In praise of philanthropy


Stephanie Koopmann


Before we criticize active funders for their imperfect philanthropy, let us also activate those amongst us who care about issues but never have been invited or encouraged to become philanthropists themselves.   

Last month, I had the privilege of joining CEOs and leaders of foundations across Europe at a gathering organised by Fondation de France and Geneva University’s Centre for Philanthropy for three days of reflection on the latest issues in our field.

One of the sessions was a mock ‘Philanthropy Tribunal’ in which philanthropy scholars  Beth Breeze and Nicolas Duvoux, and Alliance magazine executive editor, Charles Keidan hosted a debate on whether today’s criticism of elite philanthropy was justified.

I spoke on the ‘pro philanthropy’ side of the argument. The debate was very lively and, as I am passionate about championing philanthropy, I wanted to share my personal reflections.

Philanthropy as a human right

Professor Joachim Bauer from the Medical University Freiburg in Germany just published the book ‘Das empathische Gen’. In his research, the physician & neuroscientist demonstrates that humanity evolves also through biology. Our genes respond to environmental influences and to our lifestyle. Making full use of the social potential in us and giving our lives a deeper meaning, activates our genes, strengthens our health and increases inner healing powers. This emphasizes the importance for humans to be generous for their own sake, play a role in society and engage in solidarity. This applies to people across the global society – such as neighbours helping each other in crises, schoolkids sharing their lunch and indeed to major philanthropists.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs!

Much is and still needs to be discussed about the positive or negative influence of philanthropy and its role, agenda, power, perception and attitude. Can we expect philanthropists to abandon their own emotions or act against their inner, personal calling? It is already hard enough for a philanthropist to stay motivated when being aware of failures, lost decades of work and investments and the complexity of issues and contexts needed to create real change. We should not risk passionate philanthropists becoming demotivated by only focusing on criticism. More than ever, we need people with a strong belief in a better future, with curiosity and enthusiasm to try out new approaches which might not yet seem profitable for the economy. We should value altruists who support services that would otherwise not be available or accessible to marginalized groups in society.   

Everyone’s networks, money and time count to increase the overall power of philanthropy.

If leaders, their advisors and inner circles struggle to find time to access first-hand expertise about complex issues, they risk missing out on the latest findings, possible solutions or most significant – likely harmful side effects. This required time investment could keep people on the traditional route in their grant-giving and overall behaviours. Therefore, let us continuously reach out to those amongst us to raise their interest in promising models and methods and invite them personally to join significant funding opportunities. All people in our field who are working with philanthropists carry a huge responsibility as trusted influencers. They should be aware of their individual power to shape the future and also get recognized for their efforts as well. If we take into account the analyses of the latest climate & biodiversity reports, we understand that time is actually running out. Much more funding and action on all fronts are urgently required to protect and secure the very basic resources for human life.

Paying taxes is not enough to heel the planet

We need all of society’s hands on deck! Above all, we should reach out and teach today’s elderly and mid-agers who currently hold power and positions and are still the gatekeeper of our time. We should explain, why an investment of today is of a much higher value than a contribution in the later stage of this decade. We should try to convince friends and parents, that leisure activities might bring temporary joy, whereas service for a good cause can actually generate deep inner satisfaction.

Before we criticize active funders for their imperfect philanthropy, let us also activate those amongst us who care about issues but never have been invited or encouraged to become philanthropists themselves.

Stephanie Koopmann is the Executive Director of The Light Foundation.

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