You Are the Future of Philanthropy

If you type the word philanthropy into Wikipedia you find it was first used by the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, in the play Prometheus Bound and literally means ‘the caring of man’ – caring, nourishing, improving and enhancing the quality of life for other human beings.

Whatever meaning it had back in Ancient Greece, it’s become a word we now tend to associate with the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill Gates, George Soros and Warren Buffett – incredibly wealthy men giving away their millions later in life to worthy foundations, charities and causes.

Men who tend to get libraries, concert halls and public buildings named after them.

BIG philanthropy.

It’s fairly normal to be cynical about this type of giving, and unsurprisingly we sometimes question the motives involved:

‘It’s OK for them to give a few million when they still have millions left. If they really cared they’d give more’.

‘They’ve enjoyed all their money, now they’re just worried about how history will judge them’.

Do we ever ask ourselves the same questions ?

We may not have Bill Gate’s billions, but no doubt many of us reading this have more than we really need. How would our choices about how we spend our money look from the perspective of a hungry parent in the developing world, struggling to feed and nurture their children ?

Would we also be seen to be just cynically donating a few pounds here and there in order to feel better about ourselves, while still squandering much larger sums on luxuries we don’t really need ? If we really cared would we give more ?

These aren’t questions with easy answers. We have to wrestle with and resolve them ourselves on an personal basis.

In her uplifting TED talk below, the social change activist Katherine Fulton argues that things are changing when it comes to philanthropy. That philanthropy is being democratised, influenced in large part by the networking and collectivising power of the internet.

The world might be facing more significant emerging global problems than it’s faced before, but we also have more potential to create emerging global solutions than ever before. Our ability to connect, support and give, to all kinds of people around the world offers new opportunities and incentives.

We are now able to connect far more directly with the beneficiaries of our giving. We can individually select recipients of micro-loans we might make to developing world entrepreneurs through Kiva. We can sponsor individual children, and their villages, through international child sponsorship schemes like those run by World Vision, Barnardo’s or Compassion International. We can find and choose organisations and causes we might wish to support more easily than ever through sites like Charitable Giving, Just Giving or Donors Choose, and we know far more about how money is spent by these organisations, and what effect it has than ever before.

And it’s not just about the money.

These are tough times, and many in our own societies who previously felt comfortable, are now struggling financially. Charity donations have begun to decline in recent years – but there are many ways to support charities and good causes other than sending money:

- Donate your time to a local group or campaign such as foodbanks or conservation volunteers.

- Record yourself reading a public domain book.

- Spend one hour helping someone get familiar with the internet.

- Look at Do-It, IVO, Volunteer England for more ideas.

If we are to be successful in tackling the many challenges facing the world – whether in India’s slums or down the road – we’re going to have to further refine our vision of philanthropy, and embed it more into our normal, everyday lives.

Katherine’s TED talk finishes with two pictures.

The first is a photo of her Great Grandfather and Grandfather, taken nearly a hundred years ago, who devoted much of their time, money and energy in the benefit of their local communities, and whose legacy is her admiration, fondness and inspiration.

The second is a blank picture, which she asks us to imagine is a photograph of us, viewed a hundred years in the future, perhaps by our grandchildren.

What would we wish our legacy to be ?

What is it you want to be part of creating ?

Similar articles – Saving LivesIt’s Not the Thought that Counts, Charity Does Begin at Home

Meet Toby Ord

The current series of ‘Foto Friday’ posts are focussing on individuals who are currently working in their own way to try and make a positive difference in the world.

Toby Ord is an Oxford University academic, who earns around £33,000 a year (the UK individual national average income is £26,000 a year), but has decided to donate everything he earns above £18,000 a year to charity. He has also donated all his £15,000 savings. His wife has made a similar pledge. He hopes to donate more than a million pounds to charity over the course of his career.

He has founded the Giving What We Can Organisation, whose members pledge to donate at least 10% of what they earn to alleviate global poverty.

Ord lectures on personal ethics, and takes the view that if you feel strongly about the extreme poverty and unfairness in the world you should do something about it. He says he still has a comfortable life; “What’s really important in our lives is spending time together, chatting with our close friends and reading beautiful books and listening to beautiful music”

“I’ve also changed the way I look at the world. I don’t want more stuff. If someone said to me ‘Here’s one thousand pounds’ and I had to spend it on myself I would feel anxious about that because I just want to help people more and it would be a very frustrating time.”

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in The Year I Saved the World]


Similar articles – Meet Shane ClaiborneMeet Ellen McArthurMeet Dale VinceMeet Jessica JackleyMeet KT TunstallMeet Toby Ord Meet Julia Butterfly Hill

Photo by Giving What We Can

Celebrity World Saving? Hold the Cynicism

Here’s the dilemma . . .

International celebrities have huge media profiles, armies of fans, important connections and incredible potential to do high-profile good in the world. Their pet-causes, charities and foundations receive great attention, and raise awareness for millions across the globe.

On the other hand they tend to have carbon-heavy lifestyles, own great private wealth – the jets, the cars, the mansions, all too often end-up promoting products with dubious environmental credentials, and aren’t everyone’s idea of what an environmental or social justice advocate should look like.

There seem to be plenty of voices criticising celebrities who adopt good causes, but personally I’m inclined to give them a break. In many respects they’re just the same as everyone else – trying to do the right thing, but struggling to live their daily life. Does the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio flies a zillion miles a year make him any more of a hypocrite than you or me driving to work ?

I think those of us trying to make a positive difference in the world should take all the help we can get . . .

1 – Leonardo DiCaprio

Leo is often described as a committed environmentalist – creating and producing the documentary 11th Hour in 2007, and more recently has been involved with the Greensburg Eco-Town project, to rebuild a Kansas town destroyed by a tornado, as a ecologically and economically sustainable town.

2 – Cameron Diaz

Cameron was a member of the Pangea Day advisory board, an organisation that aims to use film as a way of helping to bring people together to create a positive global future. She’s also worked with the food education organisation Nourish, and made the film Cameron Diaz Saves the World about our use of natural resources.

3 – Matt Damon

Matt has been involved in a huge range of humanitarian and environmental concerns, including founding H2O Africa and the Not On Our Watch organisation, which aims to focus media attention on global atrocities and genocides. He is a spokesperson for the foodbank organisation Feeding America and also produced the films The People Speak for historian Howard Zinn, and Running the Sahara.

4 – Robert Redford

Robert has a long history of humanitarian and environmental campaigning, including Native American rights, ecology and was vocal against global warming as long ago as 1989. He is a trustee of the National Resources Defence Council and runs The Green series of programmes.

5 – Brad Pitt

Brad has a longstanding interest in architecture, and after hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans, helped set-up the organisation Make It Right 9, to rebuild part of the city with green homes, for which he won an award from the US Green Building Council. He also works with the ONE Foundation, and narrated the excellent E-Squared green design series.

Photo by JumpyJodes, via Flickr

Saving Lives

Imagine you are walking to work and see a toddler flailing about in a pond, drowning. No one else is around to help. Without any risk to yourself you can easily wade in a few steps and pull the child to safety and save its life.

Surely none of us would ignore the child’s cries and carry on to work ?

But what if you’re wearing some brand new shoes – they’d be ruined by the muddy water. Would you still rescue the child ?

Again surely all of us would say “yes, of course – a child’s life is worth far more than a pair of shoes !”

This is the question posed by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his powerful work The Life You Can Save.

But he’s not posing it in an abstract way, he wants us to think deeper about when we choose to help and when we don’t.

Every day tens of thousands of children die from preventable illnesses across the world, all with poverty as their root cause.

If we gave, even just a small amount – perhaps about the cost of a new pair of shoes, we really could save a child’s life..

So why don’t we ? And if we do, why don’t we give more ?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as being kind, moral, ethical, fair, compassionate – yet every day we fritter away some of our wealth on things we clearly don’t really need.

Singer uses the illustration of buying bottled water to highlight the profoundly questionable effects of some of our choices. Even though we have perfectly clean and safe drinking water available from our taps, unlike many in the world, we still spend our money unnecessarily to buy bottled water, rather than using it to invest in clean drinking water provision in the developing world.

By making one choice rather than another, it could be argued we are choosing to let more children die! Is that the right way to think about it ? Is it as stark and as simple a moral choice as that ?

This is a relatively modern dilemma. Before the Second World War there was little general awareness of extreme poverty elsewhere in the world, and in any event there was virtually no prospect of doing anything about it. But things have changed.

Now we live in an age of global media and communications, and our world is inter-connected. We know where the poverty is – we watch the news reports, see the photos and read the harrowing stories. Thanks to global media and the internet we can put it in front of your eyes with just a couple of clicks if we choose.

We’re also now able to make a difference, we know what works – food, clean water, santitation, vaccines and medical care. Even distance is not the problem it used to be – there isn’t anywhere on the planet we cannot deliver aid and humanitarian support in the matter of a few days.

The rich world is richer now than its ever been – even if it doesn’t feel like it for many of us right at the moment.

What is the moral thing to do ?

Does not giving make us monsters ?

Ultimately we must decide for ourselves what the right thing to do is. I humbly suggest that the moral thing to do is to wrestle with the issues, and then act as you see fit.

What we do, how much we give, who we give it to, and what for all seem reasonable things to discuss, debate and disagree about, but simply ignoring the plight of those most desperately in need, looking away and looking after ourselves without thought seems difficult to defend morally.

Many have reasons not to give: they argue that some of what is given is wasted by corruption or inefficiency, they claim they are already giving ‘more than our fair share’ and it’s for others to do more, they say they need to look after their own first – and might say something like ‘charity should begin at home’.

Of course there are many questions and concerns about how aid is delivered, in both the long term as well as the short. But we should be on guard against using these concerns as excuses to do nothing. Those who are genuine in these concerns should perhaps do more themselves to fight corruption, or to encourage others to give – perhaps by supporting national tax funded national giving more vocally?

Why people are generous or not is the subject of a lot of study. The economist John A List, carried out research that seems to show that a good proportion of people who give, are mainly motivated simply by not wanting to seem mean in comparison to others – it seems no one wants to seem mean.

Perhaps those of us who do give more substantially and regularly, should be a little more open about it, rather than keeping our giving quiet and private – not to ‘big-up’ ourselves, but to help create a social culture where giving is normal and expected. Perhaps we should also point out that being generous to others has been shown to raise oxytocin levels (the love hormone) – and so giving, might just prove to be better than receiving after all !

Of course there is something even more important we should do – we should become more familiar with the lives and hardships of the poor, both in our own communities and across the world.

It’s hard not to care about another human being once you’ve met them.

In the words of Mother Theresa:

“Today it has become fashionable to talk about the poor, but it’s still not so fashionable to talk to them”


RELATED ARTICLES – Charity DOES Begin at Home, Foto Friday – Meet Toby Ord, It’s NOT the Thought that Counts 

It’s NOT the Thought That Counts

A few months ago I caught a programme reviewing the situation in Haiti, twelve months after the earthquake of January 2010. I found one of the statistics they quoted very startling.

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.0, with an epicentre 16 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince. Haiti is a poor country, and unlike Japan, most buildings were not built to withstand earthquakes. Massive damage was caused, over 250,000 homes destroyed along with over 30,000 other buildings, including the main sea-port, hospitals, workplaces, shops, police and government buildings, as well as the offices of the United Nations and World Bank. Roads were blocked with rubble for days, fuel quickly ran out, sewage systems stopped working and water, electricity and phones were cut-off. Law and order quickly broke down and sporadic looting and violence occurred.

The Haitian government estimates 315,000 people were killed in the initial earthquake and aftershocks, or died of their injuries shortly afterward. A further 300,000 are estimated to have been injured. Between 1.5 and 1.8 million people were made homeless. Health systems were unable to cope, and a cholera epidemic swept the refugee camps during the autumn.

As tragic and shocking as these statistics are they are not the one I found startling.

In the days immediately following the earthquake an amazing estimated 10,000 plus separate relief agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) arrived in Haiti to help. Although this reflected the fantastic outpouring of sympathy and desire to assist, many of these organisations arrived unannounced and with little preparation. There are usually established systems to co-ordinate emergency aid response following disasters, but Haiti’s systems of governance were so badly damaged following the earthquake, that very little control and coordination existed.

Many NGOs are large and experienced international organisations with skilled staff, but many others had very limited experience and resources. A considerable number were comprised of only a handful of individuals who had quickly gone collecting donations following the earthquake, and had simply turned-up expecting they would be able to be of some use. Many of these organisations failed to achieve very much. For some most of the money they collected was spent on travel, accommodation and subsistence costs for their own staff, and, according to the programme, in some cases  actually needed help and support from other relief agencies, when they got lost, ran out of supplies, or simply were unable to cope. In some places several organisations were offering identical help in the same area, while a few miles away no help was being provided at all.

Obviously all these organisations and individuals meant well, but some were far more effective than others.

Do we think about this when we donate to charity ?

Our initial reaction to a request to give is often based on how we feel about the cause, rather than any kind of understanding of how efficiently our donation will be spent, of what good it will actually achieve.

This seems strange, in most other walks of life, especially where money is concerned, we tend to judge by results, not intentions. Evidence based decision making is now standard practice in many organisations, but perhaps we’re simply more inclined to trust charities and believe they will do the very best they can with our money.

There is another less favourable possibility though – perhaps we simply don’t care that much. Having donated we feel we’ve discharged our obligation and having paid to get ourselves off the hook we can get on with our life and leave the rest up to someone else.

If we are serious about wanting to make a difference when donating our hard earned cash then we need to take more of an interest in how it’s spent and examine how effective it is in achieving what we want. One way to think about it might be to see ourselves as investors or clients, with charities working on our behalf to tackle the issues we are concerned about – considered that way it seems unthinkable we wouldn’t ask for progress-reports now and then!

In the UK the Charity Commission regulates the operation of registered charities, checking they are properly run etc. They also offer them advice on enhancing accountability and improving effectiveness. Typing in the name of a charity on their website will show a range of information concerning that charity, including details of their last filed accounts.

Well run is one thing, but does the money make a difference? Several organisations now scrutinise charity performance, and compare effectiveness, including the US site Give Well, New Philanthropy Capital, and Giving What We Can. The new UK website Alive and Giving, also aims to deliver better analysis of charity performance.

In fact it’s not easy to quantify the benefit of a lot of charitable activities, such as awareness raising and campaigning, or providing education, counselling or emotional support. For others though, especially those engaged in global poverty relief, the powerful and disturbing statistic of cost-per-life-saved can be calculated.

Some aid interventions are widely considered to be more effective a saving lives in the developing world than others. Immunisation programmes, maternal health care provision and provision of clean water appear to be the most beneficial areas to focus aid for the purpose of saving lives. Bill Gates, focuses the majority of his humanitarian efforts into vaccination programmes because “we know they work”.

The next time someone rattles a tin at you or pushes a sponsor form under your nose in the office, think carefully if that is really the most benefit you can put your money to.

Do give, but make it count !

Similar articles – Saving Lives, Meet Toby Ord,

Photo by Blatantworld, via Flickr