In May 2009 UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown invited Dame Stephanie Shirley to become the UK Ambassador for Philanthropy, a position that she held for a year but which was not renewed by the Coalition government that came to power in May 2010. In March 2010 the website AmbassadorsForPhilanthropy.com was launched. Over the last few months, people all over the world have been receiving an email inviting them to become ambassadors for philanthropy. Many have no idea what it is all about. Having received several emails herself from people hoping she could shed some light on the matter, Caroline Hartnell talked to Dame Stephanie Shirley and Roberta d’Eustachio, her chief of staff, co-founders of Ambassadors for Philanthropy, to try to find out more.
Where did the idea of Ambassadors for Philanthropy come from?
Stephanie Shirley It’s one of the great mysteries in life, but it actually came to me via Gordon Brown, who invited me to become the UK Ambassador for Philanthropy in 2009. I didn’t have a brief or a budget, but it was an opportunity for me to rise to the occasion and really do something strategic to raise levels of giving in Britain. The tax incentives for philanthropy in this country are really pretty good, but nobody understands them, they’re just so complicated, so making giving easy was one of the themes that really emerged during that year.
It didn’t seem like the government had dealt with philanthropists before – they really didn’t know what someone like me was like; they didn’t grasp the whole range of philanthropic drives and motivations. It became obvious that one of the things that we could do was to give philanthropists a voice. They were just not being invited to treasury meetings. The government would invite people from charities, foundations, philanthropy advisers and so on, but no philanthropists, and they were talking about tax issues.
Were the two of you already working together at this point?
Roberta d’Eustachio We had been working together for over ten years. I was Steve’s [Dame Stephanie Shirley] representative in the States for many years – I still am! We met in 1998 when we were on BBC radio together, talking about philanthropy. We liked each other so we stayed in touch and built a friendship. Then one day Steve called me and said, ‘Hey I want to raise $1 billion for autism. Can you come over.’ ‘I’ll be right there,’ I said. And that started up a really interesting relationship.
So when the invitation came from Gordon Brown you were already used to working together?
SS Yes. I thought a bit about whether I could drop some of the other activities that I was involved in, and then I thought, ‘Well, Roberta could help here.’ And of course there were other benefits to her involvement. She had been advising Britain’s leading media such as the Economist and Financial Times on philanthropy and had a deep giving network here that could be called upon for our work.
So what were the main things you achieved in that year as the UK Ambassador for Philanthropy?
SS The main activity in the first few months was listening and talking to all kinds of people involved with giving. We met streams of philanthropists and asked them, ‘What do you think needs doing? What can I do for you?’ So the first six months were really spent fact finding.
RdE But quite early on we found the theme of giving philanthropists a voice. The philanthropist had no voice in England – with government, with the media or with the charities they supported. So we started video casting them on the Ambassadors website and getting them to talk publicly and intimately about why they do what they do when they give.
SS But there’s a limit to what one can do in a year, so a lot of it was about seeding ideas. When I look back on it, it does seem there was a buzz of interest. Clearly there is more and more need in difficult times, but of course philanthropists are less interested in need than in their own pleasure, doing what they want to do!
Do you personally feel philanthropists should be more focused on what’s needed rather than their own pleasure, or do you just think that’s a fact of life?
SS It’s a fact of life, really. People do what they have a passion for and where they feel their strengths can make a difference. And there’s so much need across the world which no individual, not even Bill Gates, can really respond to. So we do what we want to do where we have strengths and skills and interest, and the return comes in pleasure.
Which makes philanthropy a very poor way of substituting for government funding?
SS Yes indeed. Philanthropists lead with ideas, but governments have to deliver for their citizens.
Do you feel that the present government has an agenda to promote philanthropy to help fill the gaps in public spending?
RdE In October 2010, Lord Nat Wei, who was then working with Nick Hurd at the Office of Civil Society, invited me to bring in philanthropists to talk to government. So I invited many across the board, young, old, different races – I tried to do a mix. So we had this meeting where the philanthropist’s voice was brought to government, and I think the philanthropists really loved it. They felt that they were able to put their ideas out there. On the government side, they listened, they took notes. I think that was the beginning of them understanding that these people are doing things for their own reasons, their own motivations; they’re not going to fill in the gaps. Or maybe they will if it’s wrapped around social investment.
So at what point did the idea of making Ambassadors for Philanthropy global arise?
RdE You know, there wasn’t a moment when we said, ‘We have an idea and we’re going to make it happen’ and go global. That wasn’t the way this went. What happened was that we responded to the world of interest that contacted us. We originally did a global press release with a Gordon Brown video about why he appointed Steve. And then the Commonwealth Secretariat contacted us because they were having a big Summit in Barbados, with 53 countries coming, and they asked Steve to come and deliver a keynote speech about appointing an ambassador for philanthropy in each country. In fact, we had already had a good many responses from the website from different countries, so there was a lot of interest in finding out what it was all about. Then last year we were invited to the White House – the US government is looking at appointing an ambassador for philanthropy. The idea has a resonance that people are responding to.
We were testing out different models of how a global ‘social media’ website might work and how we would be able to be self-supporting. And then we said, ‘You know what, it’s got to be a global membership organization, along with sponsorship and advertising.’ And so we created an internet platform – mission driven – with a portfolio of benefits for members that could unleash philanthropy worldwide by giving philanthropists a voice.
How does this idea resonate in other countries?
RdE Every country is different, but the ambassadors message has a lot of resonance with non-profit leaders and philanthropists themselves in many different places. Philanthropy will grow when people who give tell others why they do what they do, with confidence.
SS I’m very happy to promote the UK as having the first ambassador for philanthropy, and the idea is being picked up. Singapore’s got a committee thinking about it at the moment, and Bulgaria is obviously going to go for it.
RdE Twenty-five plus different countries have contacted us so far.
SS In Britain I think it was the philanthropists themselves who didn’t want to talk about money and what we do with it, and so there were only a few people who were coming out from their cloak of anonymity to say what they were doing and the pleasure they got from it. I have a wonderful quality of life, I’m much happier as a philanthropist than I ever was in the years spent making money, and I enjoyed those!
Can we focus on one specific place. So who approached you in Bulgaria?
RdE Michael Green, co-author of Philanthrocapitalism, suggested we talk to someone at the Mott Foundation, and he introduced us to the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum. We met with representatives in the Bulgarian parliament and we also had a dinner with philanthropists there in Sofia – we had done the same thing in the Czech Republic the month before. So if you have an organization in a country that is interested in the government changing tax laws or introducing new policies for non-profits, they might ask us to come in and ignite this kind of discussion.
SS And it was really successful. Sometimes philanthropists are doing wonderful things individually, but they’ve never met the others, so a simple dinner is an absolute buzz of activity.
RdE Israel is an interesting story too. In September  we sent out the email inviting people to become members of Ambassadors for Philanthropy. This philanthropic adviser from Israel was our first member. Of course we had to call him up and say thank you and then we started talking and he invited us to go to Israel. He said, ‘Israel is the largest beneficiary of Jewish philanthropy in the world, yet we’re 34th out of the countries around the world in giving. We haven’t really established our giving culture here.’
Then two weeks later we got an invitation from the Jewish Funders Network. This is the largest network of Jewish philanthropists in the world, based in the States, with offices in Israel, and they said the same thing: we want to create a culture of giving in Israel.
SS Of course we can’t go everywhere so we have to plan out where we can go and what we can make happen. It’s not realistic to think that we’re going to hop on a plane every day and go somewhere, so we’re going to hold a summit here in London in 2013, and delegations can come from the different countries.
You talked about playing around with various ideas for the business model. The introductory video on your website talks about members, partners, sponsors. So what is the model now?
RdE We offer a portfolio of benefits to our members. Giving Magazine – the philanthropist’s voice worldwide – is the jewel in the crown. It will be the foundation of what we do and how we reach out to philanthropists worldwide.
We are in the process of creating a strategic relationship with the Association of Fundraising Professionals International, alongside a number of global organizations, including Resource Alliance, which will be part of distributing the iPad/tablet and ezine editions of Giving Magazine to more than 5 million philanthropists worldwide.
Where do members fit into the business model?
RdE In our connected world, any ‘global social movement’ also needs boots on the ground – our members – to affect change in the village, so to speak. Having savvy, visionary non-profits, philanthropists, advisers and companies in countries around the world functioning as ‘models’ for modern philanthropy, articulating the idea of ‘giving philanthropists a voice’ is, well, a good thing. AmbassadorsForPhilanthropy.com will provide a global network for our members to connect with and the most effective ideas to advance giving wherever they are in the world.
When you say every one of us can be an ambassador for philanthropy, what does that mean?
SS In our view, a philanthropist is anyone who’s strategic in their giving regardless of the monetary amount contributed. Therefore, strategic givers are models for others in a society. These philanthropic leaders, when open and articulate about why they give, have the positive power to influence others in ‘the crowd’ to follow suit, becoming, in essence, an ambassador for philanthropy.
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