Global Philanthropy


Within the English language, the phrase ‘global philanthropy’ has come into widespread use over the past decade – the phrase certainly peppers the ever-expanding literature produced by Alliance. In the US, where once philanthropic interests were concerned with ‘international issues’, many now claim ‘global issues’ as their bailiwick. Thus we have the Global Philanthropy Forum, the Global Philanthropists Circle and the Center for Global Philanthropy, among others. At the Council on Foundations, the unit that had been called ‘International Programs’ began calling itself ‘Global Philanthropy’ in 2009. And in 2010, the Council, the European Foundation Center and WINGS formally launched a collaboration called the Global Philanthropy Leadership Initiative.

Interestingly, an exploration of the materials of the soi-disant ‘global philanthropy’ organizations reveals that, more often than not, though employing the term ‘global philanthropy’, they seldom formally define it. Still, at least three potential definitions can be extrapolated from the literature this community has produced.

The first definition of ‘global philanthropy’ recognizes and affirms the fact that philanthropy is a rich and robust global practice. This definition is implied in Norine MacDonald QC and Luc Tayart de Borms’ Global Philanthropy, which surveys philanthropy as defined and practised around the globe. The Council’s 2005 paper Global Philanthropy, by Natalie Ambrose, provides one of the few thorough definitions of this kind of ‘global philanthropy’. She writes:

‘Philanthropy has been an aspect of human interaction and social practice through the ages. Although it has taken many different forms and purposes and has utilized varying means, a philanthropic intent has been integral, sustaining and beneficial to most religions, cultures and societies. Countries and cultures today still reflect this diversity of types and modes of philanthropy, of scope and funding purposes.

‘Global philanthropy includes a mix of civil society, community, religious, voluntary and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), distinguished by … their capacity to tap private initiative and contributions for public purpose. From cross-border giving to recipients and programs in other countries, to very specific geographic issue-related giving by individuals and locally based indigenous organization… ‘Organized’ foundations are just one means for this giving.’

Put simply, ‘global philanthropy’ as understood here might begin with John W Gardner’s classic definition of ‘philanthropy’ – ‘private initiatives for the public good’ – but take it one step further: ‘private initiatives for the public good as diversely practiced around the globe’. Such a definition incorporates both giving and doing and includes both the traditional and non-traditional, the formal and informal, the religious and the secular. It recognizes that, across the planet, diverse kinds of philanthropic practice emerge out of a particular set of factors: cultural, social, religious, economic, political, legal and more. All are valuable, and all are ‘philanthropy’.

Now, one could ask: isn’t this simply ‘philanthropy’? Why add ‘global’? In my view the word ‘global’ is needed in order to call attention to the international nature of philanthropy: it is not just an Anglo-American or Northern practice but a truly global one. Adding ‘global’ to ‘philanthropy’ as defined here is a helpful and necessary redundancy.

A second definition of ‘global philanthropy’, very common among US-based organizations, appears to define ‘global’ vis-à-vis one’s own country. According to these organizations, ‘global philanthropy’ refers to grants by a given country’s donors to causes outside that country. Such philanthropy is principally directed to domestically based organizations operating overseas or to non-governmental organizations based and working overseas. Some of the issues being addressed are certainly of global concern – HIV/AIDS or climate change, for example. However, under this definition the philanthropy is only considered ‘global’ when it is purposefully directed overseas.

It’s important to highlight that this definition of ‘global philanthropy’, as widespread as it has become in the US, doesn’t work for everyone. For some, a grant made from one country to another doesn’t fit the ‘global’ bill. It’s ‘international’ for sure, as it involves two or more countries, but it isn’t ‘global’, which implies multiple countries or the planet as a whole. So while the Global Philanthropy Forum, to name just one user of the term, can call itself ‘global’ because its participants collectively fund around the world, what its members are primarily engaged in is, for some, better described as ‘international philanthropy’.

A third meaning of ‘global philanthropy’ seems also to emerge in the literature, though of the three definitions proposed here, it is the most difficult to find. It is also the boldest. Here, ‘global philanthropy’ refers to private initiatives for the public good that address the most challenging issues of our time and that demand concerted action from a range of actors from around the world. This definition assumes that to address the most pressing issues that our planet and its people face, what is necessary is collaborative action between a range of philanthropic actors from around the world, working cooperatively at multiple levels: locally, nationally, trans-nationally, regionally and globally. Such philanthropic action also demands collaboration with other sectors, including governments and the corporate sector, in so-called public-private partnerships. Climate change is an obvious issue needing concerted global action, but there are many others: environmental degradation, HIV/AIDS and other global health concerns, food security, water security, global trade, population, peace, and more. In this space, philanthropy truly goes beyond being ‘international’ and becomes truly ‘global’.

These definitions of ‘global philanthropy’ complement one another. Caveats to the ‘international’ vs. ‘global’ question aside, all are necessary and valuable to our sector. Those who are working to promote philanthropy within their own country or region (such as CEMEFIGIFEAsia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium and many others) or around the world (such as WINGS) might resonate best with the first definition. Those who are working to promote greater international engagement on the part of their philanthropic sector (such as CoFEFC, the UK’s Institute for Philanthropy and many others) might find use in both the second definition. Those that are working to promote global philanthropic coordination (such as GPLI) might most closely align with the third definition.

Tagged in: Global philanthropy Sector definition

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