Awaken the giant: Wealth managers should do more to unlock philanthropy


Juliet Cockram Agnew


Wealth managers are sitting on a philanthropic goldmine. Today, the top 10 private banks hold an astonishing $7.9trn under management. And this trend looks to continue: the assets of wealthy clients – and of those that manage them – are only increasing.

The long-held stereotypical view of wealth management businesses and nonprofits is that they are on opposing teams. Yet – these worlds are increasingly colliding.

Not only are companies and entrepreneurial charities communicating – they are forging alliances, partnering up; with different primary aims, perhaps, and with varying degrees of formality, but with the same effect: of transforming the ways that the wealthy have traditionally been engaged.

Having worked on both sides of the fence – on the frontline of social change as well as within the gilded worlds of corporate philanthropy and wealth management– I believe a unique opportunity exists to unlock a largely untapped reservoir of capital for good.  Some great examples exist already that enrich both sides of the equation: UBS’ extensive philanthropy platform, for example, has been hugely popular with clients, offering donor advised funds, pre-assessed philanthropic opportunities via the highly strategic UBS Optimus Foundation, matched funding for clients, value-based investing opportunities, and philanthropy advisory to boot.

I witnessed a stellar growth in uptake and popularity of these products within UBS during my time as Director of Philanthropy, one that has seen increasing investment by the bank in its philanthropy platform.

Other examples exist – JP Morgan, Coutts, and a few others – but these are just a handful of wealth managers, usually offering a small amount of support. The reality is we are just chipping away at the surface, and very few have managed to rise above the public relations din to truly distinguish themselves.

The key question on my mind is – how can we rouse these giants to their significance in unlocking strategic capital towards the critical challenges of our time? And what can charities do to forge alliances and engaging propositions in such a brave new world?

This is what we know for sure:

1.) Philanthropy is on the rise
Coutts’ annual Million Dollar Reports chart the steady rise of philanthropy over the past decade. This increasingly popular past time is down to a number of factors, including an increase in wealth (the Sunday Times’ Rich List contains a record 134 billionaires), an increased global connectedness and awareness of global issues, as well as celebration of philanthropic culture and the celebrity status it can bring.

154 billionaires through the Gates and Buffet-founded Giving Pledge have now pledged to commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropy during their lifetime or in their will. Becoming a philanthropist is now met with almost giddy praise and recognition. This trend seems set to continue.

2.) Effective philanthropy is needed more than ever
Our expectations of philanthropy are increasing alongside this rise in wealth and giving. Whilst charity has always played an important role in the development of just, democratic societies, rarely has it been called to do so at a global level, to address such complex challenges as global under-nutrition, gender inequality, climate change and the refugee crisis.

The challenges we face are vast and will require strategic collaboration, innovative financing and multi-sectoral thinking. And such strategic and effective giving is not as easy as it might seem to the unseasoned philanthropist.

3.) Wealth managers have a unique opportunity right now – Donors need support to be effective, and yet the landscape of such support is highly fragmented in the UK. We know that wealth managers, tax advisors and accountants are consulted ahead of philanthropy and social impact experts.

Yet only one in five firms offer philanthropy advice. This is despite the irrefutable demand: according to Capgemini’s 2015 World Wealth Report, 92% of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) ascribe some level of importance to driving social impact – and this number increases significantly amongst younger audiences.

Companies may not be in the business of saving the world, but playing to win in this context means going that extra mile for their clients. Forward thinking wealth managers will reap disproportionate rewards here.

4.) The most interesting work in this space is coming from entrepreneurial organisations at the frontline of social change
The current UK banking and wealth management system – framed in the context of the 2008 financial crash – is poorly set-up to provide the kind of dynamic, exciting and strategically informed opportunities needed to mobilise a rising tide of social interest. Whilst they need to consider their internal infrastructure, charities have an important role to play, too.

Be it through a wealth manager’s own corporate foundation, led by dynamic leaders that can straddle the social and financial worlds, or through partnerships with the potential recipients of giving – entrepreneurial charities can leverage the power of great storytelling to inspire tangible action.

The majority of frontline nonprofit organisations have a long way to go here, too. They need to first be willing to partner up. They need to get savvy on how to offer packaged solutions to wealth managers for clients in their own language. They need to be better at presenting themselves and at communicating impact in general.

But most importantly they need understand that a wealth manager is both a corporate and a set of individuals that hold coveted relationships with potential major donors.

Such nuances should inform any cultivation approach. Bridging the divide between charities, corporates and major donors will be ever more important to unlocking large sums of philanthropic capital, so developing partnership propositions that excite and inspire are a must.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this:  we are about to witness the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. 460 billionaires will hand down $2.1trn to heirs over a period of just 20 years, according to a recently published UBS/PwC Billionaires Report.

Wealth managers will be amongst the first to be asked to support the next generation of donors, who are infamously more socially engaged than their parents. How ready are they to do this? And how ready are frontline social organisations to actively participate in this unique moment in history?

Juliet Cockram Agnew is partner and head of philanthropy at I.G. Advisors, a boutique management and strategy consulting firm.

Comments (1)


"This increasingly popular past time [sic] is down to a number of factors, including an increase in wealth". Should we stop and question where this fabulous increase in wealth came from? Why does the UK charity sector need to step up to provide basic services that were previously government run? Many of these same philanthropists, sitting on £3.2tn of their loot, created or catalysed the financial crisis of 2008 and then reaped the rewards whilst the UK government cut billions in basic services to the poor. Yes, let's work together to re-inject wealth unfairly stripped from society and, while we're at it, celebrate the perpetrators. No one likes to hear it, but we all know it's true. We made a mint off the back of the crisis and now we're looking for tax-efficient ways to give a little, but not too much too quick, as long as our names are in the news.

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