Ranking The Best Philanthrocapitalists

It was good to see Barron’s magazine’s cover feature about the world’s 25 best givers, which rightly observed that “the name of the game in philanthropy this year is to make your dollars go far – very far.” The article, prepared in partnership with the excellent Trevor and Maggie Nielson at Global Philanthropy Group, focuses on the big question at the heart of philanthrocapitalism: how do you achieve the greatest impact through giving? But its judgements are entirely subjective – and the wackiness of a few of its calls underscore how important it is that rigorous measures of social impact are developed soon.

Credit where credit’s due, Barron’s put eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, at the top of the list, in his case a welcome rehabilitation for a donor who has had some wobbles institutionalising his philanthropy but has now moved on to really apply the principles of philanthrocapitalism to his do-gooding. Nor do we object to Barron’s decision to pick ‘usual suspects’, many of them featured in our book, such as Bill Gates (number 7 on the list), George Soros (19), Eli Broad (4) and Bill Clinton (13), all of whose philanthropy has broken new ground in 2009. Yet, with no disrespect, it is hard to say that 2009 has been a big year for Sir Richard Branson’s (10) giving. Similarly, the Tribeca Film festival (14) is a great event but does an impact of “5,000 teens danced at one outdoor screening in Manhattan”, really count as world-changing?

So, today, we would like to honour five philanthrocapitalists who should have been on the Barron’s list – the Philanthrocapitalism Forgotten Five:

1) Mo Ibrahim: the Nobel Peace Prize committee couldn’t think of anyone to honour this year, so they gave it to a guy they hope will achieve something – Barack Obama. (See our comments on how Obama should have responded to that decision.) No such timidity from Sudanese telecoms tycoon Ibrahim when he couldn’t find a suitable recipient for his annual prize for the best African leader. His foundation didn’t just refuse to make an award, they also explained why. Take that Thabo Mbeki! Bad politics is behind so many of the development challenges in Africa – Ibrahim’s effort to create a debate about political leadership is real smart, strategic philanthropy.

2) Jet Li: the once curiously American habit of giving is going global and film star Li is leading the charge in China. His One campaign is working to make giving an integral part of Chinese society for the first time by getting those who have benefited from the country’s spectacular economic growth to start giving back to help others less fortunate than themselves. Bill Gates thinks that emerging economic powers like China could become the new big players in philanthropy – Jet Li is making this happen.

3) Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN): it isn’t a person and it isn’t just about giving but GIIN, which was launched in September 2009, is looking to have impact that would dwarf all the giving in the world. This network of foundations, like Rockefeller, and banks, from the socially minded Shorebank to the red in tooth and balance sheet Citigroup, is trying to get more of the money sloshing around the world’s capital markets to be invested in projects that do social and environmental good. As they say, if just 2% of the world’s capital were used in this way that would be $500 billion. Now that would be impact.

4) Jerry Hirsch – the philanthropist behind the Lodestar Foundation (slogan: “seeking happiness through philanthropy”), which this year awarded its first “collaboration prize” for the best non-profit collaborations in the US. Hirsch, who sees his mission as encouraging effective philanthropy, understands the need to leverage money by addressing the inefficiencies in the non-profit world, one of the greatest of which is the “not invented here syndrome” that leads many non-profits to go it alone rather than collaborate, let alone merge (as many of them should). The first winners were a YMCA that merged with a Jewish Community Centre in Toledo, Ohio, and three museums in Dallas that merged. This is a vital trend to encourage in a year when, more than ever, “the name of the game is to make your dollars go far – very far”.

5) You: the rise of mass philanthrocapitalism has been the biggest trend of 2009. At the end of October online microfinance site announced that it had broken the $100 million barrier, just five years since it started, and is on track to $1 billion in the next five years. That is unheard of growth for the nonprofit sector. Donorschoose, globalgiving, Facebook causes – the list goes on – the internet is mobilising and empowering givers like never before. Yes, Kiva faced a bit of a backlash towards the end of the year, with accusations that it was misleading its members. These criticisms were rather overdone, although Kiva’s speedy response has improved how it works, and also signalled how quickly expectations and ambitions are changing. You don’t have to give and just hope that you’re doing good these days – internet giving has empowered you to know where your money is going. Use it!

Well, there ends our retrospective of 2009. Watch out for our predictions for philanthrocapitalism in 2010, coming soon.

Comment from Trevor Neilson of Global Philanthropy Group:

Thanks Matthew and Michael for weighing in. The goal of the Barron’s ranking was to begin a lively, global debate about outcomes in philanthropy. We feel that philanthropic impact is more important than philanthropic process – and yet most reporting on philanthropy does not address the impact it achieves. As noted in the Barron’s piece, the process of ranking philanthropists is extremely difficult and by its nature requires a great deal of subjective decision making, primarily because quantitative analysis is difficult across issue areas that do not share common metrics. We welcome everyone’s criticism of the list and hope that you and other leading thinkers will offer your own lists of the most effective philanthropists.