United States: Ropes & Gray, The Boston Foundation And Boston College Present Leading By Example Program On International Philanthropy

Last Updated: November 3 2017
Article by Jean Whitney

The following article is authored by  Jean Whitney, a philanthropic advisor at Ropes & Gray. She works with families, charitable trusts and private foundations to implement best practices in charitable giving. Her work comprises a range of services, from providing advice on grant making basics, strategy, and succession to researching nonprofit organizations and performing due diligence on nonprofit applicants.

What are the risks and rewards of giving to international causes and organizations? How can a donor make a meaningful contribution in another country, whether it be for disaster relief or for economic development? How does one start out in international philanthropy and what are the best resources to use along the way?

These were among the questions that formed the basis for a lively discussion at an October 3rd Leading By Example event on "International Philanthropy: Trends in Global Giving and Lessons Learned", featuring panelists Karen Keating Ansara of the Ansara Family Fund and the New England International Donors Group and Steven Fox of the Remmer Family Foundation. The panel was moderated by Maggi Alexander of The Philanthropic Initiative. Following are some of the main points of the discussion.

Giving to international causes has been steadily growing since 1986. It represented 6% of all charitable giving in 2016, or about $22 billion. One of the reasons that international organizations are attracting more philanthropic dollars is that they are becoming better storytellers. An indicator of this was that after the Nepal earthquake in 2015, more donations were raised through the Facebook pages of international organizations than were raised by the Red Cross.

The increase in international giving is correlated with an interest in helping to respond to global natural disasters, like the Nepal earthquake, and humanitarian crises, like that of the Syrian refugees. Other factors contributing to the upward trend are a focus on improving opportunities for women and girls, new financing and impact investing models, U.S. sustainable development goals and new forms of collaboration.

Why give internationally? Both panelists shared that their inspiration comes from the heart. Each had an initial direct exposure to people in great need and saw that their actions could help address the need. This visceral response has also helped to sustain their work. While both panelists agreed that international giving often has its roots in personal values and experience, they advised that it should be balanced by a strategic approach to grantmaking.

Strategic international philanthropy can also have a balance—between efforts to address short-term needs, as in the case of a natural disaster, and those to address intermediate and long-term needs, exemplified by much human rights advocacy and economic development work. It was noted that often problems requiring a long-term investment are uncovered when a short-term response is provided to a crisis situation.

Some of the challenges of supporting international organizations are the lack of "symmetry" in data and the difficulty of building relationships with distant grantees. The data issue arises when the donor expects certain statistics to be available describing the situation and/or the population and they are not. This challenges the way a U.S.-based donor views the opportunity and its potential impact. One solution offered by a panelist was for the donor to exhibit more flexibility by allowing the grantee organization to produce and use its own measurement tools. Building relationships with grantees is considered a best practice of effective grantmaking. It is important to talk with "people on the ground" as this is the best place to learn about the needs, obstacles to progress and steps towards success. The international grantmaker must find creative ways to address this challenge.

An additional risk in international grantmaking is that funds, granted from afar, may not be used for the original purpose of the grant. While this can happen anywhere, the challenges of distance and foreign cultures and communities can make this a more likely occurrence. Also, in the advocacy realm, it sometimes needs to be recognized that government and societal values can create major obstacles for progress. For example, human rights defenders themselves are under attack in many places throughout the world. Finally, panelists warned that long-term social change can really only happen if the beneficiaries of the donor's support are empowered to improve their own lives and not patronized.

Resources and advice for donors who are interested in international philanthropy include:

  • Talk to friends, family, peer grantmakers and the community of people who are interested in the work you are doing.
  • Consult with philanthropic advisors to do the technical due diligence that is required.
  • Read about the issue that you're interested in; talk to the players who are involved, such as nonprofit leaders, government officials and community representatives.
  • Look into the work of organizations like the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, New England International Donors, the Haiti Fund, the New England BioLabs Foundation, community foundations like the Boston Foundation, Accion, Social Finance, and Root Capital. All are excellent resources for this work.

There is reason for new hope in international philanthropy. Not only has the growth of the internet facilitated communication about what is happening around the world, but the new generation of millennials with their heightened interest in all things global and their commitment to activism is having a multiplier effect on the field. Opportunities for making a difference abound.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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