Archive for September, 2010

Philanthropy Lesson #007: Invest in Talent (with thanks to Oxford and Blavatnik)

September 21, 2010

One of the more welcome orthodoxies in philanthropy is that donors should invest in the talent within an organisation; or, in sector-speak, “build capacity”. For that reason, it’s heartening to see Leonard Blavatnik’s recent gift of £75million to Oxford University, so that they can establish a School of Government there. The University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, commented that “the School represents a huge milestone in Oxford’s history. It will give tomorrow’s leaders the best of Oxford’s traditional strengths alongside new and practical ways of understanding and addressing the challenges of good governance. The University has educated 26 British Prime Ministers and over 30 other world leaders, yet until now the major international schools of government have all been outside Europe, principally in the United States. The establishment of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford will correct that imbalance.”

More pertinently, the School, and Blavatnik’s gift, implies a belief that great leaders are not only born but nurtured. The School’s aim is to create a growing network of governance graduates, effectively building a “brains trust” whose collective knowledge and experience will help them to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. That is strategic philanthropy in action; and, for that reason, it deserves a thumbs-up.

Philanthropy Lesson #006: There’s No One Way to Lead

September 20, 2010

If philanthropy in 2010 has a theme, then it is that of leadership.  Earlier this year, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates launched the Giving Pledge, encouraging their peers to give half of their wealth to charity.  Their initiative was met with a swift and positive response from dozens of donors in the US, with forty philanthropists coming out in its support.  In taking this welcome lead, Buffett and Gates opened themselves to scepticism from sections of the media and the wider public, who wondered whether they would succeed in delivering solutions for any of the social problems that they had set out to tackle. But scepticism is a hurdle which, though often confronted by leaders, rarely deters them.

At the Institute, we have been lucky to welcome to dinner a leader who – in a far more perilous context than that of Gates and Buffett – was greeted with not only scepticism but hostility when he made the defining move of his career.  FW de Klerk, the former President of South Africa who was instrumental in the dismantling of apartheid, addressed an audience of philanthropists with whom we work.  Having left office several years ago, he is now a founding member of the Global Leadership Foundation, which “exists to improve the quality of political leadership and governance by enabling today’s national leaders to benefit from the experience of former leaders.” 

The model is an interesting one: the Global Leadership Foundation is “a network of former Presidents, Prime Ministers, senior ministers and other distinguished leaders who make their experience available discreetly” to other heads of state grappling with tough problems.

If the Gates and Buffett campaign is public and de Klerk’s is behind the scenes, we get a rich view of the varied forms and styles of leadership that are needed to advance solutions to social problems.  As with so much in philanthropic work there is no one formula, no one-size-fits-all intervention.

Interestingly, these varied leadership styles are reflected in our own network, with a number of the donors we are privileged to work with seeking large public advocacy roles and others achieving results, like President de Klerk, behind closed doors.   Public leadership vs. quiet leadership?  I say we need both.

Philanthropy Lesson #005: Think Small (with thanks to Aik Saath)

September 14, 2010

Philanthropy is a world where you often hear uncomfortably lofty language; there are times when the ambitions of donors seem grandiose, if not unattainable altogether.  Tackling climate change?  Eradicating poverty?  These are problems of great complexity, and it often seems futile even to attempt their solution.

In making such an attempt, the goal – somewhat paradoxically – is to think small; to look to the roots, and particularly the grassroots, of a social issue.  This was a lesson illustrated by Aik Saath, one of the recipients of £3,000 from our Youth and Philanthropy Initiative.  Aik Saath was formed in response to ethnic unrest between Asian youths in Slough, a town a few miles from London; its successful approach was based upon engaging carefully with those closest to the problem.  They set up dispute resolution groups composed not of external advisors, but of young people who were directly affected by the rising threats and violence.  Taught by Dr. Dudley Weeks, a world expert in the field of conflict resolution, these teenagers responded so decisively that within only two years the trouble that had so sharply flared was swiftly doused.

When looking at problems of a global scale, it’s often tempting – and reassuring – to look for grand solutions.  But more often than not, as Aik Saath have shown, it’s best to look closest to home for your answers; in other words, to think small.

Philanthropy Lesson #004: “Tell Tales”

September 9, 2010

Philanthropy is a field dominated by facts and figures.  Donors and advisors alike, understandably keen to show that they are making significant strides in the areas of their choice, are increasingly focused upon the clear and careful evaluation of their work. 

This is a welcome development; yet it is important that it does not come at the expense of an intangible but no less important part of the philanthropy world, that of storytelling.

Storytelling is one of the most valuable aspects of philanthropy.  Before the first cheque of grant money is given, there must be a strategy; before the strategy is drawn up, there must be a vision of a successful story that will be enabled by that cheque. 

An example: in an item that tops our week’s Press Highlights, George Soros has just awarded $100million to Human Rights Watch, the largest-ever sum that this organisation has received.  And whilst Mr. Soros was undoubtedly drawn to the charity’s efficiency, the chances are that he was also taken with its compelling narrative of the world that it was working to bring about.

Some months ago, The BBC World Service ran a piece on their website on this very subject, noting that their listeners were as interested in their “soft” stories – i.e., those with an element of human interest – as their “hard” stories, which had a tougher, somewhat worthier edge.  Indeed, it’s notable that some of the most successful organisations we have encountered – like, say, Atlantic Philanthropies – are those who can not only crunch the numbers but also provide vivid illustrations of their work.  That’s why efforts such as those by The Daily Tell should be applauded; a website which takes time every few days to highlight the success stories in charitable giving.  Long may they, and many others in the philanthropic sector, continue telling tales.