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Trump, Plutocracy, Refugees and Effective Altruism: The Year to Come in Philanthrocapitalism

The Philanthro Crystal Ball worked pretty well last year. What is our oracle predicting for 2016 in the world of philanthrocapitalism?

CRSPR, ISIS, Data for Good & Refugees This year, we expect to see leading philanthrocapitalist thinkers wrestle with the implications for society of the powerful new gene editing technology, CRSPR; with what the private sector can do to beat terrorist threats such as those posed by ISIS; with how the increasing volumes of Big Data produced by private companies, especially the giant internet platforms and smart phone operators, can be used for public good; and whether private philanthropy can help the traditionally government-dominated system of helping refugees do a far better job (a theme that will be central to the big UN Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May).

Trumping Trump In a presidential election year, there will be more talk of plutocracy in America than since the days of JD Rockefeller. In some ways, this will be an opportunity for billionaires more generous in spirit (and cash) than The Donald to prove the sceptics wrong by putting their money behind the causes he opposes, from helping refugees and providing a path to citizenship out of illegal immigration to finding a more positive role for America in the world. It should be a chance, too, to debate how philanthropy and social entrepreneurship can better work with government (though we don’t have much hope that debate will happen). Instead, expect lots of talk about Big Philanthropy versus The People. However well-intentioned, philanthropy by the rich will be increasingly embroiled in a heated debate about inequality and the role of wealth in society. There will be lots of talk about the allegedly pernicious power wielded by Big Philanthropy over the democratic process. Foundations and other rich donors will need to work hard to demonstrate they are clearly delivering public benefit and working to empower The People, not undermine them. In short, the pros and cons of philanthrocapitalism will be an even hotter topic than this year.

CGI RIP? If Hillary takes the White House, there will be huge pressure to close the Clinton Global Initiative and maybe even the Clinton Foundation, or to radically change the governance of what has been called the Clinton Charity Empire, perhaps to something equivalent to a philanthropic blind trust. No one should want the CGI to disappear, as it plays a valuable role in the world of philanthrocapitalism by bringing together donors, big companies and social entrepreneurs. Nor should anyone want Bill Clinton to stop playing his catalytic role in this match-making process. Yet it would be unprecedented for the leader of the world’s superpower to have such close ties to a philanthrocapitalistic outfit of this nature, and those who care about its future need to devote serious effort right away to figuring out a credible path for it to continue under a President Hillary.

Will the Kochs Still Love Soros? This will be a testing year for the unlikely romance that has broken out between philanthropic bogeymen of the right and left over prison reform in America. The Koch brothers and George Soros, among others, have been making common cause over the absurdly high levels of incarceration in America, Soros out of concerns about the injustice of it all, the Kochs from a dislike of big government and a genuine libertarian contempt for needless restrictions on personal freedom. Will the demands of an election season, which will see their bogeyman status taken to new heights, cause their positive new relationship to fracture? Let’s hope not, as the emerging bipartisan consensus on the need for prison reform is one of the more encouraging developments in American politics.

Taking LGBT Equality Global In 2015, the rich countries of the West seemed to move decisively to embrace full equality between straight people and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc. Whilst there remains work to be done in every country, the world of philanthrocapitalism is likely to turn its attention increasingly to countries where, if anything, tolerance and inclusion of LGBT people is in decline, many of them in Africa, the Middle East & Asia. (The Economist is holding a big conference in March on the business and economic case for LGBT equality, for example, with one of its main focuses being what to do about the growing global rift on this.) The Ford Foundation recently announced that it will be scaling back its funding of LGBT organisations in America in order to give more support to similar efforts abroad, especially in Africa. Expect this trend to accelerate.

Africa Mostly Rising LGBT rights aside, Africa will be a source of plenty of good news on the philanthrocapitalistic front, with lively social entrepreneurs helping to build civil society, lots of bottom of the pyramid entrepreneurship around mobile phones and solar energy, and more African billionaires signing the Giving Pledge. One worry: Paul Kagame’s decision to seek a third term in charge of Rwanda will increase tension between those philanthrocapitalists who see the country as a model for African development and those who prioritise human rights and fear the rise of yet another illiberal African regime. Expect the recent controversy in India over Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts to bridge the digital divide via Internet.org to heat up in Africa, too, as local critics allege it is merely a scheme to advance the business interests of Facebook.

Impact Investing Goes Mainstream In 2016, three important philanthrocapitalist players will make major strides in growing impact investing. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan will start to show why they opted to pledge to give away the bulk of their $44 billion future not via a traditional charitable foundation but through an Omidyar Network-like LLC that can do lots of impact investing. The Ford Foundation will dedicate as much as 10% of its endowment to impact, Sambla reports. And the MacArthur Foundation will roll out a series of initiatives designed to help smaller investors collaborate to scale up impact investing. At the same time, expect mainstream financial organisations from BlackRock to Bain Capital to start implementing their promised commitments to grow impact investing. There will also be more social impact bonds (some successful enough to make up for the recent Rikers Island disappointment) and more IPOs of B Corps, to follow last year’s by Etsy. One slight worry: Paul Polman, who has become the face of a more sustainable, responsible approach to running a big business, is getting nearer to the end of his time at the helm of Unilever. If he goes this year, it is not clear that there is any existing CEO of substance ready to play that important role of leading the mainstream business world by example.

After Paris, Reality Bites In 2015, the world gathered in Paris to commit to beat climate change. In 2016, the delight at achieving agreement with far less rancour than expected will soon be replaced by the realization that the hard work remains to be done. Expect lots of discussion about how to mobilise private sector resources behind far greater innovation in renewable energy (see earlier discussion of impact investing), as well as renewed talk of the need to develop radical geoengineering strategies just in case what was agreed in Paris isn’t delivered or, even if it is, it fails to do the trick.

Bye-Bye Ban Ki, Hello Angela? There will be a new Secretary General appointed at the UN. Despite the efforts of Kevin Rudd and Helen Clark to get the UN to include the Antipodes within the essentially European bloc that is due to supply its next boss, we don’t think they have much of a chance. Philanthrocapitalists are likely to have three priorities: an open and meritocratic selection process; a candidate committed to deep partnerships with philanthropy, business and social entrepreneurs; and, in so far as it is compatible with the first two, a successful female candidate. Currently, two Bulgarians are the front runners to become the first ever female Secretary General, but if you fancy a flutter on a dark horse, you could do worse than back Angela Merkel, especially given the growing sense that her time in charge of Germany is fast running out.

The War On Foreign Donors In 2016, the war by autocratic governments on organisations receiving donations from abroad is likely to intensify, as governments from Russia to Ethiopia start to enforce more vigorously the laws they have put on the books in recent years. Two big questions may start to be answered: Is China really going to drive out long established foreign philanthropies such as Ford and Rockefeller at the very moment it is trying to encourage its emerging home grown philanthropists to emulate those American models of giving? And will foreign philanthropists maintain a united front against such laws, when it is largely human rights focused donors that are being targeted, whilst a blind eye is turned to development and health oriented donors?

Hacker Philanthropy and Effective Altruism In 2015, philanthrocapitalists in Silicon Valley got excited about two big, newish ideas: Hacker Philanthropy, proposed by billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker; and Effective Altruism, championed by philosopher Peter Singer. The first refers to focusing philanthropy on finding solutions that work; the second refers to focusing philanthropy where it can have the greatest impact. Clearly, there is some overlap between the two ideas, both of which go to the heart of what philanthrocapitalism is about. But in 2016, there needs to be, and will be, much more debate about what each term means in practice, a debate that will be much easier to have if those who espouse these ideas have a year of significant activity putting large sums of money to work for the public good. Expect a growing conversation about what constitutes proof of impact, including when to use randomized controlled trials, and some uplifting studies of the benefits of giving in ways that most empower beneficiaries and of the considerable psychological and health benefits that result from being a giver.

The Age of Structural Philanthropy A big idea that will catch on in 2016 is Structural Philanthropy: how to give in ways that achieve a large scale impact in tackling the deepest structural problems afflicting society. Philanthrocapitalism will increasingly be focused on how to move the needle on inequality, racism, injustice, etc, in order to achieve genuine social progress. Well, here’s hoping, anyway.

Wishing everyone a generous, impactful and happy new year!

19 replies on “Trump, Plutocracy, Refugees and Effective Altruism: The Year to Come in Philanthrocapitalism”

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