What exactly is philanthropy?

26 November 2013

Nelson Meers Foundation
Sam Meers with her father Nelson Meers, co-founders of the Nelson Meers Foundation in 2001.

Sam Meers, director of the Nelson Meers Foundation, gave the occasional speech at the 8 November graduation ceremony for students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Focusing on the changing nature of philanthropy in this age of social media, with charitable endeavours being more accessible and no longer requiring great wealth, Meers, herself an Arts alumni, encouraged the new graduates to use the skills that they have developed in their time at university for the benefit of their communities. Here is an edited extract of the speech.

The seed for the Nelson Meers Foundation was sown before I was born, when my father, Nelson, made his first trip to the United States as a young lawyer. Visiting the great galleries, museums and universities that that country has to offer, he was staggered by the way in which private philanthropy has created and maintained America's most significant institutions. He became determined to one day build a more robust culture of giving in Australia.

Our key objective through the Nelson Meers Foundation is to foster innovative artistic and cultural expression, and to encourage greater engagement with our cultural sector. We fund organisations and projects that utilise the arts to promote individual wellbeing, community cohesion and cultural tolerance.

We do this because we believe that culture and the arts are essential means by which human beings explain their experience, shape their identity and imagine the future.

The creativity and innovation that drives our arts sector plays a key role in building Australia's economic resilience. There is irrefutable evidence that communities with a thriving arts sector are more cohesive, healthy, productive and vibrant. The significant economic contribution of the arts sector to Australia's GDP - over A$30 billion annually - should of course be celebrated. However, these economic indicators should not be privileged at the expense of the intangible benefits of the sector - those indefinable characteristics without which our society would not be civilized. The arts are society's connective tissue - they ignite our imagination and encourage us to see diverse perspectives; they provide inspiration and solace. It is these remarkable characteristics that promote tolerance, enlightenment and diversity.

The Nelson Meers Foundation is a philanthropic foundation, but what exactly is philanthropy?

Wedged in the dictionary between philately and philanderer, the word philanthropy is from the ancient Greek, and roughly translates as 'love of humankind'. I like to think of philanthropy as a fundamental and practical expression of our humanity.

But we're currently witnessing a seismic shift in how we go about our philanthropic endeavours. Philanthropy is no longer about big wealth, it's about big impact. You don't have to be a billionaire or a world leader to make a difference. In this new era, anyone can be a philanthropist. You simply have to care about a cause and be willing to get involved. So with all due respect to the ancient Greeks, philanthropy is in fact about giving your time, skills, voice and influence to improve the wellbeing of the community.

Philanthropy has touched every one of the University's faculties; it has given us libraries, museums, laboratories and research centres. It has funded excellence and innovation by supporting scholarships and professorships, scientific and medical breakthroughs, and social policy debate. In fact, so important has philanthropy been to the fabric of this University, that from 1925 until the outbreak of World War 2, the University received more from philanthropy than it did from government funding.

There has been much discussion about the massive intergenerational transfer of wealth predicted to occur over the next 50 years, with calculations that in the US alone, Baby Boomers will pass on an estimated US$40 trillion to their children. Australian estimates suggest the figure is in the realm of A$600 billion over the next 20 years. Even taking into account our erratic global economic circumstances, these estimates indicate that young people such as yourselves are in a unique position to have an enormous influence on the direction of efforts to improve local communities and solve global problems over the next several decades.

But in the same way that philanthropy is no longer just about money, what's significant is the way in which these resources are being mobilized.

It goes without saying that Gen X and Y have very different ideas from the philanthropists of old as to why and how they should give. For both these generations, philanthropy is a tool for positive social change, not an instrument of charity. They place greater emphasis on how they can use their skills to help, rather than just writing a cheque. They want to give to projects in which they can be actively involved; they require more information before they become involved; and they are more likely than their predecessors to connect with organisations that provide them with challenges and social connections. While their grandparents tended to measure success in terms of dollars given away, the new generation of philanthropists care more about what kind of impact their involvement - be it financial or otherwise - has made.

Our younger generations are adept at using media and technology as a platform for connection, communication and empowerment. For these tech-savvy Gen Ys, the internet provides vital opportunities for leverage at a speed and on a scale previously unprecedented. In a world where our ability to confront problems has failed to keep pace with our ability to create them, this potent combination is revolutionizing the way in which we tackle global problems.

It will come as no surprise that Gen Y is often described as the Facebook generation, and social networks provide an important example of the way in which this generation is mobilised. In fact, social networks and crowdfunding platforms are quietly at the fore of a philanthropic revolution. These online platforms are what ebay and Amazon are to commerce, and they further challenge the assumption that philanthropy is the exclusive domain of the wealthy.

The social network Causes, which started as a Facebook application, allows users to tap into the latent viral power of their social networks for good causes, allowing members to collaborate quickly and effectively on solutions to some of the world's toughest problems. So when a member joins the Save Syria cause, for example, everyone in her network is alerted of her interest. The same thing occurs when she recruits another member to join, or donates money to a cause. It's a form of altruistic peer pressure, or 'viral philanthropy', and when I tell you that 6 billion people visit the Causes site each month, you'll understand why its potential to build social and political momentum is enormous.

Crowdfunding is also a way of leveraging social networks into donations or investment in causes. The key to crowdfunding campaigns is that they have to set and reach a funding target before the campaign time expires or they lose the funds pledged. There's an almost game like element to it that's incredibly engaging.

The leading US crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, which launched in April 2009, raised US$145million last year - more than the entire sum the US government spent through the National Endowment for the Arts. Crowdfunding generally is predicted to raise up to US$5billion globally by next year.

Originally the domain of independent not-for-profits with less access to mainstream funding, crowdsourcing is now being used by major organisations - even David Attenborough launched a crowdfunding campaign last week to save the mountain gorilla.

These types of fundraising campaigns have fundamentally democratized cultural production, bypassing traditional gatekeepers and directly connecting artists with fans, creators with consumers and causes with communities.

The revolutionary aspect of social network philanthropy is that participation is transparent, there is a direct relationship between donor and cause, success is measured immediately and speed is of the essence. And as I've observed, this new philanthropy does more than just raise money - it builds communities.

You don't need $600 billion, or even $600, to make a difference. The alchemy of philanthropy is that whatever our means and circumstances, we can all participate.