The philanthropic concierge

Gerry Salole

I am in the business of wanting philanthropy to grow and so I am, in principle, greatly encouraged by the increase in the numbers of new philanthropists. According to World Wealth Report 2010, produced by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch, the very wealthy (global ‘high-net-worth individuals’) have amassed fortunes estimated at $39 trillion, and continue to get richer and become more numerous. From this group, there is an increased interest in philanthropy; specifically in channelling their wealth into philanthropic purposes during their own lifetime.

While in the past wealth may have been more often managed by estate executors, the trend towards ‘giving while living’ raises the need for more advisory services from consultants and wealth managers. Or, as I like to call them, the philanthropic concierges – those who open doors and provide basic guidance but do not go beyond what punctiliousness demands.

Credit Rachel Pasch For my part, I have long been an ardent supporter of bricolage (inspired ad hoc-ism I believe it has been called), which essentially means that I put my bets on people who recognize what already exists, know how to make connections, and are willing to tinker or experiment. This inclination naturally carries with it a mild suspicion towards many concierges – those who claim to be ‘specialists’ or ‘experts’, who have all the answers in a tidy, easily digestible package, and who tend to dismiss and denigrate the work of others. In my experience, at least the bricoleurs do less harm.

In short, I recommend people who ask me to refer them to ‘good advisers’ to take their advice from people who have spent time in the philanthropic industry and know foundations thoroughly. In particular, I suggest they pick those that are willing to admit to limitations and prepared to share knowledge. I think these are the people who have the capacity to help both newcomers and old hands. My own indispensable ‘kitchen cabinet’ is composed of just such people – those with experience, who have and follow hunches, and who are prepared to share their hard-earned insights; above all, who readily admit their failures and demonstrate a curiosity or eagerness to ‘have another go’.

Some of these bricoleurs have successfully translated their knowledge and are now providing professional advice services, acting as middlemen and brokers. They offer the vital substance and support that allows budding philanthropists to become proficient practitioners. With their concrete experience and established networks, they can provide advice and orientation which is nuanced, subtle and indispensable.

At the same time, though, there are some so-called experts who are falling over themselves to provide a service without knowing exactly what this sector is about. Not even touching on the misguided financial advice that has been doled out over the past years, of which there are myriad examples, I am continually made nervous by the broadcasting and distribution of boilerplate advice that does not take into account the textured and truly diverse sector that we operate in. I am persuaded that sometimes the free advisory service is just the bait to land more clients and to secure the right to manage people’s accounts. The advisers appear to be complicit, helping to consolidate the impression that philanthropy is easy and straightforward, and that those who have been in this business for any length of time are somehow slow or deficient. In short, that there is nothing to learn from practitioners. Sometimes I find myself wondering: who gave the keys to these concierges? There is demystification and then there is oversimplification. These are not two ends of the same continuum; they are two very different processes.

I think there needs to be less hubris and false prophecy from the concierges, who must go beyond merely accumulating clients and accounts and focus more on two essential ingredients. First, a simple recognition that there is much to learn, that no one knows it all, and that the offering of blanket advisory services is unlikely to meet the quality standards that will be increasingly needed. Second, a readiness to understand that in the process of borrowing, modifying and recreating parts of practitioners’ successful repertoires, one is essentially taking this work further in a time-honoured fashion.

In short, we need advisers who don’t undermine what’s already there but who build on it. If this can be achieved, then I would wholeheartedly place my trust in these concierges. Until then, I think I’ll hang on to my keys.

Gerry Salole is Chief Executive of the European Foundation Centre. Email

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