Part 2 – Diaspora Philanthropy: Delivery of Potential and Impact
Part 2 – Diaspora Philanthropy: Delivery of Potential and Impact
It’s about the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and a refusal to accept that better outcomes aren’t possible. It’s about patience to do research, learn, iterate, and be data-driven whilst also recognizing datasets alone don’t change behaviour. It’s about a willingness to change based on what works and what doesn’t. It’s about listening to those you seek to help. Finally, it’s about humility. (Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, Phil Buchanan)
For those of you who read Part 1 – welcome back. For those who didn’t – you’re just about forgiven!
In Part 1, we discussed some of the foundational frameworks that can inspire a new dawn for diaspora philanthropy, mainly our definition, discourse and decisions for the future of the topic. Here, we work towards action with an ambition and unwavering belief in the purpose of diaspora philanthropy.
This article outlines more information to justify this ambition and belief. It clarifies the argument on why this is more important than ever. The aim is here to challenge ourselves. Finally, the article announces some plans I have for my own future and partnerships on diaspora engagement in response to what is happening in front of our eyes and the need for some courage.
Diaspora Philanthropy & The “How” Question: Humility, Patience & Listening
The potentialities of impact from diaspora engagement are so diversely rich that it is has been my passion to learn and try to lead on the topic. Along this road, there have been many bumps (some self-inflicted) where that passion got tested. It still does. But have hope because the future is great for diaspora engagement; if, and only if, we treat it right.
Now is our time to meet this responsibility.
Over the past few weeks, I have received a record number of calls on diaspora engagement from donors, organizations, policymakers and practitioners alike. This platform has been inundated with marketing and invitations to forums, roundtables, webinars on diaspora from human capital to social capital to the old favourite, remittances. Let’s not forget the amazing stories of how diaspora communities are helping one another all over the world that are filling up content on some of the world’s greatest publications.
Diaspora - as a word - is popping up in places deemed out of reach a few months back. There is a tsunami of interest that will translate to a tsunami of activity in the topic. Great, right? Yes, but only if our mission now is to commit to delivering work of impact.
This mission is easier said than done as folks mobilize in the short-term around a pandemic. However well-meaning this is, I’m nervous for the sector of diaspora engagement in this moment. And, as an introvert, this nervousness for the sector has driven me to a “learning” behaviour. Through this, I came across the quote that opened this article, which although written about philanthropy, is just as compelling for the future of diaspora engagement.
It made me think of one question that has consumed me for years but has been slapping me in the face for the past months:
What’s missing in the systems and strategies of diaspora engagement that can help eradicate the failures of the past and help us formalize diaspora engagement into a sector?
I am acutely aware this is a complex question that cannot be answered in a few pages on LinkedIn. There is also no one magic answer. Yet, what I’ve grasped in my learning moment is that there are a couple of simple ingredients to the answer that need to be said out loud with courage and conviction. You have read these ingredients already in this article. They are:
Humility, Patience, and Listening.
Diaspora engagement is “lite” on all three and this may be at the root of our missed opportunities.
Think about it for a moment. How many times do we hear of millions and billions in the diaspora world around remittances and investment? How many times do we hear about how if we tap X% of the diaspora for this purpose or that purpose then all will be ok with the world? This list goes on. The more important “how” question to consider right now may be this:
Show me the “how” of diaspora engagement?
Let’s be really boring for a moment and think discourse again. When we talk of tapping or harnessing anything, never mind a community of people, then how sincere does that even sound? Diaspora engagement may very well have a sincerity problem. 
The successes in diaspora engagement tend to have humility, patience, and listening permeating through them. They are engagements of emotion and meaning. And here is the beautiful lesson in all this; those engagements never have trouble finding money!
So, as the diaspora engagement world renews itself in the challenges and energies fastened but not created by a pandemic, I contend that our diaspora work needs have a little more humility, patience and listening built into its systems and strategies. In my humble opinion, there is one area of diaspora engagement that offers greater scope for this than any other: Diaspora Philanthropy.
Diaspora Philanthropy as a Portal: The Developer of Development
Part 1 spoke to the issues of definition and discourse as a lens to set out a powerful trajectory of understanding on diaspora philanthropy. We continue this journey here as promised with a simple, evocative realisation for the role of diaspora philanthropy in diaspora engagement:
Diaspora Philanthropy is a missing portal for impactful diaspora engagement.
Let’s build on the dynamic trends mentioned in Part 1 to explore this. Diaspora engagement as it currently sits is consumed with big leaps. Stakeholders correctly see big potential driven by trends such as the growing number of international migrants along with market innovation (technological and financial) resulting in a "holy grail" moment for diaspora engagement, particularly in investment.
Coupled with the apparent impenetrable power of remittances, now comfortably debunked by the pandemic, diaspora engagement danced a good tune on diaspora finance and investment. Make no mistake, this has allured many to getting their fingers burnt on diaspora; and to be fair, you can see why they fell into the trap.
Let’s look at some of these realities. In terms of migration, we are allowed a more diverse and inclusive defining framework by diaspora. So, the diaspora pool extends beyond the big migration numbers now on everyone’s lips. With every passing election, I think more people than ever know there are about 272 million international migrants in the world!
Remittances, aptly and ably recorded by the KNOMAD project at the World Bank, have been a fascination of diaspora engagement for decades and serve, for many, as the exemplar of the power of the diaspora idea. Now the discussion is focused on the fall in remittances and solutions in the sector to this output of the pandemic with the shift to digital, policy advocacy and opening supply channels to those most in need focusing the mind.
Then to the Intergenerational Transfer of Wealth, signposted best by a report by Accenture in the early 2010s, which estimates that there will be approximately $30 trillion in financial and non-financial assets transferred intergenerationally in North America. Other estimates vary (but these estimates go predominantly one way – up!). This money can go to heirs, taxes, or be given away. With the U.S. a proud nation of immigration (despite what “some might say” as the Oasis song goes – the song reference theme is for loyal Part 1 readers!), then a lot of this wealth will have diaspora dimensions.
I have criticised the insincerity of talking millions and billions on diaspora so I’ll stop here on the trends, but you can just enter them all into various search engines and more info will pop up on a daily basis. Why then, you may ask, is the diaspora world not littered with successful engagements for these pots of gold (no Irish leprechaun jokes allowed!).
Great question.
There are many reasons, but the one that matters most in terms of the financial capital of diaspora engagement is this: people confuse giving with investing. And in the diaspora world, giving predates investing. The big leap folks tend to ignore this fact.
In that light, Diaspora Philanthropy as a vehicle of giving is a portal to impactful diaspora engagement, or the developer of development. Diaspora Philanthropy, then, is the smart way to begin engagement.
Diaspora Philanthropy as Smart Philanthropy (but not as you know it!)
Story and story is written about the “new” donors who are bringing their “business smarts” to philanthropy, as though this were a new idea or a good one – when neither is the case. It is amazing how shallow much of the work is. This trend needs to change. (Giving Done Right).
There is something truly vociferous happening in the philanthropic sector now (admittedly crystallizing in the North America given the strength of their culture of philanthropy). We can leave those debates for another day and how diaspora philanthropy needs to be part of them apart from the troubling, and correct, assertion by Buchanan outlined above.
He points out a powerful shortcoming in the sector on the shallowness of work informing it. It got me thinking: does diaspora work suffer with the same shallowness?
The answer should wake us all up.
In recent times, it probably has; it is a natural outcome of the insincerity I spoke of earlier. And, let’s be completely upfront here. This is not a statement of protectionism for diaspora work; we need more voices in this work. We need more critical thinkers and doers. We should be actively inspiring them and welcoming them. In fact, the shallowness of some of the work to date may be why some aren’t turning up in the first place!
It is time to air some hard truths on diaspora work (and some may have heard me speak to these before in podcasts and public speaking):
1)     Diaspora studies as an academic and applied discipline of substance is in disarray – often a plug-in module of migration and development curricula.
2)     There is nowhere to go to substantially “research, learn, and iterate” on diaspora engagement at a world-class level. (keep reading for more news on this in the conclusion!).
This means shallow work (and voices) have been allowed to ascend on the topic. Now, as tough as it may be, we need the courage to call them out and “challenge the conventional wisdom”. Some will surprise us in their right to response. Others won’t.
This will be therapeutic and good for the future of diaspora work as it gets to the second part of the question in the introduction – formalizing diaspora engagement into a sector. To do this, we must be smart not shallow.
A quick word of caution: Smart-ology is now an industry of its own! The word “smart” is popping up everywhere; communication needs to be smart, education needs to be smart (!), giving needs to be smart, technology needs to be smart and so on. My question is whether this is the right type of smart for diaspora philanthropy?
Diaspora philanthropy for impact will inevitably be drawn to issues of policy, progress and power. In a post-coronavirus world, power will be again be the mainstay of global attention. So, how about diaspora philanthropy as smart power?
Smart power is people to people power. Ironically enough, smart power was best defined by a diaspora analogy at the inaugural Global Diaspora Forum in Washington DC in 2011:
The truth is that it’s not possible for any government, no matter how well meaning, to meet the challenges we face, from natural disasters, to economic stagnation, to poverty or civil unrest. Therefore, we need what I call smart power, and that means employing every tool at our disposal……….building these coalitions, spurring initiative and innovation around the world, using people-to-people exchanges is actually the core of smart power. And that’s where all of you come in.
You [Diasporas] have the potential to be the most powerful people-to-people asset we can bring to the world’s table.
The generosity in our country is legendary, and we often tap it to assist us to leverage our efforts even more than what our government can do. We also know that many of you have stepped in where others are unwilling or unable to do. You step in and help create a business or build a school or provide healthcare. And I saw the effectiveness of diaspora communities in the work that I’ve done for many years. Certainly, one of the great examples, and actually, a group that has spurred a lot of our thinking are Irish Americans because Irish Americans were instrumental to the peace process in Northern Ireland. (Global Diaspora Forum 2011, Opening Remarks).
Sounds timely. And sounds a lot like Diaspora Philanthropy as smart power to me. (shame about the word "tap"!).
The message here is that diaspora, philanthropy, and power is a relationship of substance in the globally networked 21st century.
By moving forward with diaspora philanthropy at the centre of our diaspora engagement work, we will build a culture of impact that gets the discussion beyond potential. This means, for example, that the answers to 1), 2) and many more opportunities come into sight. In the philanthropic spirit of discovery and experiment, I conclude the article with some tips on how to enact diaspora philanthropy along with some announcements on my road ahead with diaspora work.
Some Diaspora Philanthropy “Smarts”: Delivering Impact
It [giving effectively] necessitates a different level of collaboration and relationship-building, deep humility, and a recognition of how difficult it is to chart cause and effect. In each of these ways, and many others, it’s different to what it takes to be effective in business. It is its own unique challenge, requiring its own discipline. (Giving Done Right)
I started this 2-part series by reflecting on my time as a PhD student. Some amazing insights and quotes have stuck with me from remarkable minds and practitioners of diaspora philanthropy, none more so than my colleague and friend Kingsley Aikins. The tips and ideas that follow here are a joint effort informed by his energies and guidance over the years.
These may sound simple, but you’d be surprised how many people fail to integrate them into the work that they do. They will focus on an established reality of diaspora engagement; the need to build globally dispersed and diverse networks of affluence and influence.
1.     Think Swan Lake, Not the Swan on the Lake
You may have guessed it by now, but patience and learning are critical starting points for diaspora engagement and diaspora philanthropy alike. Think of Swan Lake – a ballet of stunning beauty and co-ordination built on the trust of many moving parts. Then think of the swan on the lake who is furiously paddling beneath water to stay afloat. Which one do you want to reflect you and your work?
Fine-tune your design and plan, build it slowly, incrementally and systematically through quality learning. Get comfortable at being wrong and make sure to ask the right people for input. Let those people and the diaspora guide you; Never impose ideas, co-create them. Open and honest assessment should never be out of sight or reach from people who will tell you the truth, not what they think you want to hear.
Never rush to market in diaspora engagement. Most people do, it might be worth checking out how that has worked out for them! Something I always keep in my mind is that a standing ovation comes from the hard work done when no-one is in the theatre.
2.     Networks & Relationships Win the Day
Networking is fundamentally misconstrued by many. It encapsulates the image of a suave businessperson flinging out business cards around a forum or summit. Networking is about giving not getting. Be humble and you can shape ways to be incredibly authentic in your work with others.
It is critical to understand that you need to build networks of affluence and influence. Philanthropy has been described, by Buchanan and others, as collaborative in dynamic rather than competitive. Take the hint and do not go it alone.
Create and curate networks through relationships that matter. Diasporas are crying out for these relationships so that’s a good start.
3.     Bear Witness: Listen, Listen, Listen
I came to diaspora work from the humanities and social sciences – it taught me skills critical for success and missing in many leaders. I remember studying history as an undergrad and reading the book, I Shall Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer, when learning about collective memory. We need to bear witness in diaspora philanthropy, it creates credibility. Veracity is valuable.
Many other philanthropic protagonists can do a more compelling job than I can on the intricacies of listening systematically. To my eyes, all the talk of civicness, democratization and such around philanthropy can be stripped back to a simple reality of ensuring you listen and elevate voices across the engagement spectrum. Never be afraid to give them a seat of leadership in your work.
It is not rocket science, don’t treat it as such. And those who tell you otherwise, don’t trust them.
4.     Be Proud: Know what you do and don’t shirk responsibility for it.
It has become an article of faith that the boundaries are blurring between nonprofits and companies and this is an inarguably positive development. Neither of these assertions are true. (Giving Done Right).
Have your radar up for the shallow. Tackle it abruptly if you see it; have the courage to call it out. A lot of new vehicles of financial giving will flirt with diaspora communities and end up like many first dates - not getting a second date.
Let’s stand up for philanthropy; it isn’t going anywhere in the jurisdictions it is integrated in and those that don’t have it integrated are all working towards creating a culture of philanthropy. So why confuse it or devalue it?
Here’s the punchline – with the definition of diaspora philanthropy advanced in Part 1 (the philanthropic application of diaspora capital [i.e. flows of people, ideas, and money]) – then diaspora philanthropy constitutes the majority of diaspora engagement as it stands! And it is not just about money but money matters, there is no reason to be afraid of saying that.
The added impact of being proud is that it will allow us to illuminate just how special this work is. As we move to a post-pandemic world, the boundaries of public and private sector will re-emerge as the demands of each come back to bear on their respective players. Then diaspora philanthropy can really come into its own and give triple wins for diaspora, home and host.
5.     Leadership & Voice: Mission Possible not Vision Impossible
Your leadership and mission are critically important in philanthropy. The same is true in diaspora philanthropy. A lot of diaspora organizations, philanthropic and otherwise, try to be everything to everyone. I’ve learnt from my walk to do one thing really well before trying to do anything else. Iteration and evolution need to be earned.
Be clear with people. Your vision can aspire and inspire but people must be able to see themselves in your mission. You are going to need them to go into battle with you and through you.
I’ve spoken about voice already but take it from this introvert, knowing when and where to put your voice to work is something really worth figuring out. Don’t figure that out alone, you will make wrong decisions if you do. I have.
Critical questions will come on when to use your voice: do you do it continuously or sparingly, publicly or privately? Diasporas have a lot of loud voices; some are part of the reason the sector has stalled a little. The quietest voice, well used, can lead in amazing ways. Remember, substance not shallow.
Conclusion: The Road Ahead
I hope these tips help but they bring me to a big personal question: how do I want to put my network and voice to work for diaspora? I wrote some months back that this was the beginning of a period of reflection and improvement for myself.
Revisiting my relationship with diaspora work, I’ve realized that over the past few years there were moments when I lacked the very characteristics I mentioned at the beginning of this piece – humility, patience, and listening. I apologize to those that bore the brunt of those frustrations…..you know who you are and I’m sorry.
Those frustrations were borne out of the fact that the potentials for meaningful impact in the world from diaspora engagement are vast and within reach, but I sensed the insincerity and shallowness. It made me angry, it’s that simple. But this is the moment to safeguard the future of diaspora engagement, so it is time to use my voice and network.
I am convinced, and hopefully you are now also, that diaspora philanthropy is a key portal that needs further building to reach that meaningful impact. So that’s is why I am now committing to spending the majority of my energies, ideas, and intellect (however limited!) to contribute to our understanding and application of diaspora philanthropy.
To begin, I am delighted to announce 3 important steps on this journey:
A)     I will be co-leading the Diaspora Engagement pillar at The Networking Institute for Kingsley and team. This will include curating our content and communities with flagship offerings such as our Diaspora Engagement Training Programme and Diaspora Knowledge Centre. More on this in coming weeks but after years of jokingly telling folks that myself and TNI are a package deal, this is now a partnership. We want to share everything we know on diaspora engagement in an interactive, new, and refreshing manner where we can all “research, learn, and iterate” at the right level.
B)     For the next few years, I will be committing to a more substantive applied research agenda on diaspora philanthropy. I am going to “learn on the road” when travel is allowed again and go global to physically speak to beneficiaries, givers and the voices who inspire diaspora philanthropy to write my first book on the topic. A book was in the pipeline, but I think it needs a longer journey of research to capture it best. The future use of my passport will have this primary reason!
C)     These commitments constitute the first phase of a longer term horizon of discovery that will include the creation of a new entity focusing on global diaspora philanthropy. Its purpose will be to contribute to my burning ambition - to make Ireland the global centre of excellence in the research, teaching and training on diaspora engagement. I’ve flirted with this idea in various forms over the past few years and I have some ideas on this, but I am going to heed my own advice & test them by listening to people.
Thank you for your patience in reading these articles; I hope you enjoyed them, please spread the word if you did and let’s get to work on diaspora philanthropy beginning with some humility, patience & listening.
Stay well....M

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