The Rockefeller Foundation people knew what they were doing when they invited us to Bellagio Center on Lake Como with its sunny evergreens and breathtaking panorama. The place is so serene that you have no choice when you arrive but to take a deep breath, look around and pause – then you feel compelled to contemplate on the big questions of life, such as ‘is this the kind of life I want to be living?’ and ‘will the collaboration between philanthropy and international development save humanity from destroying itself?’
On the latter, while the answer still has to be a clear ‘no’, the few days spent here with folks from around the world and from all walks of life, brought us a step closer to a potential ‘maybe’. There has been much talk about the role of philanthropy, its comparative advantages and disadvantages, successes and failures; but most interesting has been the lens through which all this was discussed, namely the potential for complementarities and collaboration between actors in philanthropy and international development. (Though I was not sure about the value of the overarching theme of ‘well-being’, which I envisioned like a relatively big umbrella under which we should all feel comfortably agreed, but as soon as it would start to rain there would be people around the edges who get wet…)
So how can philanthropy boost the potential of international development, and vice versa?
Philanthropy can provide what was called ‘patient capital’ – no pressures from the quarterly profit report or the four-yearly elections to produce ‘results’. While the dark side of this is a lack of a built-in accountability mechanism, it is indeed a huge comparative advantage in resourcing development processes.
Philanthropy can take risks off the shoulders of development projects financed by public moneys which are risk-averse. For example, it can bridge ‘the valley of death’ − the time it takes for a good idea that is born to prove its marketability, replicability, scalability etc. It can help sort true innovation from among creative ideas. But it was also pointed out in a recent study that only 3.8% of high net worth individuals take a ‘significant risk’ with their philanthropic investments, and only 26% take any risk at all. So overall, the wealthy are taking less risk with philanthropy than they are with their financial portfolios; and that leaves ample room for education.
Philanthropy can invest in people, as opposed to projects and structures; and most importantly it can have huge influence through leadership development. Authentic, competent and effective local leaders are the key for any sustainable success in development, and they are not well nurtured by official aid programmes.
Perhaps the most controversial discussion has been on the role of philanthropy in the competing market of ideologies that drive development. Take the thesis by Akwasi Aidoo that we should see philanthropy as development − i.e. as an integral part of the development process, and not a means to an end. Should we then be happy about the golf courses of an emerging middle class that was unanimously identified as the highest potential for domestic philanthropy development in BRIC countries?
Last but not least, philanthropic institutions and policymakers in international development should together work towards a more enabling environment for philanthropy so that it can fulfill its critical role in development; especially in the more than 60 countries around the world where civil society space is being restricted.
How can collaboration around all these complementarities come about? Many principles and strategies were discussed and they only made it clear that much time is needed to get them to work. The question remains: do we have the time?
Nilda Bullain is executive director of the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law.