The role of philanthropy

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 According to Merriam-Webster, philanthropy can be defined as:

1: goodwill to fellow members of the human race; especially: active effort to promote human welfare

2a: an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes

2b: an organization distributing or supported by funds set aside for humanitarian purposes.

Quite clearly, philanthropy is not about the love of bureaucracy, waste or red tape. Yet this is what happens all too often when well-meaning individuals from all income brackets donate their money to good causes.

There can be no doubt that philanthropy has an important role in modern societies. We understand that there are certain responsibilities incumbent upon the nation-state with regard to its citizens. We also understand that when resources are limited, the gaps can be filled by those with the means to do so. Hence the great philanthropic institutions that have done so much to halt the spread of fatal diseases, improve education, build infrastructure and sustain the cultural life of communities around the world.

For many, the drive to support charitable endeavors is the recognition that everyone has potential and that this potential can only be realized when circumstances are right. If the next Tim Berners-Lee has to walk thirty miles to get to school, then the whole world could miss out on the next Internet. Bringing out the best in individuals, and nurturing their talents is a key part of business, and philanthropy is often an extension of that role.

The activities of the great philanthropists – Getty and Carnegie, Rowntree and Rockefeller – are all around us today. In recent times they have been joined by Li Ka-Shing, Warren Buffet and of course Bill Gates. Indeed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – itself inspired by the work of John D Rockefeller – is a model of philanthropic endeavor, and an inspiration to many of us who are trying to make a contribution back to society. Not only has Mr Gates donated a large percentage of his own fortune, he has encouraged others like Buffet, Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg to do the same to create his charitable powerhouse and consolidate efforts on making a real difference to real people’s lives.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is an example of targeting effort to a tough but straightforward goal: that of eradicating curable but still fatal diseases. It gets straight down to business, and cuts through the politics and the bureaucracy that often gets in the way of such work. Because large foundations have the same problems that face any large organization: the balance between carrying out meaningful activity and recording that meaningful activity through reports and paperwork tips the wrong way. When money has to pass through several layers of organization to get to the people that need help, it is very inefficient.

Inspired by and learning from the Gates Foundation, we at the Tej Kohli Foundation prefer to work directly with existing community organizations that are already on the ground, or setting up small grass-roots groups to deliver the service. It is a method that has proved remarkably successful in Costa Rica, where we work to provide nutritional and educational support to under-privileged children, complementing government services.

We also recognize that philanthropy is not just about the donation of money. Our work in India is dedicated to providing corneal transplants to the 3.5 million people in the country who suffer from corneal blindness. We have an open commitment to funding an ophthalmic hospital where the transplants can be carried out. We have also launched Drishti Rath, a mobile ophthalmic unit that provides free refractive check-ups and free corrective glasses to people in the remote areas within 100 kms of India’s National Capital Region. The bus examines about 100 patients every day combining prevention with treatment and referrals to the Niramaya charitable hospital if necessary.

But the biggest barrier to success is not money – it is awareness of the problem, and the availability of transplantable corneas. An essential part of our work is raising awareness, encouraging people to take care of their vision and promoting donation. Again, our model is the Gates Foundation which, as part of its work on defeating Malaria and other global issues ignored by governments, has dedicated effort to promoting wider understanding of the issues, and raising awareness of the difficulties many people face in their daily lives.

In many ways, successful philanthropy is the same as successful business. It is about finding the field in which you can make the most impact and then putting in place the processes and procedures to ensure your service has the greatest effect. Like businesses, charitable foundations should be wary of excessive waste and inefficiencies. This time it’s not just profits that are at stake. 

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