Thursday, 22 February 2018

Philanthropists, foundations, and fishing

You don't have to be a billionaire to be a philanthropist. Care for humanity can be expressed spending time on a stall at the school fete or putting a few coins in a collecting tin for a good cause.

And good causes were what brought together a select group of Monaco residents on Thursday 15 February at the first International Philanthropic Summit. Our speakers included Olivier Wenden of Fondation Prince Albert II, Daniel Gros of the Centre for European Policy Studies, and Dr Rupert Graf Strachwitz of Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society.

It soon became clear that helping the world become a better place is not quite as easy as one might think. The subject under discussion was how private funding can plug gaps in public spending. Philanthropy is most often associated with cash donations, but what about volunteering your time, sharing knowledge and promoting good ideas? How do you choose a cause, and is it better to work at a local or global level?

Let's say you've made your fortune and you're passionate about improving education. It's one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but it's also something that is provided for and funded by governments. The USA spends over 5% of its GDP on education, but there are many other countries where this percentage is much smaller. You decide to set up a foundation to build schools, but your philanthropic funding now removes the incentive for the state to increase its efforts in improving education. In addition, the tax breaks your foundation receives deprive your own government of income. That income could be used to improve education for the most disadvantaged in your own country. You might try donating directly to the government, but this could be perceived as unduly influencing agendas and policy. And if the state is corrupt, your donations may disappear into the pockets of the powerful rather than the poor.

It's not all bad news tho'. Philanthropists are much better able to take the long term view necessary for research, unlike governments whose policies may be reversed at the end of their term of office. Private sector foundations are often more nimble and willing to take risks on projects where bureaucrats must work to rules. But care must be taken to ensure that good intentions do not have unintended consequences. Foundations can be accused of self-interest, they may be poorly managed, and, as recent headlines suggest, take advantage of those whom they purport to help.

If philanthropy is to really make a difference, it needs to be led by ideals, to be proactive rather than reactive, to treat the root causes of societal ills rather than the symptoms. After all, what's the use of teaching a man to fish if he can't afford a rod, or if those in power confiscate the catch. And what about all those women who dream of catching fish but can't because, well, you teach men to fish don't you?

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