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The New Philanthropists

By Tom Watson on March 28, 20073 Comments

One of the more fascinating presentations came last evening from Irish writer Charles Handy, who is also a former Shell executive and the founder of the London Business School. A well-known author, radio personality, and bon vivant, Handy’s latest book with his wife Elizabeth is The New Pilanthropists – a study of mid-career donors, mainly in the UK – "stories of ordinary people doing interesting things, and of the issues they raise."

So who are these "new philanthropists?" According to Handy, they’re mainly in their 40s and still ambitious. They have a lot of energy and a strong interest in social change. They don’t want to give their money as usual, to build new university buildings and the like.

"And they are DIY freaks!" he said. "They are not prepared to write checks. They want to do it themselves….and they have the annoying tendency to go blundering into areas where they don’t know anything. Oh, they’re not terribly popular [with existing institutions] these new philanthropists."

Handy briefly profiled four British new philanthropists: a restauranteur who gave up profits to feed street people, an ex-football star and alcoholic who started a clinic, an executive who began his own microloan program in Malawi, and a mobile telephone tycoon who set up a hospital for breast cancer patients in Africa.

Handy said the growth of these "new philanthropists" mirrors the return of Britain’s entrepreneurial ethos, which he said had largely disappeared between the Victorian industrialists and the 1990s.

Note: the US view, from Philanthromedia.

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  • Alex says:

    This is a great point Tom. The idea of the “New Philanthropist” represents a new era in philanthropy. An era in which wealthy individuals are no longer saving all of their assets for their heirs, but are setting up foundations and giving major gift level donations to charities and foundations alike so they can see the good that their money is doing during their lifetime. Philanthropy is thankfully becoming more and more trendy with high profile philanthropists like Warren Buffet setting the bar quite high.

  • Kate says:

    Perhaps those tempted to go “blundering into areas where they don’t know anything” should take a page out of Buffett’s book. In donating his wealth to the Gates Foundation, he showed both wisdom and humility, acknowledging that the Foundation can have a bigger impact with his money than he could have accomplished by himself. As he has said, “What can be more logical, in whatever you want done, than finding someone better equipped than you are to do it?”

  • Josh Moore says:

    What I think is very important is the statement is, “They want to do it themselves….and they have the annoying tendency to go blundering into areas where they don’t know anything”.
    While profit minded ex-business men are undoubtedly necessary to bring philanthropy to its next level, the danger is that inflated ego’s due to successful careers in business can cause these individuals to make poor philanthropic investments. Unlike the for-profit sector, where a bad idea will drive you out of business, nonprofits and people in the sector are so hungry for dollars that they will follow right along with a bad idea. I think these new philanthropists have a tremendous opportunity to bring a new skill and professionalism to the sector, if they are able to humble themselves to the point of learning for those who really know what they are doing.

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