The time of the pioneers of modern philanthropy has passed, when giving was a social act made easy by the empty space left over by a public sector that lacked the capacity to respond to social needs. The time of Carnegie and Rockefeller paved the way for millionaires to fill this gap by funding hospitals, universities, cultural institutions and social programs. Giving back to society was an easy choice for the wealthiest who, during the golden age of the industrial revolution, made colossal fortunes in steel (Carnegie), electricity (Edison), finance (J.P. Morgan) and railway (Stanford) industries, to name a few.
Today, modern philanthropy is at a crossroads for various reasons. The world is complex, global wealth is switching, geographically, to other cultural and geographical spheres, eastwards, and giving is now a difficult adventure. It is a paradox, some would argue. Giving was once an easy and comfortable behavior, and brought prestige and respect according to social norms. But it is no longer so, to the extent that the wealthiest today find it difficult to identify causes that appeal to their own convictions and sympathies. The pioneers of modern philanthropy had it all; they easily made a difference to the society in which they lived. Giving back, if you want to make a difference in present times, is no longer such an obvious decision – to the extent that some wealthy philanthropists, like Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, have been accused of practicing “mysterious philanthropy.” Not to mention the wealthiest in Asia, who discreetly practice philanthropy in a way that is not understood (or even noticed) by the Western world. In today’s complex world, it is harder and harder to set up a strategy where one will make a real difference.
Where should we give? Who should we give to? Where can we make a difference? Today’s philanthropists seem to navigate troubled waters when identifying causes where the action of giving back will positively impact society. In some cases, a personal experience may be required when identifying a cause to support. For example, Eric Schmidt, the owner of Google, was inspired by his wife, after a vacation to the coral reefs of the Caribbean, to invest $100 million into an ocean institute to stimulate research in maritime science and the preservation of maritime life worldwide.
In today’s complex world, more than personal convictions or personal experiences may be required if modern philanthropists wish to continue having an impact upon societies on the global stage. It will require the power of the imagination.
Recently, I visited a unique exhibition at the Louvre on “Léonard de Vinci,” who is known worldwide as an iconic example of the excellence of knowledge, mastering both the arts and sciences to a level that is unparalleled. Leonardo, the “genius of imperfection,” is such a fascinating figure, essentially because he dared to believe in the power of the imagination in his time. In a materialistic world that refutes the power of the imagination, 500 years ago Leonardo proved that imagination is the most effective means of procuring knowledge, as the introduction of the exhibition judiciously explains.
Present-day and future philanthropists will only succeed in the much-needed reinvention of modern philanthropy, melding Eastern and Western cultural values, by valuing the imagination.
In this regard, will Macau, with its uniquely blended cultural heritage, contribute to the reinvention of modern philanthropy by taking the lead and using the power of the imagination?
*President, Associação Internacional
de Filantropia (Macau)
Macau Daily Times is the official media partner of the Associação Internacional de Filantropia (Macau).