ozbekhan’s original prospectus for the Club of Rome in 1970: “The Predicament of Mankind”. And it reflects the evolution of the concept of resilience since around the same time. Both concepts have emerged in parallel, without our awareness, perhaps, of the interconnection between them. Both have rapidly gained in popularity but face challenges in their application in practice arising from the diversity and complexity of meanings in their use.