By Hugo Greenhalgh on 2 Apr 2015
Do philanthropists need to improve their PR?
Should philanthropists be allowed to support development however they see fit, or should their altruism be under greater scrutiny?
That was the central theme of a panel discussion at UCL on Monday evening.
The event focused on the ethics of global philanthropy and saw Clare Matterson, Director of Strategy at the Wellcome Trust and Andre Heller Perache of Medicins sans Frontiers (MSF) engage in a lively debate with Professor Rob Reich, Associate Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a leading authority in the field.
A growing proportion of aid
Avia Pasternak of UCL’s Global Governance Institute introduced the debate within the context of the private sector taking a growing role in philanthropy.
The Hudson Institute estimates that nearly $60 billion of development investment between 2008 and 2011 came from private sources. Other estimates suggest philanthropic donations make up as much as a fifth of all development assistance.
Consequently, the private nature of this funding raises questions about philanthropy: what ethical criteria should guide funding decisions and who should be held accountable for these decisions?
Rob Reich argued that philanthropy was not simply an exercise of individual freedom. By giving tax breaks to charitable giving, states effectively encourage the practice. He cited the example of George Soros, the US billionaire founder of the Open Society Foundation who, when deciding on priorities with his staff is reported to have said: “Well folks, it’s my money and I’ll do it my way”. To which a brave (or foolhardy) junior officer replied that 40% of the money would have been taxpayers’ if he hadn’t decided to give it away.
“Big philanthropy,” said Reich, “is an exercise of power”, adding that in democratic societies they amounted to a “plutocratic element” due to lack of accountability.
These philosophical arguments presented an interesting challenge for the Wellcome Trust’s Clare Matterson.
Matterson explained how the role of the Wellcome Trust has developed over the years since its foundation in 1936 to administer the legacies of pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Wellcome. The foundation continued to run under a board of trustees until the early 1990s, when the Trust sold a number of its shares and was able to become the world’s largest grant-giving charity at the time.
It now sits atop assets worth £19bn and spends an eye-watering £2million per day on projects designed to improve human and animal health.
In 2000, a constitution approved by the trustees, who continue to play a large role in the Trust’s activity. This saw it become more democratic and introduced a conflict of interest policy. Moving into the 21st Century, the Trust has increased its funding globally outside of the UK and remains at the forefront of scientific and medical innovation.
Matterson was keen to point out the benefits of philanthropic action over government aid. The Trust has the advantage of being able to make long-term funding plans that governments with elected terms may be unwilling to commit to. It can also make quick, public donations when required to urgent causes such as the Ebola outbreak.
Ultimately, the Wellcome Trust are able to “speak loudly” in an open manner, as Matterson put it.
The Trust believes it is important for the public to know who is giving donations, which makes the process more transparent. This was a fundamental shift from when she joined, she added, saying that in years gone by the Trust had been content to act as a largely anonymous donor.
But it had changed this view and now felt it was important to have its name attached to scientific breakthroughs. Having influence, she added, was important because improving health was often about more than research alone. The reputational benefits of being proactive about your own profile will be familiar to any PR practitioner.
A different take
To round off the three speakers, Perache offered an interesting alternative perspective on how philanthropic organisations can function. He works for the humanitarian-aid NGO MSF, which has always been wary of accepting donations with strings attached: it has rejected funding from governments including that of the US on this basis.
MSF is accountable to those on the frontline: its doctors. If the doctors disagree with a decision made by the MSF leadership, they can challenge it. Recently, this saw doctors working in West Africa oppose MSF’s directive to step down their response to Ebola. Perache described this relationship as a “healthy tension” that could create proposals that can make differences to the success of their operations.
The discussion was insightful window into how philanthropic groups manage their public perception and communications, as well as the means by which they can be held accountable.
This debate is not going away. With mega-philanthropists like the Gates Foundation making multi-billion dollar commitments to causes (such as the eradication of malaria) it begs the question of whether private individuals should be able to have such huge influence on the fates of nations – often not their own – without populations having any say on the matter.
It’s a PR conundrum and shows that highlighting your good works is sometimes not enough – you also need to tackle the ethical dimensions of your activity head-on.