The Virgin Elders

One of the more surprising interviews during research for the book was with Sir Richard Branson, the charismatic British entrepreneur. This took place in the New York Stock Exchange, where he had just rung the legendary bell. Unexpectedly, he revealed that he and Nelson Mandela had tried to prevent the American-led invasion of Iraq early in 2003. This plan ultimately failed. But, as Matthew recounted in a recent speech, it was to inspire the creation of The Elders, a group of elder statesmen and stateswomen that several leading philanthrocapitalists have funded to act as mentors to today’s world leaders.

Our critics have argued that there is little real meaning to the distinction we make between taking a businesslike approach to philanthropy and making philanthropy more like a business. Yet the creation of The Elders highlights exactly what we mean.

Branson has applied his business brain to solving a big structural weakness in the global governance system, and has come up with a high-risk, entrepreneurial solution, the heart of which is the institutionalisation of what he calls the “brand of Mandela”. As he rightly observes, Mandela is one of the few unsullied brands in global politics, yet this brand has only a limited, rapidly declining remaining value (due to Mandela’s declining health), unless its essence can be transfered to others – which is what is being attempted through The Elders. Like most of Branson’s business adventures, this has a high risk of failure but if it succeeds it will more than justify the risk. But it is nothing like a business.

Making philanthropy more like a business would involve finding ways to generate revenues from the activity – say, by naming the group The Virgin Elders. Yet although Branson has often linked the Virgin brand and his efforts to save the planet, presumably in hope of doing well by doing good, in this case he understands that it would be a mistake to dilute brand Mandela with brand Virgin. His critics love to accuse Branson of overweening vanity, but in this case he has demonstrated a true philanthrocapitalist’s understanding of when modesty can pay.