Recent articles in Alliance, including Adrian Sargeant and Rob Garris’s ‘Balancing risk and opportunity’ in the September issue, raise the question: who are the real risk takers in philanthropy – the people who are prepared to back the high risk/high reward idea, the long-term campaign, the charismatic but flawed social entrepreneur?
In my experience as an entrepreneur and social entrepreneur, businesses don’t get built without a fair amount of risk. So people who have made money, at the scale of giving where there is little or no public scrutiny, might be expected to have a bigger appetite for risk than foundation staff, accountable in many directions for the use of money they did not make, or individuals who have inherited money, for whom a concern with stewardship can make it feel irresponsible to put this ‘precious bundle’ at risk.
Adopting a venture capital approach to philanthropic investment would mean accepting a portfolio approach – some failures, some stars, and the ‘living dead’ in between. But maybe because we are often looking at a finite and dwindling pot of investment, a few early failures (‘lemons ripen faster than plums’ as we used to say in the trade) can dampen our enthusiasm.
Paradoxically, perhaps, it is through collective philanthropy that I can feel most at home with risk. Just as Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust’s dedication to a cause over time comes from a very particular set of values, so I have found in the Network for Social Change, a UK giving circle, a willingness to back risk on a wide spectrum – from start-ups on urgent topics like third world debt or drone warfare to agitation against global warming, where one person’s passion lends conviction to what might seem an unlikely lever for change. Each person’s contribution may be small yet together we do, sometimes, achieve social change.
Chief Executive, Peace Direct