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Big Gifts, Big Ideas, Big Impact: A Conversation with Today’s Philanthropists

By Tom Watson on May 1, 2008No Comment

When Milano hosted its fourth annual “Big Gifts, Big Ideas” forum, it provided a platform for Andrea Soros Colombel, Abigail Disney and Peter Peterson to discuss the role of private philanthropy in public life. Fred Hochberg, dean of Milano, moderated the conversation by relaying handwritten messages from the audience, and by asking a few provocative questions of his own.  The topics discussed ranged from simple (how they named their foundation) to conventional (how they hold grantees accountable) to incendiary (how their philanthropy intersects with their political views).

“Essentially,” Hochberg explained, “this forum will ask these philanthropists what they fund and why.” It gave the audience the opportunity to join these philanthropists behind the closed doors of a board room, to learn about the intentions, methods, and motivations behind their giving.

It quickly became clear that Colombel, Disney and Peterson vary in their philanthropic methods and motivations, as well as their areas of focus. This made for a multi-dimensional — and sometimes heated — conversation. Colombel (daughter of global financier and billionaire George Soros) is the president and founder of the Trace Foundation, which directly supports Tibetan culture and communities within China, certainly an interesting and somewhat controversial topic in light of increased pro-Tibet protests and hostility in recent months. Colombel also mentioned her role as a founding partner of Acumen Fund, which uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve global poverty. Both Trace and Acumen emphasize the individual as a key component to social change. “We believe we need local engagement and local support to truly affect change,” Colombel explained.

Disney, whose grandfather co-founded the Walt Disney Company, was the most outspoken of the three philanthropists. She formed the Daphne Foundation in 1991 – a well-known progressive organization that distributes grants to community-based groups working with low-income communities in New York City. Disney explained that she came to focus her work in New York out of a desire to be a good neighbor in her own backyard before venturing further into the world to make change. And, in agreement with Colombel, she emphasized the power of people to take on their own social problems.
Peter Peterson recently found himself among New York’s newest billionaires.  After his company, the Blackstone Group, went public last year, Peterson formed the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which will have at least $1 billion in Peterson’s money to carry out its mission.  The Foundation will focus on educating and motivating young people to do something about what he describes as the United States’ “sustainability” challenges, addressing issues such as healthcare and the extraordinary national debt.  He calls them sustainability challenges because they are unsustainable problems that have “seriously imperiled the American Dream.” There are reforms to these problems available, Peterson explained, but they’ve become politically untouchable because of deadlocked public discourse.

Perhaps the most fruitful dialogue from the forum fell around the idea of partnerships, discussed in response to audience inquiry about how these influential philanthropists hold their grantees accountable, and what types of measurements they use to determine success.  Disney emphasized the need to ask grantees how they will know they’ve succeeded or failed, and then to hold them to their own system of measurement. She also stressed the need among funders for a continued paradigm shift toward the idea that philanthropies and their grantees really are “in this together.”

Colombel strongly agreed with Disney on that point and then emphasized the importance of accountability as a way of creating meaningful exchange. “If partners truly are being mutually regarded,” she explained, “they should be held to their promises.” Disney and Colombel agreed that social return can be difficult to measure and emphasized that the local community must be involved in the solutions. They also agreed that, as a sector, we must hold ourselves much more accountable for our own decision making.

Interestingly enough, all three individuals, representing different ideologies, sensibilities and bank accounts, think the 5% mandate on foundation giving is too small. While many foundations argue for keeping their endowments sizeable, these philanthropists believe that it should be legally imperative to spend more each year.

“We spend more than 5%,” Disney explained, “because money is a renewable asset.” Colombel said that “increased spending forces us to be more strategic,” but warned that organizations and people can also “over give” when they become emotional about a cause, which can sometimes sacrifice strategy. Peterson, who was an advocate for the 5% payout in the late 60’s, stressed that the mandate was formed with good intentions, but cordially agreed that foundations do not give away enough … and Peterson certainly has solid ground from which to make such a claim, considering his commitment to give away one billion in the next few years.

Cordiality was quickly replaced with political jousting, however, when the conversation turned to current events. Perhaps Dean Hochberg was just keeping with the season by asking provocative questions about philanthropic/political intersections and about personal contributions to candidates. Disney, a self-described “flaming lefty,” quickly spoke out in support of both potential Democratic nominees, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Peterson immediately voiced his support for John McCain. A self-described “Rockefeller Republican,” Peterson spoke nostalgically of a time when the United States subscribed to more fiscally frugal polices. The national debt is one of those “sustainability challenges” around which the Peterson Foundation will work to raise public awareness and create change, he argued.

All three philanthropists seemed to agree that effective political discourse in this country is certainly deadlocked, due in large part to our current method of political financing. Peterson, the most outspoken about this issue, expressed discontent over lobbying organizations expecting (and receiving) legislative changes in return for campaign funding. He’d like to see the country move in the direction of public financing of political campaigns. 

Disney argued that while the law may not permit 501c3 organizations to engage directly in political activities (like 501c4s), she feels that nonprofits are in fact changing political discourse and creating systemic change by empowering the poorest citizens, improving education, and raising awareness around important issues. Peterson attempted to wrap up the political conversation by saying that his foundation will work scrupulously to remain nonpartisan. Disney quickly questioned the reality of such intentions, claiming that organizations working with the poor are not only working with potential Democrats but also, by the nature of their work, engaging in more progressive activities. “Are you saying conservatives aren’t compassionate?” Peterson asked her. To which she responded, “Just not demonstrably so in recent years.” The audience erupted in laughter.
Dean Hochberg concluded the discussion by asking Colombel, Disney and Peterson which organizations they deem most worthy of public funding. These “big givers” quickly put on their fundraising hats, each immediately plugging the organizations with which they are closely aligned. Like all great nonprofit board members, it would appear they can ask for money as adeptly as they can give it away.

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