Should philanthropy be risky business?

risky-businessMany of the world’s most prolific philanthropists made their money by taking risks. But do they have the same appetite for risk when it comes to their philanthropic endeavours?

Certainly, many of the projects funded by the philanthropists we interviewed were groundbreaking and inherently risky. The joint JD/MBA programs that Jay Hennick wanted to create at both the Universities of Ottawa and Toronto were one-of-a- kind in Canada. Through his insistence on collaboration, Carlo Fidani frequently brings together individuals and institutions that have no prior experience working together, creating situations in which results are far from guaranteed. In his advocacy work on behalf of the charitable sector, Donald Johnson has staked his personal reputation on many initiatives with no promise of success.

Many of those we interviewed spoke directly about risk. In analyzing the risk versus the results of the medical research projects he funds, Mark Krembil told us, “…. but I am looking at getting results. So if I spend $100,000, I understand the risk. It’s like an investment. It may be worth nothing …. And if I’m lucky, more than skilled perhaps, I’ll hit a home run and that’s kind of what we’re after at the end of the day.” In describing his support for a new genre of educational institution, Gil Palter said, “So we are one of the handful of founders, people who effectively put up venture capital, the risk capital to open the doors …”

That’s a great segue to a very thought provoking item that recently appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article, titled, Philanthropy: The New Risk Capital?, links the need for early stage research capital with the philanthropist’s “growing demand for more impact from their charitable dollars.” Author Christian Braemer draws this conclusion. “Providing donors with open access to research funding, increased giving efficiency, and facilitating greater engagement through a modern marketplace will boost innovation funding and increase overall giving, if for no other reason than by creating an experience that simultaneously appeals to both the heartstrings and fiscal sensibilities.”

What’s really intriguing is that this new approach to philanthropy “… allows savvy entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists to incorporate the strategies, wise investments, and risk-taking that anchored their own successes in business, and at the same time solve major problems in the innovation life cycle.”

We’re not sure that all of the top Canadian philanthropists we interviewed are ready for this new giving paradigm. For many, however, the ability to use the risk-taking profile by which they earned their wealth as a means of maximizing its philanthropic impact will prove very attractive. For them, philanthropy as risky business may, in fact, be good business.

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