Philanthropy in the 21st Century? It’s about time!
Suzi Williams
14th November 2014
Philanthropy in the 21st Century? It’s about time!

Many people think about philanthropy in financial terms - a philanthropist being an independently wealthy individual (or family) donating money to a chosen cause for zero return. In other words it’s about money freely given (often anonymously) - with no catch - for the greater good of society.

Philanthropy has long been linked to preserving our cultural heritage. The British philanthropists of old are the reason many of the cultural institutions we know and love today even exist - the Tate Britain in London, for example, simply wouldn’t exist without the philanthropy of Henry Tate.

Today, philanthropy is more often focused at trying to solve major global problems, and is much more business-like in nature. What I mean by this is that today’s philanthropists are often those who have achieved their vast wealth through running hugely successful global businesses. That’s not to say that they expect a financial return on their contributions, but rather that they choose to donate to projects that have very clear objectives, so that the impact that their philanthropy is having is transparent.

In a quick straw poll of friends asking them to name a 21st Century philanthropist, Bill and Melinda Gates came top. It’s not difficult to understand why – the Gates Foundation is argued to be the largest private grant-giving organisation on the planet. The Foundation is really clear in what it’s trying to achieve through the grants it makes, and it’s not afraid to take risks.

In an open letter on the Foundation’s website, Bill and Melinda state clearly that some of the projects they fund will fail, stating: “We not only accept that, we expect it—because we think an essential role of philanthropy is to make bets on promising solutions that governments and businesses can’t afford to make. As we learn which bets pay off, we have to adjust our strategies and share the results so everyone can benefit.” And Bill Gates has been the catalyst for further philanthropy, urging the world’s most wealthy people to sign up to the ‘Giving Pledge’ and donate at least 50 per cent of their wealth to philanthropy. As of this May, 127 individuals and couples have signed up.

But only a small percentage of people are billionaires (1,645 people made the Forbes’ “The World’s Billionaires’ list in 2014). This week is Trustee Week in the UK and it got me thinking about philanthropy of a different kind. So many of us are leading increasingly hectic lives, cramming our days and weeks with demanding careers and busy social lives; that surely time – not money – is our most valuable asset today. In a world where few people earn Gates or Zuckerberg-style megabucks, the one thing we can all give freely is our time.

Having been a supporter of several charities over the years and seeing the amazing work they do in the context of the often difficult challenges they face, becoming a Trustee seemed to me an obvious next step – an opportunity not just to ‘’give back‘’ but simultaneously to test and hone my skills in the Board Room, whilst making a real difference - and crucially being part of their journey over time. Getting the right organisation and the right fit is vital of course, and having looked around for a while, Help Musicians UK is the charity I have chosen.  

Music is a real passion of mine and they are an ambitious and exciting charity with a real need for the kinds of skills and experience I can bring; I could hardly be more excited to be part of their journey of growth and transformation, and already I’m seeing the benefits in all directions, and even looking at my ‘’day job‘’ in new ways as a result.

So I urge anyone who wants to make a difference in the world – but feels like they can’t because they’re not a millionaire, let alone a billionaire – to think again. There are hundreds of charities out there to which you could make a very valuable contribution just by donating your time, your energy, your skills and your passion. You too, can become a modern day philanthropist.