Global Philanthropy

It's "cool." It's corrupt. It purifies wealth. It launders dirty money. It promotes peace. It sponsors terrorism. It's a religious duty. It's the obligation of the wealthy. It's the government's job. It's none of the government's business! It must be regulated. Regulation kills it. It's for family, not for strangers. It's for neighbors, not for relatives. It's based on trust. You cannot trust it. It hurts corporate profits. It promotes corporate branding. It's the rich helping the poor. It's the masses helping themselves.

"It" is philanthropy, the many faces of which are profiled in this ambitious but uneven collection of essays edited by Norine MacDonald, president of the Mercator Fund and the International Council on Security and Development (both headquartered in London), and Luc Tayart de Borms, managing director of the King Baudouin Foundation and treasurer of the Network of European Foundations, both based in Brussels. (Mercator is a project of NEF.)

In twenty-seven chapters, Global Philanthropy paints a complex portrait of philanthropy around the world as seen through the eyes of a remarkable range of contributors, including CEOs, program directors, donor advisors, strategists, and teachers.

Five chapters are devoted to the United States, while four directly or indirectly address Muslim philanthropy, which has faced particularly daunting challenges in the post-9/11 era. Also covered are New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, Africa, Brazil, and Canada. It may seem that European philanthropy, addressed in only two chapters, is underrepresented, but since the book is a companion volume to the editors' earlier Philanthropy in Europe: A Rich Past, a Promising Future, the focus on other parts of the world is in fact appropriate.

The essays vary widely, from carefully researched and footnoted studies such as Michael Seltzer and Karen Menichelli's analysis of transparency among North American foundations to highly personal and informal memoirs such as Vincent McGee's riveting autobiographical account of a life spent in social activism and philanthropy. Some, including Gerry Salole and Tayart de Borms's provocatively titled "The European Foundation Statute: End-Game or the Ultimate Brush-Off?", are designed to challenge the conventional wisdom, while others are carefully noncommittal. And a few read (unfortunately) like self-promotional puff pieces.

While a heavier editorial hand may have produced a more focused book, the rich variety presented here reflects the heterogeneous nature of global philanthropy itself, and the mixture of interests, outlooks, and egos presented ultimately is refreshing; this reader found herself neither dulled by dry statistics nor overwhelmed by what one contributor perceptively calls "the tyranny of anecdotes."

Here are just a few examples, perhaps oversimplified but nevertheless telling: In South Africa, philanthropy is such an unfamiliar concept that the word cannot be found in many of its languages. In Russia, philanthropy is deeply distrusted, tainted after decades of "forced volunteerism" under communism. In Brazil, political scandals have closely tied philanthropy to corruption and tax evasion. Australians tend to be indifferent to the concept, seeing philanthropy as the sole responsibility of the government. Under Islam, philanthropy is a solemn and mandatory religious obligation. For young Europeans, philanthropic giving builds self-esteem and is considered "cool." Traditional Asian cultures tend to limit giving to one's own family and community, while traditional Western philanthropy focuses on often-anonymous giving that benefits strangers.

Given these cultural disparities, it is both hard to believe and heartening that another shared theme running through this volume is the increasing emphasis in philanthropy on mutual cooperation, whether based on shared geographical boundaries, values, religion, or language. Such cooperation may take many forms, including cross-border cooperation among foundations, inter-program cooperation within an individual foundation, or cross-sectoral partnerships. Examples include the European Foundation Statute, which aims to bring more coherence and consistency to the regulation of European foundations; the CEE Trust, which coordinates philanthropic activity in Eastern Europe; the Asian Neighbors Network Program, which works to advance regional cooperation in Southeast Asia; the WCMP, which works to unite the philanthropic sector in the Muslim world; and the CPLP Foundations Meetings, which have helped consolidate civil society in the Portuguese-speaking nations of Africa

Another common thread in the book is the effect of particular historical events on philanthropy — the Great Recession and the so-called global war on terror most recently, but also the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, and the emergence of young democracies around the globe. The essays gathered by MacDonald and Tayart de Borms also explore how scandals and missteps frequently skew the public perception of philanthropy, how regulation both protects and endangers philanthropic giving, how foundations are coping with the growing tension between privacy and transparency, and how diaspora organizations play a significant role in reforming and modernizing philanthropic activities at home.

Given that several themes appear again and again, the volume would have benefited greatly from a subject index. Almost every essay, for example, considers the global economic meltdown of 2008 from a different perspective, and having an easy way of locating these references would have been valuable to readers interested in the topic. Of course, an index also would have been a great help to readers interested in sifting through the many different definitions of "philanthropy" in play around the globe. (Offering the volume in a searchable electronic format would be another option for making the book more user-friendly.)

Still, Global Philanthropy is a fascinating snapshot of a rising global phenomenon (however one defines the term), and the determined reader is sure to find many riches within its pages.

Chuck Bartelt
Electronic Grant Information Liaison
Foundation Center
New York, New York