Five accomplished philanthropists who “see things others don’t and connect the dots” gathered for an informative Milken Institute Global Conference discussion moderated by Richard Ditizio, executive director of program development at the Milken Institute.
The panelists’ experiences ranged widely across the globe and across issues. Laura Arnold, co-chair of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, described the very deliberative process she and her husband went through to arrive at the policy objectives for their U.S.-focused foundation, including government accountability (specifically pension reform), criminal justice, and education.
Phyllis Washington, chairwoman of the Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation, reflected on her 25 years of philanthropy primarily in Montana, and highlighted the importance of involving the employees of the company in a meaningful way, a theme which recurred several times.
Denis O’Brien, chairman of Digicel, the biggest cellular provider in the Caribbean, became involved in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, particularly building schools. He emphasized the importance of good project management and working with people with local knowledge and professional standards. “If you break all Haiti’s problems down, they’re all solvable, but you need capital and capable people,” both inside Haiti and at the nongovernmental organizations you work with.
Seth Merrin, founder and CEO of Liquidnet, told the powerful story of how he and his firm got engaged with building a Youth Village for orphans in Rwanda. He is also engaging his employees in a significant way in this work, and in fact sees it as a meaningful tool for attracting and retaining great people to the company. “Our generation wants hands-on,” he said.
Julie Sunderland, senior program investment officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is responsible for applying investment instruments to the work that the foundation does, a trend which she views as powerful because of “the ability it creates for partnering between philanthropy and the private sector, to tap into innovation within and outside the philanthropic sector. It brings into the foundation the tools and outlook of the investor.”
Several panelists echoed the theme of injecting more private-sector culture and accountability into nonprofits. Merrin noted that of the more than 1 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S., the vast majority are extremely small and probably having very little impact. “There’s no real measure of the efficacy of many of these smaller nonprofits; they’re incredibly duplicative, and have done very little research.” Liquidnet is engaged in a project with the Gates Foundation called Markets for Good, which aims to create standards and metrics for nonprofit performance.
Sunderland agreed that “capital allocation within philanthropy is not particularly effective,” but noted that while metrics are important, making sure the incentives of partners are aligned is also essential. She closed the session by saying, “The opportunity to bring the private sector and philanthropy together and break down the barriers is exciting. Creative conflict between world views allows us to solve these problems.”
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