Perhaps one of the most interesting and distinguishing features of philanthropy is the broader opportunity for collective action than in commerce.
Liberated from the often-singular drive towards self-interest and financial gain, philanthropy’s focus on the needs of others has enormous potential to unify participants for greater impact. There is simply less standing in the way of co-operation and it brings a host of benefits to the cause.
Consider, at one extreme, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ philanthropic partnership. Buffett has recently given or pledged some 30 billion dollars to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; a change from his previous intention to donate the majority of his wealth to his own foundation. The combined force of their financial assets and leadership (such as the Giving Pledge) has dramatically increased their charitable impact and united others in the process.
The Giving Pledge is one model of how those interested in giving may co-operate. A group of people interested in promoting charitable donations and an understanding of the limitations to the benefits of inter-generational gifts. It is also network in which broader co-operation can be fostered.
These types of models are not, of course, limited to the world’s wealthiest.
In Seattle, we met with the Washington Womens’ Foundation whose vision is to change the course of women’s philanthropy through the power of collective giving. Not only was the Foundation empowering women it was pooling resources for informed and focused grant making. Members give a minimum of $2500 per year of their membership and since 1996 the Foundation has donated more than $13 million. The Foundation then facilitates the process for donations– carefully vetting and selecting the chosen charities. Members get the benefit of a structured and experienced philanthropic program; charities get the benefit of aggregated funding. Both get economies of scale and less administration. The WWF model has been replicated throughout the United States.
We also meet with Kiki Mills Johnston the CEO of the Full Circle Fund. The Fund is a model in which people collaborate in different “circles” of interest (e.g. helping the environment) to explore issues to tackle, identify opportunities and then partner with non-profit innovators working in that field. The emphasis in this model lay around a broader collaborative contribution of not just financial support but network connections and expertise and then partnering with innovative social entrepreneurs.
But beyond these formal co-operative structures, we saw a potentially more powerful form of co-operation; each of the foundations and charities we met was willing to share their knowledge and experiences to help build philanthropy, to help people help others. It was an openness and willingness to help others towards this common goal of doing good that was so in contrast with the commercial world where customer lists, business processes and human resources are jealously guarded. On this trip in the United States, as in Australia, we saw other philanthropists willing to give their time and resources to help – particularly those learning the ropes.
This is not to say there is not competition in the philanthropic sector. Charities battle hard for donations. A dollar to the Cancer Council might be a dollar lost to Mission Australia. Those that give their time and money might also feel a need to compete with others – perhaps to compete on the effectiveness or recognition of their work? Perhaps a need to believe that one cause is more worthy than another? Given the strong emotional and personal links to why people give, finding alignment in causes is one of the bigger challenges to some forms of collective action. Its something the Giving Pledge steers away from – those who pledge make their own decision about the causes to support.
But whatever competition there is, the power of that unifying goal and those that serve it, offsets it – creating opportunities for greater and more efficient giving.
Within the group with whom I travelled, the benefits of collective action are already manifesting. We have been sharing our efforts, successes and failures. We have helped each other pursue particular causes. There is also a commitment from members of the group to find new ways to work together and with others, to do more and do better for the common goal of helping those in need.
I have started doing more.
Adam Moxon Simpson