Individual giving – hope for our world yet

Rory Tolentino

What struck me most, reading the articles for this issue of Alliance, was how rich and how interesting the stories of the individual philanthropists featured are … the innovativeness of their philanthropy, shaped by their vision and their values; their view of what needs doing and how they want to respond to those needs. And I thought, given this, there is hope for our world yet.

Coming from Asia, where about half of the world’s population is located, and where much of the world’s poor live, this is powerful indeed. Asia is also one of the fastest growing regions economically, where high-growth countries such as India and China are producing many of the world’s wealthiest individuals, so individual giving has great potential in the region. Reading Hurun’s China rich list, for instance, in 2007 China had 106 US dollar billionaires, up from 15 a year before and none in 2002. As wealth has grown, philanthropy has also increased. In 2007, the top 50 philanthropists in China gave $1.5 billion away; five years ago, the figure was $131.6 million. The figures are similarly large, I am sure, in countries like India. Even in middle-income countries in Asia like the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, recognition of the role and potential of philanthropy, whether from individuals, companies, diasporas or local communities, is increasing.

How much giving for social change?

And yet, from a developing region context, one wonders how much of the philanthropy is currently directed towards systemic changes and social justice. In countries where public institutions are weak, where governance is an issue, and where the state often wields undue power and authority, could individual philanthropists be encouraged to use what can often be very substantial resources to craft responses that would result in systemic changes to give the people who are most often left behind the voice to determine their own fate?

While philanthropists certainly have a right to determine what they would like to respond to, I would like to think that responsible philanthropy tries to gather information, listens to voices close to the ground, and determines how to respond on the basis of the information gathered and the viewpoints heard.

When I was working in the CSR field, I would often tell corporations that, ultimately, they cannot hope to prosper in a sea of poverty, so it was important not to look only at quick fixes or public relations angles. The same is true of individual philanthropy.

The importance of collaboration

I realize, however, that this is easier said than done, and that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to undertake social justice philanthropy. There are also no easy solutions to what sometimes seem like intractable problems. None the less, collaborative work with other sectors towards some of the longer-term solutions may be key.

An example that I think is very interesting is a movement called 57/75 in the Philippines. Realizing that the majority of members of the League of Corporate Foundations (a grantmaker association) were involved in supporting education and education-related causes, and determined that they wanted to make an impact, LCF members met with government education ministry officials and experts to hear about the major problems besetting education.

Identifying three such problems, they developed programmes to help resolve them, interventions that they hope will eventually lead to improvements in results (57 per cent is the current pass rate of public school students; 75 per cent is the figure they are aiming for). In the three programmes, donors can choose to support any of the interventions identified, working by themselves or through intermediary organizations in the areas they choose. The Task Force 57/75 secretariat will match the potential donors with district school systems in their areas; they also train the foundation staff to undertake the interventions or match them with a non-profit organization that can implement the intervention. Because the interventions identified are relatively simple, they are also relatively easy to measure. Ultimately, in the school districts where there are interventions, the impact should be higher pass rates for public school students.

In this case, other organizations have joined the movement in addition to those who originally supported and conceived the programme, hopefully creating a groundswell of support for the cause. Because of the feeling that they are not alone in trying to respond to these intractable problems, more philanthropic organizations can find hope amidst the problems. Collaborative work among sectors also helps to build trust among them, whereas the different sectors have sometimes tended to see each other as adversaries in the past.

Passing on the philanthropic tradition

As we work more closely with philanthropic families, we have found that a major concern among them is passing on the family’s philanthropic values to the next generation of family members. In the past, families tended to stay closer to home, and family members were often expected to participate in the family business. Today, the situation is changing. Younger family members sometimes choose to live in other places in the world, sometimes marrying people outside their culture. In these cases, it is often the family philanthropy that holds the family together.

Where the values and traditions, the raison d’être for the family philanthropy, are lost to the younger generation, we are trying to find some culturally appropriate ways to encourage younger family members to keep the torch of philanthropy lit, whether the expression of that is through the family’s philanthropy channel or through finding their own passion.

Supporting individual philanthropy

Finally, I think the value of learning what other philanthropists have done and the impact their work has had cannot be underestimated. We learn best from good examples. The storytelling; the documentation of the process, innovation and results of individual philanthropy; forums for discussion of issues that affect philanthropy – all these are critical for engaging and promoting individual philanthropy. Intermediary organizations, philanthropy advisers and resources for philanthropy are necessary for innovation and expansion.

How philanthropists are engaged, and the openness with which they view learning from others, are important issues for the Global South, including Asia. Where some philanthropists are under the radar, networks that can identify them and help to engage them are becoming potent tools for offering help and assistance. All in all, the approaches to engaging philanthropists in these contexts have to be improved dramatically.

The increasing coverage of philanthropy in the media will continue to help encourage individual giving. As more stories come out about the importance and value of individual philanthropy, we hope more new philanthropists will emerge, armed not just with good intentions, but willing to learn and to share their own knowledge and skills in philanthropy.

Rory Tolentino is Chief Executive of the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium and a guest editor for this issue of Alliance. Email

For more information
See for an interview with Terry Farris, head of UBS Philanthropy Services for Asia-Pacific, on philanthropy in Asia, and a list of philanthropy resources around the world.

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