Am outdoor concrete wall with the words “we all live here” painted in white
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Among the massive disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was a sharp drop in foreign direct investment across the globe: one study by the US National Institutes of Health found that global FDI in 2020 fell by about one-third, to the lowest point since the global financial crisis of the late 2000s.

But the story was not the same for global philanthropy, which remained relatively robust in 2020, despite the pandemic.

That’s one finding from a new report based on an index developed by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, dubbed the Global Philanthropy Tracker.

“We know very little about how much . . . giving goes overseas.”

The Lilly School aims to increase the understanding of philanthropy and improve its practice globally through research, education, and professional development.

The Global Philanthropy Tracker represents an ambitious effort to create and maintain a central, nonprofit-led data repository that lets users track global giving—a tool that, somewhat surprisingly given the global nature of philanthropy as a sector, hasn’t really existed until now.

Part of the challenge, says Dr. Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly School, is that much of global philanthropy has been tracked in silos.

“Foundations would track what foundations are doing, corporations would track what corporations are doing, and religious bodies may do that on their own. But there isn’t one central resource, as it turns out,” says Osili. “One of the goals of this project was to better understand philanthropy that takes place across borders because for the most part, most countries tend to look at what takes place within their own countries. We know very little about how much of that giving goes overseas, where the distribution is of those dollars, how much goes to certain parts of the world regionally, as well as subject areas, destination topics—for example, how much goes to climate and so forth.”

The Global Philanthropy Tracker seeks to fill that gap in understanding. The project tracks data in over 90 individual countries, working with local partners, to track an immense global flow of philanthropic giving—as much as $70 billion in 2020, the most recent year for which the project has data.

That year also happened to mark global outbreak of COVID-19, an event that sent world markets reeling and which deeply affected the worldwide flow of money.

We know that foreign direct investment really contracted in the wake of COVID. Understandably, many investors did not invest in other countries, and we saw FDI dramatically decline,” says Osili.

“In contrast, philanthropy was relatively resilient during this period, as was private remittances. So the big story here, is at a time when official development assistance, foreign direct investment, other financial flows appear to be constrained . . . philanthropy and remittances proved to be quite resilient.”

“There is an interest in more disaggregated, more granular information.”

The project also found that, unlike FDI, global remittances (money sent among family members) not only did not decline but actually went up somewhat in 2020, further demonstrating the importance of philanthropy, defined broadly, on the world stage.

Such findings are just examples of the kinds of insight that the new Global Philanthropy Tracker might provide, by making available data that have until now been difficult or impossible for funders, academics, and governments to access.

“There is an interest in more disaggregated, more granular information, and this is true of individual donors, funders of different sizes who want to say, well, who else is investing in climate? Who else is working on the refugee crisis? Who else is investing in science infrastructure? And what they would really like is a comprehensive view similar to what we provided here,” says Osili. “There’s also an interest in collaboration and coordination. Governments want to partner with philanthropies. Similarly, NGOs want to know who are the donors that are interested in these topics . . . There’s also a question of how philanthropists working together achieve the greatest [outcomes] and where can the data help them?

Osili notes that there has been particular interest in the tracker among developing countries, where such data have often been lacking. 

“The data can be part of a toolkit and part of decision-making for people who are committed to this sort of cross-border work and giving at a global scale,” says Osili.

The Lilly School has developed “sister” projects along similar lines, including the Global Philanthropy Environment Index and Digital for Good, a “global study on emerging ways of giving.”

Beyond the data, the Global Philanthropy Tracker and its reports also seek to provide insight when it comes to global giving.

The 2023 report identifies three “opportunities for the international community to reimagine the role of philanthropy in sustainable development” (6):

  • Development of global standards for data tracking and promotion of data transparency: There remains “a dearth of data on cross-border giving to specific causes,” the report states, noting that of 47 countries for which robust philanthropic data was available, in only 14 could that data be broken down by cause (7).
  • Strengthening the role of local philanthropic organizations: The “increasing number of natural and human-made disasters” points to the importance of local, grassroots initiatives that often serve as “first responders” on the ground, the report states (6). Regional collaboration could allow such organizations to better respond and coordinate global giving efforts.
  • Enabling innovation in cross-border philanthropy: The COVID-19 crisis presented various hurdles to cross-border philanthropy, the report notes. But it also created new opportunities, for example the creation of a global COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund by the World Health Organization, United Nations Foundation, and Swiss Philanthropy Foundation. Philanthropic organizations can and should, the report says, work to “implement novel ways of giving to reinforce local philanthropy and provide more equitable, localized funding” (7).

“Philanthropy is global.”

All of these opportunities, the report emphasizes, require more robust data than have been widely available—hence the Global Philanthropy Tracker.

“Philanthropy is global,” says the Lilly School’s Osili. “The challenge inherent in all of this is that while the practice of philanthropy is well understood to be a part of the human experience—every single country, every corner of the globe has a tradition of giving and volunteering—the measurement and the study of philanthropy on a global scale has been much slower” than the growth of philanthropy efforts themselves. “And so the Global Philanthropy Tracker fills in.”