The evolution of philanthropy

Charitable giving

Today’s philanthropists are more concerned with achieving big goals and creating social good than being in the spotlight.


For many philanthropists, charitable giving runs in the family. Fred Fountain, a notable Canadian philanthropist, lawyer and businessman, hails from a philanthropic family. His grandfather, Fred C. Manning, was as well known for his generous spirit as his entrepreneurial nature. Manning was one of Nova Scotia’s leading businessmen, a man who bootstrapped his way to a business empire that included auto supplies, gas, oil, radio and electrical components. Along the way, he donated millions to organisations and educational institutions across the Atlantic region, becoming the first Canadian to have a business school named for him.

Fountain, a modest man, says giving back was expected in his family. And he has – almost all his life. Amid a successful career in law and investing, he has donated and volunteered widely, working with programmes across education, the arts, disaster relief and wildlife conservation. So he knows of what he speaks when he says philanthropists must change with the times. “Philanthropy needs to be more responsive to emerging ways of doing things,” Fountain says. “And it should be quicker off the mark to deal with some of the problems it tries to address.”

The next generation agrees. Today’s philanthropists have grand ambitions, like solving climate change or eradicating poverty in Africa. To advance these goals, they’re becoming more collaborative with fellow benefactors, the private sector and government. Increased collaboration, in fact, is one of the key trends that emerged at the 2016 Forbes Summit on Philanthropy, sponsored by RBC Wealth Management, where attendees like Fred Fountain had a chance to reflect on the evolution of philanthropy in the 21st century.

Shooting for the moon 

Participants at the Philanthropy Summit marvelled at presentations by game-changers who are thinking big and shooting for the moon with ambitious philanthropic endeavours, or “moonshots.” The concept of a moonshot, popularised by Google, is an audacious project that tackles a huge problem by proposing radical solutions and applying breakthrough technologies. Efforts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate mosquito-borne disease for instance, resonated with attendees.

Fountain was inspired by biotech initiatives to increase the supply of organs for transplant surgery. Rob Sobey, a dedicated philanthropist and member of the family behind the Canadian supermarket chain, was taken by all the discussion, particularly with efforts to cure cancer. Alexandre Mars, a French-born businessman and founder of instant messaging company Scroon, identified with efforts to boost corporate activism for social good.

With recent technological breakthroughs, the idea of a moonshot is far more attainable, Mars says. “In 2016, we have the tools. We have an app to see how many shots were given because of your money in an African village, or how many kids slept last week in a shelter in New York City.” As a tech entrepreneur, Mars knows that technology can enable solutions unimaginable to previous generations of philanthropists.

The key is to strike a balance between hugely ambitious goals and more attainable ones. “The idea of a moonshot makes me think of how ambitious one should be and how much of a risk one should take to achieve a result,” Fountain says. “You can take risks, but you can’t take too many,” he says, because you may end up “wasting money that could be for something good,” even if it’s a less lofty goal.

Focusing on fewer causes for greater impact 

Many philanthropists are accustomed to supporting a wide array of causes through charitable organisations or family foundations with broad mandates. A typical portfolio can include promoting the arts, curing disease, fighting poverty and protecting the environment.  The danger with this approach, however, is that the impact of charitable giving can become diluted.

The Sobey family has underwritten a group of different foundations that fund things such as scholarships; Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and mental health research; community centres; and the visual arts. “I like the idea of going deeper on the causes that matter most to you, to make the impacts as catalytic as they should be,” says Sobey, who heads up the Sobey Art Foundation, one of the family’s foundations. The family is putting less focus on “bricks and mortar” projects, and more on scholarships and awards that are both merit- and needs-based.

William Murray, Viscount Stormont, agrees with the trend toward a narrower focus. He has worked for and continues to volunteer with the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Catholic lay charity with a mandate to care for the poor and the sick. (Not to be confused with the Mediterranean island nation, the Sovereign Order of Malta is a unique 905-year-old institution that is essentially the only country in the world which has no territory.) The Order is active globally in everything from disaster relief to water sanitation to old-age homes.

“A lot of foundations put money in lots of areas,” Murray says. “Finding a focus, taking your time to do it, and really working at it – that’s important.” The idea of zeroing in on select causes appeals to him. One such focus is Juanfe, a non-profit that helps Latin American children and teenage mothers living in poverty. Another is the Scone Project, a leadership program that helps ultra-affluent millennials born into prominent families develop into the next generation of business leaders and philanthropists. “I wanted to create a program and network populated by similarly situated people, eager to learn more about the potential pitfalls and successes in family business while developing the leadership potential to contribute in all areas of life,” Murray says.

Collaborating with other like-minded philanthropists

A passion for collaboration is another key trend that emerged at the Summit. Sobey likes the idea of “working with other like-minded philanthropists to go that much further.” Fountain agrees. “When you’re doing something for the common good, collaboration is essential. Getting enterprises to work together in a way that meshes so the project doesn’t break down,” or stall in bureaucratic limbo, is a key challenge.

Fountain saw this firsthand when he established the Stay Connected Mental Health Project in his native Nova Scotia. The five-year programme focuses on training family doctors, nurses and other staff to treat young people battling depression and anxiety. Mental illness often emerges during the transition from late teens to adulthood, yet there isn’t a clear path for teenage patients to move into adult care. The Stay Connected programme helps integrate health care across institutions.

Launching the programme required coordination among many entities, private and public. Fountain takes the role of facilitator as part and parcel of a philanthropist’s work. “You have to be prepared to participate as much as possible and not take all the credit,” Fountain says. “The key thing is to make it happen. It doesn’t matter whether you do it, or somebody else does it.”

Others echo this modesty, lauding the example of billionaire financier Warren Buffett who has pledged to leave the bulk of his $70 billion fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The collaboration is very inspiring,” Murray says. “Buffett saw the Bill Gates model and said, ‘It works; here’s the check. He can have the acclaim, I don’t need to be in another photograph.’”

Today’s philanthropists are ruefully aware of one key statistic: the number of applications to form new charities in the United States doubled from 45,289 in 2013 to 92,653 in 2015, according to the Internal Revenue Service. While they praise the compassion behind this burst of philanthropy, they also caution that such duplication of effort drives up administrative costs and hampers the ability to solve problems at a large scale. “Humility is a useful thing for impact investing,” Sobey says.

The next generation recognises the efficiency that comes with leveraging the experience of others. “Work with organisations who’ve already done the work,” says tech entrepreneur Mars. “Don’t think you necessarily have to reinvent the wheel,” says grocery executive Sobey. Leverage may also take the form of inspiring others to contribute or match your efforts. “When you can do it in a way that you encourage the other party to make the most of their side, it’s a win for all,” Fountain says.

Communicating to build bridges with the next generation

The humility exemplified by Buffett, however, doesn’t eliminate the need for building public support. “Philanthropists and organisations should help people understand it should be normal to do good. It shouldn’t be exceptional,” Mars says. To drive exponential improvements on big issues, philanthropists need broad support, so it’s essential to “communicate it.”

Effective communication is critical to maximising the impact of charitable giving. Murray says one big advantage his generation of philanthropists has over its predecessors is the ease of communication and access to information. “It makes collaboration and scaling so much easier. Today is a different world.”

While technology is a great enabler, it’s not the only way communication is changing. It’s equally critical to involve the next generation in meaningful dialogue. “Bringing young people into the fold – as opposed to telling them what they should do – and bringing them along as leaders,” is vital, Fountain says. Mars concurs, saying it’s the next generation that will help propel social change.

For his part, Sobey is proud of his family’s recent focus on scholarships. “One of the most important determiners of success, and creating a generation who’ll give back,” he says, “is education. We’re putting weight behind that, and it’s starting to bear fruit.”

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