Billionaire donors give back to the poor

Africa is hot property at the moment. American publication Vanity Fair's July issue is dedicated to the continent, with such figures as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Brad Pitt, Madonna,Oprah Winfrey and George Bush playing prominent roles in the "African conversation".

Always central to any conversation about Africa is that of aid, which again was a central topic at the recent G8 summit in Germany. As executive chairman of Mvelaphanda Holdings and possible future presidential candidate, Tokyo Sexwale, said at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in Cape Town last week: "We are seen as this continent that needs."

The WEF's 800 participants from 42 countries had statesmen, economists and business leaders debating again how aid was not the salve to the continent's ills: Africa's development was reliant on Africans implementing African solutions.

Private philanthropy, however, is another story and the distinction between philanthropy and investment, between social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility, still another.

"Social issues, development issues are business opportunities," said Susan M Clark, a director of corporate affairs at SABMiller in the UK.

Ninety percent of SABMiller's business was in emerging markets and the company could offer the most value philanthropically by leveraging its expertise locally in training people, she said.

The company had innovated an industry in Uganda by using locally grown sorghum instead of barley for a beer product. The project had expanded to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania and was now the second largest brand in Africa.

It had empowered more than 12 000 farmers, and not through straightforward "check book philanthropy", she added.

"The important thing is clarity," Clark said. "Everyone knows his role and there are benefits for every partner. We feel this is an excellent way of adding value."

Sexwale said philanthropy had to "make business sense" to be sustainable. "It cannot be an issue of charity," he said, boiling down what has become a worldwide trend among the world's biggest givers: a commitment to get involved and see a return on their investment.

For some, as in the case of Bill and Melinda Gates, that means pumping money into preventive treatments for major diseases in the developing world that are ignored by drug companies. For others, it means a career in social entrepreneurship where profits are secondary and indeed often nonexistent.

"One can operate within a business framework without making profits or losses," said Taffy Adler, a finalist in the 2007 Social Entrepreneur Awards founded by the Schwab Foundation in association with Ernst & Young.

Adler's organisation, the Johannesburg Housing Company, is refurbishing occupied buildings and erecting new ones in the inner city to provide quality, safe and affordable housing.

"It's about what one can do with the resources. It's not about what's difficult to do. There are opportunities around - we just have to find them," he said.

Sexwale said governments were supposed to create safety nets with the provision of basic services for their people. If the net was not sufficient, private philanthropy came in.

Former AOL chairman Steve Case and his wife committed at least $5 million to PlayPumps, which builds water pumps that also function as merry-go-rounds for rural African communities in desperate need of clean drinking water. The Case Foundation also supports KickStart, which sells low-cost farming tools and supplies to African families that increase productivity.

Nick Moon, co-founder of KickStart International in Kenya, said the organisation's approach was to create wealth from the bottom up by tapping human capital. "Market-based solutions fit extremely well with the basic characteristics of the African people," he said.

The director of policy and advocacy, global development, at the Gates Foundation, ex-South African Mark Suzman, said between $6 billion and $7bn had been spent just on Aids research in the last seven years, but between $8bn and $20bn was needed annually, so funds could not be the solution. Philanthropy worked when one focused on a limited set of problems and found innovative solutions. "The solutions are there. They haven't been tackled."

In other parts of the world, Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan has said he will dispense half of his wealth - an estimated $128m - to charity through his foundation which focuses on youth and education, while Asia's richest man, Li Ka-Shing, has announced his intention to devote one third of his $18.6bn wealth to his charitable foundation. "It's not just coming from the US or European context. It's a more broad phenomenon," said former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

Modern philanthropy is described in the US as the "Give Now" movement: people in their 40s and 50s who have generated vast wealth at an early age and have decided to leverage that wealth in philanthropy. As Nigel Harris of New Philanthropy Capital, which advises donors, said: "They're looking for a social return. They want to see they're doing some good."

Richard C Morais, writing in Forbes magazine this month in an article entitled The New Activist Givers, said: "They are highly engaged in their causes, investing not just money, but also time, energy and oversight. By our conservative estimate, these activist philanthropists will be pouring between $1.9 trillion and $2.6 trillion into philanthropy over the 20 years that began a decade ago, roughly 35% of the total giving during this period. But the results-focused nature of this philanthropic capital will make it far more important than the charitable giving seen during the last century."

In the US in 2005, $260bn was contributed to foundations. That's apart from traditional sources of charitable funds - "cheque book" philanthropy. According to the Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, $45 trillion will have changed hands through estate settlements in the first half of this century, the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in US history.

The mega philanthropic players in Africa, who are exercising this bottom-up or venture philanthropic approach, be it in medical research, education or providing financial services to the poor, include Gates, Winfrey, Case, eBay's Pierre Omidyar, financier George Soros, investor Warren Buffett and airline founder Richard Branson. Then there are people like Irish property developer Niall Mellon who flies to South Africa regularly to supervise the building of homes in townships.

As the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $56bn, and probably the most philanthropic, Gates has said of his thinking about philanthropy how one "ought to set very high goals". The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a $33bn endowment, which received a financial injection last year with the $31bn gift from Warren Buffett which will kick in over the next three

Suzman said doing philanthropy well was "very, very difficult". "Giving money away so that it …looks for sustainability is not an easy thing at all," he said.

Clark concluded that SABMiller's microfinance to their depots and distribution warehouses was investment and philanthropy - a view that would be shared by Omidyar who believes microfinance - providing small loans to those too poor for traditional bank loans - is the way to cultivate entrepreneurship in Africa. With a $100m donation by him and his wife to create a microfinance fund, millions of small loans have been made available - and this philanthropic microfinance pioneering for the poor leads the way for a new microfinance market.

"These donors are blurring the boundaries between charity, the private sector and the state," wrote Simon Nixon in The Spectator last year. "There are now 793 dollar billionaires in the world… What's clear is that a growing number of these people want to give some of it back."