Bringing more voices to the table: WINGS and the ongoing evolution of philanthropy

Txai Suruí, a Brazilian environmental activist wears a traditional headpiece made with colorful feathers and weaved dry grass as she speaks animatedly into a microphone while sitting on stage in a red armchair at the WINGS Forum.
Txai Suruí, a Brazilian environmental activist, speaks at the 2023 WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya. Suruí, born of the Suruí people, works to help protect the Amazon from deforestation and climate change. Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

Philanthropy is in a new era of change. And WINGS is helping to lead its evolution.

When WINGS was established at the turn of the 21st century, the United States and Western Europe dominated the global philanthropy sector. Since then, the Global South has become a key driver of philanthropic development. New foundations are starting up in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With them come new, diverse practices of giving that are influencing the sector. WINGS wants to make sure organizations that represent these different customs and cultures of giving have a seat at the table. Recognizing and embracing this diversity is what will ready philanthropy for the future.

WINGS is a network of more than 200 philanthropic associations, support organizations, academic institutions and funders working in over 55 countries around the world. It is a leader in developing philanthropy and social investment in every part of the globe. Through its network, WINGS has an estimated reach of around 100,000 philanthropic entities, collectively mobilizing billions of dollars for social good.

It was not always like that.

A network is born

WINGS’ origin story goes back to 1998 in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Leaders of affinity groups and philanthropies gathered in Oaxaca from all parts of the world, from the Philippines to Brazil to Belgium to the United States. Called the International Meeting of Associations Serving Grantmakers (IMAG), this first-of-its-kind, 82-person group concluded there was a need for recurring peer exchange and learning to shore up and grow philanthropy around the globe, especially at a time when new giving opportunities were opening up in burgeoning democracies after the fall of communism. An outside evaluation report solicited by the group and formally commissioned by the Council on Foundations substantiated the demand. To meet it, WINGS was born.

With initial funding from the Charles Stewart Mott and Ford foundations, WINGS was established in 2000 to build bridges among philanthropic infrastructure organizations around the world. Its goal was to create a network to strengthen the global infrastructure for philanthropy through regular international exchanges, peer-to-peer learning opportunities and a flagship global convening, called the WINGSForum. In its early days, WINGS rotated its headquarters among different organizations around the world — from the Council on Foundations in the United States to the European Foundation Centre in Belgium to the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium in the Philippines.

A woman speaks into a microphone while on stage with other speaking guests at the WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Ford Foundation’s East Africa Director, Jessica Horn, and other speakers at the 2023 WINGSForum helped spark open and lively discussions on the conference theme of how to “transform philanthropy to transform the world.” Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

Organization at a crossroads

WINGS’ strength also became its Achilles’ heel.

In its first decade, WINGS’ rotating office and loose structure — a reflection of the breadth of diversity of philanthropy around the world — also meant a loose network with no formal membership and paid dues. Without sustainable funding, WINGS took a big hit when one of its two funders ended support in 2008. The network was on the brink of halting all programming. At this point, Mott was WINGS’ only funder.

Reflecting on the past, WINGS’ executive director Benjamin Bellegy, who took the helm of the organization in 2016, believes these early growing pains helped the network take a hard look at itself with trusted allies.

“Partners like Mott gave us its trust and said, ‘We’re here and will continue to support you,’” said Bellegy. “In the process, Mott helped us to rethink who we are.”

Mott remains a funder to this day, thus far granting a total of $4.8 million to support WINGS.

A group of women work on the seating arrangements for the WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya.
More than 350 attendees from over 50 countries gathered for the 2023 WINGSForum, where they engaged in conversations and exercises to help transform themselves, their practices and institutions to better address interconnected global risks facing philanthropy and the world. Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

Unlocking the network’s potential

WINGS became a more structured organization with formal membership and fees. It gave more thought to why infrastructure matters for philanthropy and diversified its funding and work — beyond just running its signature WINGSForum and peer learning events. The network started collecting data and produced research on and for the philanthropic sector.

This is when Bellegy came on board, turning the still-fledgling network’s challenges into opportunities by focusing on innovation and the future of philanthropy.

“During my years on WINGS’ board of trustees, the final and perhaps best thing I did as a board member was serving on the search committee for a new executive director, which landed us Benjamin Bellegy,” said Shannon Lawder, director of Mott’s Civil Society program.

WINGS Executive Director Benjamin Bellegy smiles at someone off camera and claps as he sits at a table at the WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya.
WINGS Executive Director Benjamin Bellegy participates in the 2023 WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya. Bellegy has led WINGS since 2016. Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

With support and vision from WINGS’ board of directors, Benjamin and the network’s members united in their resolve to unlock the potential of the organization — beyond its initial focus of just servicing members.

“We moved away from a service-based infrastructure concept to a collaborative, interconnected and impact-focused ecosystem vision,” explained Bellegy. “This ecosystem-strengthening approach was piloted in India, around Latin America and more recently in Africa — places in the Global South where philanthropy continues to grow and take off.”

For one WINGS member, the East Africa Philanthropy Network, this ecosystem work gave the organization a better understanding of the philanthropic environment in its region, helping EAPN to identify and advocate for policies to nurture philanthropic growth.

“Our partnership with WINGS has anchored our strategic endeavors, most recently through the East African Philanthropy Ecosystem Mapping initiative,” said Evans Okinyi, chief executive officer for EAPN. “This venture has not only charted the topography of philanthropy in the region but also has opened new avenues for policy and engagement.”

Seeing connections between its ecosystem work and policy, and drawing upon diversified funding sources, WINGS started focusing on the policy environment in which philanthropy operates. It published a series of policy papers for the sector. It provided capacity-building support and grants for members’ policy work at the national and regional levels. It also worked to develop a collective, inclusive voice for the sector at the global level, which had been missing until then.

We’re at the beginning of a new era for philanthropy — with WINGS at the forefront of its evolution.”
A color portrait of a woman wearing a short-sleeved black and white striped shirt. — Gabriella Abrego, program officer for Mott’s Civil Society team

“Our engagement with WINGS around the enabling environment for philanthropy has been instrumental in catapulting the East Africa Philanthropy Network into the forefront of global policy discussions, ensuring the voices and perspectives of East African philanthropy are both represented and influential on the world stage,” said Okinyi.

From Bellegy’s perspective, a big achievement has been successfully establishing a global voice, with WINGS’ now present at meetings of the Financial Action Task Force, the G-20 group of industrialized and emerging nations, and the United Nations, as well as in other critical global policy spaces.

To further its impact, WINGS launched the Philanthropy Transformation Initiative in 2023 to help influence norms and practices in the sector for years to come.

These key activities and an innovative, startup mindset have led to WINGS’ growth, while also helping the network impact the sector as a whole.

A man speaks into a microphone while on stage with other speaking guests at the WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya.
The 2023 WINGSForum brought together diverse voices from global philanthropy and civil society, demonstrating how the sector is evolving from former dominance by the United States and Western Europe. Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

Global voices on the rise

WINGS’ dynamic, diverse network is growing ever stronger, year by year.

“At the 2023 WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya, I was amazed by the vibrant, motivated global community that WINGS had brought together,” said Gabriella Abrego, a program officer on Mott’s Civil Society team. “The entire convening convinced me that we’re at the beginning of a new era for philanthropy — with WINGS at the forefront of its evolution.”

Bellegy agrees that a transformation is underway.

“WINGS members from places like Indonesia, Brazil and other countries of the Global South are becoming major actors in growing philanthropy and shaping philanthropic practices,” he said.

Mott Foundation Program Officer Gabriella Abrego stands by a table with two men as she places a piece of glass to a colorful stained glass mosaic laying flat on a table where a local Kenyan artist speaks with contributors.
Mott Foundation Program Officer Gabriella Abrego (left) contributes to a mosaic created by a local Kenyan artist. Pieced together with help from participants at the 2023 WINGSForum, the mosaic was designed to represent the philanthropic ecosystem. Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

Looking to the future: Partnerships for global-local impact

As Bellegy looks to the future, he sees the organization continuing to grow and adapt to reflect and meet the needs of its diverse global members.

As concerns about the effect of artificial intelligence on civic participation increase, WINGS is exploring a focus on disruptive technologies and their impact on the sector.

WINGS also will continue to forge relationships with multilateral and bilateral aid agencies. Organizations like the European Union, USAID and the French Development Agency are all talking about delivering development programs and humanitarian assistance in ways that are responsive to the needs and priorities of local communities.

A group of men and women pose for a group shot at the WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya.
Mamo Mohapi (front left), a program officer with Mott’s Civil Society team, shares smiles and laughter with other participants at the 2023 WINGSForum. Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

“WINGS and our members are having more and more conversations about locally led development,” said Bellegy. “In them, we emphasize that locally led development should not just be about getting international funding to local organizations, but about how to grow local resourcing for long-term, bottom-up development.

“This can be done by investing in philanthropy support organizations — the heart of our WINGS membership — which can grow and harness local resources for local good,” added Bellegy.

WINGS’ members agree. Pamela Cruz is with Comunalia, a network of community foundations in Mexico and a member organization of WINGS. Cruz said she appreciates how WINGS has enabled Comunalia to be a part of global policy conversations with USAID and the European Commission on topics like locally led development.

“As a member of the WINGS’ Latin America and the Caribbean Working Group, we are constantly invited to take part in policy and advocacy efforts,” said Cruz. “We’ve been able to bring voices from Mexico to advocate for locally led development as a key solution to address global issues, as well as for the role of philanthropy in delivering effective local development solutions.”

For Bellegy, it’s exciting to see how members are stronger together.

“When we work collectively as a sector and articulate, with global orchestration, the very local work that needs to be done, that gives us a lot of power,” he said.

A group of musicians dressed in traditional Kenyan garb pose for a group shot at the WINGSForum in Nairobi, Kenya.
The 2023 WINGSForum, which was held in Nairobi and co-hosted by the African Philanthropy Network, celebrated culture by featuring local artists and musicians. Photo: Erick Forester / WINGS

A catalyst for change

Bellegy said that, when he became executive director of WINGS in 2016, he never would have imagined that the network and its members, like Comunalia and EAPN, would have such powerful voices on the world stage.

Bellegy credits this to WINGS’ decision to move from offering mainly peer learning for grantmaker associations to its three-pillar focus on influencing philanthropic practices, improving philanthropy’s enabling environment and building local ecosystems of giving — all of which have helped to strengthen the diversity of the sector and elevate voices from emerging economies.

“It’s helped make WINGS a catalyst for change,” said Bellegy. “But we’re only a catalyst in so far as we reflect and represent the ever-growing new forms of giving in the world, many of which come from the Global South, ensuring they have a seat at the table in global spaces discussing development and the future of humanity.

“Coming together in all our diversity is how philanthropy can help solve the problems of the future,” said Bellegy. “We need to celebrate and build on this work. But it’s just the beginning.”