The Big Picture: What Is Philanthropy Today?

Philanthropy sometimes gets confused with charity. Understandably, as both are about giving, and a wish to do good for our fellow humans. The difference, however, is philanthropy is the “big picture” cousin of charity, which implies a personal, direct connection with somebody in need.

Charity is The Good Samaritan who stops to help a man who has been robbed, beaten and left for dead, dressing his wounds and paying an inn-keeper to look after him until he recovers.

Philanthropy, on the other hand, is Warren E Buffett’s plan to transfer $31-billion of his wealth to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to address education and health needs around the world. It is Microsoft donating more than $3-billion in cash and software to try to bring technology to people who can’t access it otherwise. It is the late Nelson Mandela donating a third of his salary after being elected president of South Africa to start the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

Philanthropy, in other words, means using your own resources – whatever they may be – to make the world a better place by tackling social problems at their roots. The focus of most philanthropic efforts is on improving the quality of life among the poor and disenfranchised, or strengthening the resilience of our ecosystems.

It is the rockbed philosophy of today’s social entrepreneurs, the desire to make a sustainable difference rather than temporarily patching a societal wound. More than this, far from feeling in any way duty-bound to distribute their wealth, philanthropists are identifiable because they are enthusiastic about the societal challenges facing them. Finding solutions to poverty, homelessness, poor health and education and social alienation is often a career on its own. When asked why he is ploughing funding into finding cures for preventable diseases, Bill Gates replied: “Because I’m excited about it, and it’s doable.”

Another inspiring example of what makes philanthropists tick is Scott Neeson, former vice-president of marketing at 20th Century Motion Pictures in Hollywood. His life changed forever when he went on a backpacking holiday to Cambodia in 2003. Neeson was so changed by a visit to Phnom Penh’s notorious garbage tip, Steung Meanchey – “the single most impactful moment of my life” – that he sold his house and valuables to start the Cambodia Children’s Fund (CCF). “There was a magic in being able to bring children to a facility, give them a school uniform, a school bag and a schedule,” he recalls. Today he runs a fully functional educational system and a medical clinic in Cambodia. “Instead of handing over cash, we started putting in place services that were needed. The greatest need was medical care, so we opened a medical clinic,” he says.

The CCF is still growing, thanks to fund-raising initiatives, child sponsorship and the support of Neeson’s Hollywood contacts, including Heather Graham, Hugh Jackman and Meg Ryan. Neeson today has no house or car, but he “couldn’t be happier”.

The calling to make this kind of difference is like a tide rising all over the world, with social impact investing gaining significant traction in the business sector, and in some cases being mainstreamed into general business practice. Philanthropy is gradually being hardwired into all spheres of enterprise, not only in government policy or the NGO sector but also the corporate spaces.

Think of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who recently announced they would eventually give 99% of their Facebook shares – worth an estimated $45-billion – to a variety of causes. Their stated intention is to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy”.

The interesting thing about this modern brand of philanthropy is that it is increasingly modelled on for-profit business enterprise, not on traditional NGOs dependent on sponsorship. The Zuckerbergs have set up a ‘limited liability company’, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which operates like a lean start-up, the way Facebook itself was born, and gives them a free hand to make and channel funds to NGOs of their choice.

It is this unfettered approach that is infusing philanthropy with new life, and why you are seeing more companies and individuals climbing aboard the social entrepreneurship train. Philanthropy today is inextricably bound with the notion of business and personal success.

Social entrepreneur Leonardo Letelier, CEO of SITAWI-Finance for Good, a pioneering financial solutions outfit in Brazil, puts it succinctly: “They (modern philanthropists) want to do something. They want to have a job, they want to have an income, and they want to have an impact in society.

– By The Philanthropic Collection –


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