Inspiring Others to Deliver: The Role of Philanthropists

At TSIC, we believe that cross-sector collaboration is the most effective way to create social change. Not only do we need social entrepreneurs, we also need philanthropists, corporations and governments. Philanthropists, among others, have an indispensable role to play because the value of philanthropy is precisely shouldering the risks in proving concepts which can later be brought to scale by government or industry. Philanthropists have the risk appetite for investing in game-changing and novel ideas. They can then inspire others to do the same.

However, a new report published by BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index suggests that philanthropists are not doing enough to inspire others to follow their examples.

The report by BNP Paribas analyses individual giving in Europe, the United States, Asia and the Middle East. The index explores trends across three categories: Giving, Innovation and Promotion (for more detailed explanation of the methodology, please refer to p.4 of the report). A curious finding is that across all regions, philanthropists rarely talk about their causes and their philosophy on traditional and digital media. In the Middle East especially, philanthropists frequently prefer to stay under the radar. The report cites that the reasons often come down to ‘a sense that making donations public would take away from the idea of charity’. But if the aim of philanthropy is to make a difference, shouldn’t philanthropists promote their work more actively to inspire others to do the same?

Bill Gates is a philanthropist who inspires others to deliver. In the Forbes’ 400 Summit last month, he spoke on the importance of publicity for philanthropists. He stressed that speaking openly about what one is working on and learning helps further the cause and encourages sharing of best practices. He recalled a conversation with philanthropists in the Middle East, in which they discussed that the Koran actually obliges people to promote their philanthropic efforts if it can encourage others to do the same.

Admittedly, publicity for philanthropic efforts is a double-edged sword, which may draw suspicions of the philanthropist’s motive, be it personal glory or business interest. BBC recently featured Chen Guangbiao, dubbed ‘The Most Prominent Philanthropist of China’. His controversial philanthropic efforts, from funding an extravagant banquet for the homeless in New York to handing out banknotes to the earthquake survivors in Sichuan, are well-covered by national and international media, leading to criticisms that the pompous publicity campaigns are merely to promote himself. He insists that the high-profile nature of his charity is not self-serving, but to encourage other rich people in China to follow his role model.

There is, indeed, a fine line between self-promotion and inspiring others to deliver. However, if the bigger goal is to maximise social impact, the fear of being criticized should not deter philanthropists from promoting their work. The question should not be whether or not to promote, but how. Getting our heads around this question may make it easier for philanthropists to create social change.

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