Who are the philanthropists of tomorrow?

Jen Shang, 28 November 2017

The phrase “philanthropists of tomorrow” does not refer to those giving away large sums of money. At least I hope it doesn’t! Neither are they individuals who are wedded to solving our world’s problems by predetermined means, be it venture philanthropy or social entrepreneurship, setting up a benefit corporation, a charity, a new eco-system, or a particular kind of social impact investment. Rather, the philanthropists who will lead in the future will be the individuals who care enough about making a difference that they can set aside pre-conceived notions of how to help address the issues and instead choose the most appropriate means for delivering the desired impact.

Our research suggests that the future of humanity may take a turn for the better if those who lead the future of philanthropy can sustainably experience, express and grow love for humankind based on the latest and most relevant knowledge and good thinking.

These philanthropists may, for example, choose for-profit enterprises for their philanthropic initiatives as opposed to not-for-profit ones. They may choose to give up their personal and long-held ideals for universal free healthcare or free education in order to deliver large-scale immediate benefit to those in need now. They may also choose to resist the urge to build a new organisation and instead volunteer their talent and resource to help the best of the existing organisations to become even better. They may even choose to go one step beyond what any existing initiatives have deemed possible, requiring an unprecedented vision and appetite for risk.

The way we find these people is not by looking through a list of the world’s most wealthy individuals or by scouring million-dollar donors research, but rather by getting into the right network of problem solvers who are at the cutting edge of applying new science, new technology, and new ways of thinking. If we follow the latest innovation in how we define a social problem, how we understand its root causes, and how we deliver large scale yet sustainable solutions, we will find them.

What matters is not how much money they have… but what they choose to do with their lives.

If they are not the people implementing the solutions, they are either the people who are testing the solutions out so that others can sustainably scale them or they are the people who are teaching others using what they learned from their own testing and implementation. All these people may exist in traditional channels or forms of philanthropy. The individuals shaping the future in the way I describe may well be presidents of five-generation family foundations, board members in century-old international NGOs, or investors on the boards of new academic centres. What matters is not how much money they have or where you find them, but who they are and what they choose to do with their lives.

The way we work with these people is not by asking what we need to fulfil our mission or even what our beneficiaries might need. Rather, we should be working together to think in a smart and iterative way about the nature of the problems we are trying to solve and the particular parts of the wider issues that we are most equipped to address. We can then think about the most appropriate structures and (if appropriate) organisational forms that might help us to forge and demonstrate solutions that we or others can subsequently bring to scale.

Professor Jen Shang is a philanthropic psychologist and director of research at the University of Plymouth Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth Business School and at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.