An Open Letter to the Philanthropic Community: Harnessing the Power of Arts and Culture for Humanity’s Survival

Kumi Naidoo
4 min readNov 4, 2022

All of us who seek to do some good during our short time on this earth have to face the disturbing truth that we are in the midst of a devastating climate crisis that threatens the very future of humanity.

We are already witnessing, especially in the Global South, an increase in extreme weather events which are destroying habitats and livelihoods, driving food insecurity, hampering access to education and healthcare, fuelling conflict, displacement and forced migration, and exacerbating existing inequalities. The struggles for global justice are deeply interlinked, but our world has never felt more divided nor communities more disconnected. The science is unambiguous: we are rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change. For some communities it is already too late. While our political and business leaders stall and drag their feet, nature shows that it does not negotiate.

It is abundantly clear that humanity needs to set a new course, but the scale and pace of change needed is daunting and will require a level of popular engagement and participation never seen before. While our leaders’ response to the climate crisis has been half-hearted, and much too slow. Those working for progressive change have also fallen short of what this moment requires of us. We have failed to communicate clearly enough the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. We have appealed to people’s heads, presenting the scientific facts about climate change and warning of its consequences, but we are failing to really engage people’s hearts and souls, or persuade them that their actions will make any real difference.

In the current vacuum of leadership from governments and business, the role of philanthropy becomes critically important. The philanthropic community can play a catalytic role in diverting humanity from its current path of self-destruction. It can do so by enabling people, especially those in frontline communities directly impacted by climate change, to direct their immense creative energies, collectively and individually, towards transformative change. Just as we have said that it cannot be ‘business as usual’, we should also say that it cannot be activism or philanthropy as usual either. As Einstein reminds us, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get different results. We should no longer ignore this advice. This is not to say that current investments are all invalid. But the proportionality of investment is badly skewed. If we do not do more to foster popular participation in ways that elevate and transform our lives, we should not be surprised when fascists and climate deniers win sway. And popular participation starts in the infinitely diverse cultural expressions of our lives.

In order to make the required transformation in our efforts we need to meet people where they are. We need to better understand the deep cultural impulses that drive us all and tap into the creative potential that finds expression through arts, culture, sport, and things which give meaning and purpose to our lives. All of this and more is what we may call ‘artivism’. Connecting these creative resources has the potential to dramatically increase participation in progressive social movements, creating the conditions in which far more people feel empowered and inspired to express themselves and take action by embracing the diversity of cultural experiences, and laying the ground for more fundamental structural and systemic changes that are critical at this point in history.

So many people feel powerless in the face of the enormity of the climate crisis; others feel alienated by the injustices they encounter, or immobilised by the anxieties of the moment. Cultural expression offers ways for people to make their voices heard; the act of participation in itself helps restore a sense of agency, building strength and resilience in individuals and communities, helping bridge and heal divisions, building confidence and courage to ‘speak truth to power’. Arts and culture can be the key to breaking down barriers to participation for those who usually cannot think about the end of the world as we know it because they are facing the end-of-the-month. Arts and culture has the power, potential and responsibility for innovation and reimagining a better future. Cultural innovation in its deepest sense can help us answer questions about how we can live together, how we could radically rethink, renew and reimagine a better, more just world. Needless to say, those that seek to promote hate and division or who seek to delay action on climate change spread lies and disinformation and have weaponised arts and culture to their own ends. In our current world, we must also realise that arts and culture are our common language and can help us build bridges to overcome the divisions in our society that have been so readily exploited by those who seek to gain from this discord. We must enable our collective creative participation so that we can reconnect, to ourselves, to each other, and to our planet.

I have become convinced that popular participation in creative and expressive endeavours (arts and culture in the broadest sense) is crucial to addressing the climate crisis as well as all struggles for justice. Mobilising the power of arts and culture may not on its own deliver justice, but without it, our efforts will surely fail. Now is the time to fully embrace ‘artivism’ as a way to enable voices to be heard that are currently silenced or unheeded, to encourage synergies that would not otherwise emerge, and empower people to redirect humanity away from its current path of self-destruction. Philanthropy should therefore consider a significantly greater investment in combating the scourge of disinformation and lies and particularly, invest much more in the diverse expressions of artivism all around the world.

Kumi Naidoo

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