Stories in philanthropy

The thinking behind a passion for philanthropy

The global picture seems bleak and challenges to democracy, equitable society and personal freedom are ever-present. Philanthropy gets caught up in the ebb and flow of the debates, sometimes described as part of the solution, occasionally labelled part of the problem.

Karl Zinsmeister is having none of it. He is an unabashed advocate for philanthropy, and cheerfully admits his mission in life is to spread the word about philanthropy’s power to drive change, leverage outcomes and make a difference. And he will be sharing that message at the Philanthropy Meets Democracy Summit in Canberra on September 18-19.

Karl is vice president of The Philanthropy Roundtable in Washington, the culmination of a varied life that has ranged from winning a national rowing championship, covering the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist, editing a national monthly magazine for more than a decade, writing 13 books and working for President George W. Bush as his chief domestic policy advisor for three years. He now lives on a houseboat in the US capital.

Karl’s starting point, years ago, was an enthusiasm and engagement with public life, and particularly the notion of a civil society.

“The other thing that’s really important to me is that I believe ‘small is beautiful’ – that decentralized impulse. It’s coloured my politics and my life,’’ he says.

What that translates to is a fervent belief in the value of philanthropy to build and strengthen local communities through an expression of self-governance – or as Karl explains it, that we learn to govern ourselves before we are formally governed.

“You can govern yourself without being governed – through your personal codes, moral codes, your church’s expectations and we co-operate through mutual aid and voluntary action,’’ he says.

This historical pattern of local co-operation and support – sometimes through money donations, other times through volunteering – is central to the US tradition of philanthropy and marks it apart from other nation’s philanthropy.

Karl’s early research on Australia shows that we're closer to the ‘Anglosphere’ philanthropic tradition – like England, where the overall giving is less than the US. The US is, by most measures, a generous nation: the average annual donation for US households is $4500 (Australian dollars). In Australia, the average annual tax-deductible gift amount is $769.99, according to Tax Office analysis for 2016-17.

More than 80 per cent of the $630 billion (Aus) generated through US philanthropy every year comes from US households. Only 18 per cent of the total pool comes from the foundations associated with the nation’s wealthiest figures, including Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

But for all of that, Karl detects an important and potentially significant shift in US society, which may have implications for other nation’s philanthropy. “Historically, Americans have given two per cent of GDP but new data is documenting multi-generational drop-offs in the rate of giving,’’ he says. “Younger people are not giving so frequently, and they are not giving so much.’’

He is not sure how to explain it but suspects that the decline in religious belief across the country is behind it. This goes to the critical link between religious observance and giving. “The Bible Belt and Utah are the most dramatically generous parts of the country,’’ Karl explains. “And if this giving continues to drop, we’ll become a far less generous nation.’’

It may be a challenge in the making, but Karl remains upbeat about the power of philanthropy, especially its capacity to achieve outcomes that governments cannot.

And there is something unmistakeably contemporary about philanthropy at its best.

“Most human beings need different things. Philanthropy can do that. Governments can’t. It’s the efficient and effective secret of philanthropy,’’ Karl says.

“It’s respectful of minorities, it allows you to make mistakes. You get a riot of activity. It is a classic mosaic [of interests, causes, approaches and outcomes.] It can be a radically decentralized operation and it’s a great example of crowdsourcing.’’

But perhaps its greatest contribution is how important philanthropy is in developing and promoting the idea of democracy. Karl believes that philanthropy has historically been integral to ‘developing the self-governing muscle’ that over time, grows in to the larger and more complex notion and operation of government.

Whether philanthropy is expressed through the community coming together to build the barn, remove the fallen tree or funding the local library, there is a community impulse behind it.

“It is very important in creating and sustaining healthy self-governance,’’ Karl says.  

Karl Zinsmeister is a keynote speaker at Philanthropy Meets Parliament, in Canberra, 18-19 September. Register for the summit here.

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