What is the role of communications in decolonising philanthropy?

Ensuring comms is grounded in truth and fact

Authors: Ayesha Gardiner
  • Reading time: 3 min.
  • Posted on: October 24, 2022

“Maybe we aren’t transforming the world, maybe we’re just making it look a little bit different”…  words that have stuck with me working at a communications and design agency. 

Mikaela Loach recently challenged a room full of decision makers and power holders in philanthropy at Goalkeepers2030. She asked them to interrogate themselves, their organisations and the power that they operate through. 

It reflects conversations amongst the Strategy team at Shape History recently regarding the latest shift within the funding sector to “decolonise philanthropy” and how that is making its way to communication teams. We work with philanthropic foundations, as communicators and designers of their message. We have a say in the narrative they communicate and the visuals they project about the world. As power holders here, we must assess the ways in which we approach this. 

Decolonising means to undo the problem. What is the problem we are talking about? Colonialismthe legacy of European settlement imposed on a non-European population. Or more broadly, it could also be understood as the assumptions that underlie the relationships between a dominant social group and the rest of society. The term decolonising has grown in prominence within philanthropy, which became apparent at an event I attended with Alliance Magazine earlier this month. The Decolonising Philanthropy event had over 300 guests, demonstrating the increasing recognition amongst many funders and family foundations of their position in the world, and the need to undo the damage and underlying assumptions that gave them power.

As a social impact communications agency, we’re seeing an increased ambition in this direction of travel, with funders and philanthropic organisations attempting to approach their work through a decolonised lens. But at what point does communications need to come into the equation? And how? 
At Goalkeepers2030, Mikaela went on to say that billionaire philanthrocapitalism will not work because it would require a distribution of power, not just wealth. Decolonising philanthropy is the current narrative used to explain the attempt to do just that. But it needs to happen through each of the following three areas:

01 Power  – shifting to power with partners, not over.

This requires analysing who holds the power and where that power and wealth originates from. For instance, who decides the solution and strategies for success? Moreover, who decides what success looks like? 

If that decision comes from anywhere other than the organisations that the foundation works with, then power is in the wrong place, because a choice has been made based on an inequitable perspective about the world.

02 Behaviour 

This means shifting from programmatic funding to capacity building and long-term funding support. 

The Fund For Global Human Rights, one of Shape’s recent partners, approaches their work under the frame of investment. Beyond grantmaking, they provide tools, training, legal and emergency support, and a global network of committed allies. This is an example of addressing ‘behaviour’ through a decolonised lens. 
Resources referenced at the Alliance Magazine event to start acting on this include, Funding For Real Change, Grantmaking Principles and Catalyst 2030 Shifting Funding Practices.

03 Language 

This is where our work at Shape comes in, and should always be considered last! 

If one has power, they inherently have the ability to own and control narratives about the world. That goes beyond incorporating the latest language and buzzwords. To develop a narrative or identity that is truly through a decolonised lens, the work on shifting power and behaviour has to have happened first. 

Language should be informed by that work, and then the visuals should be developed out of that. Ultimately, the things we communicate should always be grounded in fact and truth… otherwise “we aren’t transforming the world, we’re making it look (and sound and read) a little bit different”.

To end with a final consideration on the challenge of language which we are exploring as a team. The term ‘Decolonised Philanthropy’ in itself imposes and assumes power dynamics. How can language and communications do away with this jargon and these trends? Stay tuned.


Credits to the panel of the Alliance Magazine event for the knowledge shared – Dr Shonali Banerjee, Yvonne Moore, Urvi Shriram and Dr Jessica Sklair.