The World Economic Forum

Felicitas von Peter

While the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (24-28 January) has never been known as a meeting place for civil society, this year’s Forum could be the starting point for a change of direction. Admittedly, the programme did not reflect this opportunity as much as actual conversations taking place. Out of 100 sessions under the overall theme ‘The Shifting Power Equation’, just one was dedicated to philanthropy (there were two sessions on tasting fine wines).

As it happened, ‘From Private Giving to Social Investing: the New Philanthropreneurs’ was also one of the sessions with the longest waiting list (sign-up is required for most sessions). Judging from conversations with participants, this was not (only) due to the fact that the Financial Times had included it on its list of the ‘guide to the best of Davos 2007’ – the topic seems to have hit a nerve with attendees of the Forum.

The session highlighted some characteristics of the ‘new philanthropy’ that has been described as ‘philanthrocapitalism’ or ‘philanthropreneurship’. It also provided a clue to the unique opportunity Davos has to work on some of society’s major problems by fostering links between business and civil society. A recurrent theme of the session was models of partnership between foundations and business, such as the cooperation between the UN Foundation and partners such as Vodafone, Google and Salesforce. They met with as much interest among the ‘new’ philanthropists as another Forum session where 40 ‘Technology Pioneers’ presented their inventions. One example: Aresa, a Danish biotech company that has developed a genetically modified plant that can be used to detect landmines – an investment with a social and economic return and therefore with a special appeal to the ‘new brand’ of philanthropists.

That there is an emerging trend towards seeing the blended social and economic value in investments was also shown in discussions on climate change, the issue that received most attention at the Forum. John Doerr, a highly successful venture capitalist, admitted that Al Gore’s film and discussions with his children at the dinner table had dramatically changed his view on climate change. But this was not the only reason why he had switched his portfolio to ‘green’ investments: ‘energy is a $2 trillion market which is just a very good business proposition.’

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