COF: Building Philanthropy BRIC by BRIC

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Natasha Desterro, Pacific Foundations Services

During this session, four panelists discussed how philanthropy is seen in Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC). These countries represent the largest emerging economies in the world, yet, according to the panel’s expertise they are still taking baby steps towards an active civil society. As expected, a lot of a country’s philanthropic mindset is based on cultural, historical, and religious principles. It seems that linguistic principles also play a role in how a society sees its own role in philanthropy. For example, the word “charity” in the Soviet Russian dictionary meant something along the lines of “cynical capitalist practice in disguise” says Olga Alexeeva, one of the panelists.

Olga explained that there are two types of philanthropy in Russia today. One is the “elitist giving.” Those who became wealthy in the 90s now support more programs and organizations that are associated with success (read “universities”), but will not fund programs that support elementary school education, for example. The second type is “pop philanthropy” where middle and upper class will help people (“read surgeries for children”), but not organizations. Olga reminded the audience that giving to individual treatments doesn’t help changing the failing health care system and it doesn’t move the needle in health care reform. Olga also mentioned that politics and policy are the same word in Russian, so Russians tend to stay away from “policy” because they don’t want to be involved with “politics”. The consequence? Philanthropic money bypasses the professional sector altogether. Olga mentioned that in a recent study, 51% of Russians said they would not give to a nonprofit because they tend to place them in the same category as the government. Nonetheless, the sector has grown tremendously since the 90s, from one single private foundation in 1999 distributing about one million dollars, to about 60 foundations today distributing $70 million dollars.

Similarly, China has seen an increase in philanthropic activity. As contrary to what some may think, Nicholas Young detailed how China has a long tradition of philanthropy, perhaps not in the same way as the West sees it, but that there is a divine moral imperative, especially for leaders, to take care of the less fortunate. Over the last 20 years, Nicholas has seen that individuals in China see themselves as having an increased role in civil society. In 1998 there were about 50 individuals with a net worth of $50 million, in 2007, there were 2,000 individuals with a net worth of more than $200 million.

Fernando Rosetti enlightened the audience on Brazil’s philanthropy. For starters, Brazilians don’t use that word (“philanthropy”) as it is associated with tax loopholes and corruption. (Side note: now I understand why my extended family in Brazil makes funny faces when I update them on my career.) The politically-correct term is “private social investment.” Brazil’s philanthropic sector is young and also grew tremendously in the 90s, when Brazil’s dictatorship was phased out and a democratic government was put in place. The country opened itself up to foreign investments (and foreign aid), yet Brazilians individual charitable giving didn’t change much as there’s a cultural expectation of a “top down” problem solving model in society. Fernando said that the majority of Brazil’s giving happens through corporate philanthropy, and for the most part, controversial issues like human rights, race or gender relations, or land ownership are not funded.

India’s philanthropic overview was guided by Ingrid Maryann Srinath. As opposed to Brazilian philanthropy, India’s philanthropy is 80% based in individuals, giving between $20 and $50 a year. Ingrid mentioned that religions have played an important role in philanthropy as there is a “competition” between all religious groups as to what groups build more schools or supports more hospitals, but that the downside is the byproduct of violence that comes with that mindset. Also, Indians prefer that money is used “honestly” rather than “effectively.”

This session was a fascinating conversation about the nuances of the philanthropic sector in each of these countries and the different forces that drive society to become engaged. I learned that one must add “linguistics” as another variable when looking at philanthropy abroad. I’m certainly better prepared next time I catch up with the family back home.

Natasha Desterro is a program officer at Pacific Foundation Services.