The promise of Philanthropy

Travis Brown, Rachel Keller Brown, Rex Sinquefield and Jeanne Sinquefield

In its fourth year, the annual Christmas benefit for St. Vincent Home for Children continues to build momentum. This year’s benefit brought in $75,000 through sponsorships from community leaders and businesses, and a live auction. St. Vincent’s creates a safe place for some of St. Louis’ most vulnerable children to live and learn.

One of the reasons that ideas like St. Vincent’s have been so successful is our country’s rich legacy of philanthropy. It is not casual. It’s not an afterthought. With centuries of growth and innovation, philanthropy has truly become a national treasure – and a nimble vehicle for change.

Early philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller used their wealth to create public assets – hospitals, schools, libraries, research – that are still used today. They popularized the idea that one could donate wealth while they were still alive, and that it could be a dynamic part of life, instead of a perfunctory part of a will.

In the early 20th century, fundraising grew to include more group giving, foundations that report on social conditions, and corporate giving. Recently, venture philanthropy and online fundraising have again revamped the idea of giving.

Applying the idea of venture capital to philanthropy has changed the donor-foundation relationship from one of transaction to one of ongoing support. Beyond financial support, a company assists with management and structural support, helps measure and improve outcomes, and typically invests over a period of years. Riffing on that model, organizations like Venture Philanthropy Partners pair D.C.-area donors who want to see great, positive change in their community with a portfolio of projects that combat a litany of issues facing children in D.C. Of charities and not-for-profits, VPP Co-Founder and Chairman Mario Morina says, “We ask them to do the remarkable, but we don’t give them the support to even do the negligible.” Venture philanthropy models hope to help donors give more strategically, and provide more comprehensive, long-term support for organizations.

Online giving has been especially powerful in giving donors of any size access and information to donate at any time. It’s a way for people to seek out causes they care about, and helps charitable organizations educate the public about their cause. E-philanthropy has also tapped small donors who may not be the target of mail campaigns, but could spare “as little as a cup of coffee”, and helped engage large efforts to respond quickly to disasters like Hurricane Katrina or this year’s devastating earthquake in Haiti. More than $30 million of donations to Haiti came in the form of text message. The Future of Philanthropy estimates that 25% of personal giving will be done online this year. But that still leaves 75% of personal giving that happens through personal appeals or fundraisers, and remains the core of fundraising.

Think about this for a minute: of the $303.8 billion charitable dollars given in the US in 2009, individual donors gave 75% of those dollars. The majority of US giving came not from corporations or foundations, but from individuals. In 2004, donations to tsunami victims reached $2 billion – three times what the US Government spent on disaster relief. Donations after Hurricane Katrina were nearly $6.5 billion, and donations to Haiti reached a similar level – in the first three weeks.

That’s an incredible force of people who weren’t coerced to give anything, but who chose to take action and donate to advance the causes they felt strongly about.

Missouri’s charitable giving is also quite strong: Missouri Foundations provide the state with $675 million in giving, and Missouri individuals gave $2.8 billion in 2008 (that’s an average of $3290 in contributions from each person who filed itemized charitable deductions). While individual donations may go to causes around the world, Missouri Foundation giving is a good measure of how Missourians support in-state needs.

We’re fortunate to work with the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, which gives to such diverse causes as the Boy Scouts of America, music composition, education and chess – their giving directly impacts children in the area, our friends and neighbors, and it makes Missouri a magnet for organizations, talent and leaders who also want to see these causes thrive.

Philanthropy is more than a way to make us feel good. It might have that effect, but something more significant is driving this incredible scope of action. There’s a spark when we realize something is wrong – and that we have the tools or resources to do something about it. It’s a legacy our country has spontaneously nurtured, that we carry forward and improve upon, and it strengthens us as much as it strengthens the people we give to.