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Globalizing Philanthropy: Made in America No Longer Fits

By Tom Watson on February 15, 2007No Comment

clinton and branson

Globalizing Philanthropy: Made in America No Longer Fits
By: Tom Watson, 2/15/2007

One of the signature cultural moments in the globalization of the economy will unfold this Sunday, amidst the roar of high-octane engines at the Daytona International Speedway. Sure, there are some grumblings in racing-obsessed quarters about the entry of Toyota-branded stock cars for the first time in the history of a sport that began with moonshiners running souped-up jalopies to escape the hated revenuers. But it’s the fine print that counts: NASCAR, that most American of sports federations, has changed the qualifying language for high-tech machines that barrel along curved tracks at 200 miles per hour. For the first time, “American-made” has been replaced in the rule book by “American-assembled.”

There’s a lesson there for philanthropy of the international variety as well. American philanthropy can only go so far, even with the fortunes of Buffett and Gates and other moguls in the pot. But American-style philanthropy – giving and social entrepreneurialism “assembled” in the U.S. – can go much farther towards changing the world. And besides, the fastest cars have already left the starting grid. The race is on.

The branding of American philanthropy, and its extension to other developed nations for the benefit of the still-developing world, can clearly be seen at the highest levels of international cooperation. From the gathering of leaders at Davos, to all of the leading “global” summits and conferences – the Clinton Global Initiative, the Milken Global Conference, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, and the Global Philanthropy Forum at Google – the style of leadership is powered by American fortunes. It’s a certain brand of philanthropy – engaged, not necessarily not-for-profit, aimed at sustainability, focused on a return on investment, open to partnerships that cut across the corporate and public sectors. And at the center is the growing dominance of America’s Baby Boomer mentality – the idea that “we” can make change happen, and soon.

Richard Branson is British, and he doesn’t race cars at Daytona (yet), but he’s clearly an example of this new brand of philanthropists. Sir Richard, with a net worth approaching $7 billion, was described by Business 2.0 recently as “part Warren Buffett, part P.T. Barnum” and it’s an apt description. Branson made headlines at the Clinton Global Initiative last fall when he committed all the profits from his transportation companies to the development of alternative fuels, a move that he admitted was heavily influenced by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. This cause-related movie is itself part of a trend identified by another American media mogul, Ted Leonsis, who has dubbed the funding of films like it “filmanthropy.”

Of course, there’s a massive asterisk next to Branson’s “gift” – indeed, it’s not “philanthropy” at all in the traditional sense. Most of the commitment will go to erstwhile profit-making corporate ventures, including Branson’s own Virgin Fuels. And where has Virgin Fuels, which has committed to investing $400 million over the next three years in “renewable energy projects around the world” made three of its first four investments, according to the Virgin website? Why, the heartland of the good old USA – prime NASCAR territory, in fact. Ethanol companies in Tennessee, Indiana, and California received funding. The fourth company is a joint venture between Virgin and an Irish firm, also in bio-fuels. And, Virgin Fuels is managed as an investment fund. All the principals of the firm have either management or investment venture experience. Profit is the name of the game, along with changing the world.

Virgin Fuels Chief Executive Shai Weiss described the firm’s mandate two months ago in the trade publication Jet Fuel Intelligence: “This is not a philanthropic organization. Our priority is to do good through good investments. The operative word for our investment strategy is ‘renewable’.”

To Branson, style counts; he told the press at last year’s Clinton confab that he hoped his commitment would spur others to undertake similar ventures. Although entirely different in both style and substance, Warren Buffett said much the same thing last summer, when he committed his fortune to the Gates Foundation. And in Britain, Branson’s commitment is well-noticed indeed, and it’s called “philanthropy” even if it is a profit-aimed form of social entrepreneurialism.

Said the British news site FirstPost: “For three decades, the Virgin entrepreneur has exercised his special gift for limelight-grabbing – from offering his airline to fly hostages out of Iraq to dressing in drag for grinning PR stunts. But this beats everything. It makes him – potentially – Britain’s greatest modern philanthropist. More than that, it makes him a shining knight in the battle against climate change that happens to be uppermost in the thoughts of every ambitious politician and concerned citizen.”

The article added only one cautionary note: “Perhaps we shouldn’t be cynical. But we can observe that $3bn offered over 10 years does not turn Branson into Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who have given vastly more. It just makes him big by modest British standards.”

And therein lies the rub – those standards may be modest now (though countries like Britain and Spain are moving more quickly towards U.S. levels of philanthropy). But non-American industrialists, most obviously in Europe but also in China and other Asian nations, have caught wind of American-style philanthropy. The original ideas, like the NASCAR stock cars, may be assembled here, but they’re starting to hit the track around the world. This is a good thing for those who value sustainability, although it raises huge issues around democratic governance values.

As in Daytona, the real test will come when the “stock cars of change” are no longer manufactured in Detroit at all, but are instead created from scratch by philanthropists in India, and China, and Russia, and Indonesia.

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