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Celebrity 'hyper-agents' transform philanthropy

Charismatic individuals use their influence to find new ways to tackle old problems

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2005


Call it the dawn of the Golden Age of Philanthropy. And one early manifestation was on display this past weekend at an elegant hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Kings, prime ministers, international entrepreneurs, media moguls, and savvy local business people met at the first annual Clinton Global Initiative to pledge themselves to take on a lofty set of once seemingly intransigent challenges: from international poverty and AIDS to global warming to ethnic and religious strife.

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The goals were chosen because "together, they will determine in large measure the future of people all across the globe," said former President Bill Clinton at the opening session last Thursday.

This initiative, along with others, like the ONE Campaign, headlined by Microsoft's Bill Gates and U2 rock star Bono, and the Africa Initiative, started by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are part of a philanthropic shift. Scholars like Paul Schervish call these the "fruits of dramatic change" in the nature and expression of people's natural tendency to reach out to help one another.

It's a result of a combination of factors that are emerging together for first time in history: One is that crises - from hurricane Katrina to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean to famine in Sudan - get delivered "right to our hearts through the media," says Professor Schervish. Combine this with the fact many Americans have the economic resources to help, and that makes it possible to "dream and to act."

"What we have are the first roots of a dramatic change in philanthropy that we're going to see emerge and become a regular part of our culture in the next 10 years," says Schervish, the director of the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy. "It's philanthropy as a natural dimension of people's economic and work life; it's becoming more regularly a category of expenditure even for those who aren't wealthy."

It's being spurred in part by individuals like Clinton, Bono, and Gates - people Schervish refers to as "hyper-agents." They are celebrities with the wealth and time to dedicate to finding new ways of addressing age-old problems, as well as the charisma to motivate others. At the weekend conference, Clinton said he was delighted to be able to bring together "so many people from seemingly divergent, even oppositional viewpoints in the same room.

"But I believe there is more that unites us than separates us and the issues we're going to discuss are too big for government or business or Republicans or Democrats or any single religious group to solve alone," he told the assembled crowd. "We've all come here today with a common purpose: to find real solutions - and to commit to do our part on four issues that plague modern society."

US benefits from can-do tradition

Such individualistic, can-do tendencies have been part of the American culture since its inception.

As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the early 1830s, the inclination for individuals to band together for the larger social good thrived in the nascent country because America lacked the aristocracy and formal church hierarchy that dealt with such social needs in Europe.