Are 10,000 women enough?

On Wednesday, Women for Women International held its annual fundraiser. The impressive turnout at the gala dinner, hosted by Anderson Cooper, in New York’s Chelsea Piers was one encouraging sign that the gloomy predictions of a sharp fall in charitable giving due to the collapse of Wall Street and now an economic downturn may prove to be overdone.

Women for Women, founded by Zainab Salbi, whose moving memoir is highly recommended, helps female survivors of conflict to escape poverty by becoming economically self-sufficient, through job training, financial assistance and so forth.

Those honoured at the event included Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street financial powerhouse, for its new programme to provide business education to 10,000 women from poorer countries. (Portfolio magazine has just published a profile of 10,000 Women.) The award was collected by Goldman’s chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, who clearly enjoyed taking time out from battling the financial crisis, and repeated Goldman’s commitment to follow through with this programme, and indeed to extend it to America, now that needs are increasingly pressing at home.

In the book, we highlight the long record of Goldman Sachs as a leading practitioner of philanthrocapitalism, with a “culture that encourages, even expects, its leaders to give back to society both through philanthropy and public service.”

That public service role has been particularly controversial of late, with a recent article in the New York Times nicknaming the firm “Government Sachs” because so many of its staff have been recruited by the Treasury department, including Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and raising questions about whether that helped the firm to survive while its rival, Lehman Brothers, was allowed to fail.

Some critics are also sceptical about its philanthropic activity, arguing that it is just a fig leaf to comouflage its aggressive pursuit of profit. Yet, as we argue in the book, this is a criticism that can be leveled at almost any philanthropist – as often as not, unfairly. A more useful discussion is whether the giving is effective, and here Goldman has an impressive record, stretching back to Henry Goldman, the son of the firm’s founder, who gave substantial sums to support the development of physics, and Walter and Paul Sachs, who were influential early backers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

John Whitehead, a co-head of the firm in the 1970s and 1980s, established an expectation that all of the firm’s partners would be philanthropists. Whitehead also funded the first ever business school course in social enterpreneurship, at Harvard Business School. Recently, Goldman alumni have also created two innovative philanthropic intermediaries, Sea Change Capital, a philanthropy investment bank, and New Philanthropy Capital, a philanthropy research firm.

10,000 Women is a well-designed initiative, in partnership with some of the world’s leading business schools. The real question is whether educating 10,000 women in five years is ambitious enough. Hopefully, this will prove to be merely a pilot, and once it shows what can be done it will soon expand to 100,000 Women – or how about 1 Million Women?