Celebrity 'hyper-agents' transform philanthropy

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

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.

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.

From firehouses to prisons to hospitals, local neighbors pooled their resources to create such institutions. In more recent generations, foundations and nongovernmental and church organizations took on the main philanthropic role. But now, as the nation matures in an age of globalization and Americans have more resources, that individualistic spirit is again asserting itself, producing a new kind of philanthropy.

Over the weekend, the Sheraton Hotel and Towers was packed with living examples: people such as Dr. Bruce Charash, a prominent New York cardiologist who started his own foundation called Apple P.I.E. It "translates science into English" so middle-school teachers can better understand what they're teaching. He came because of "the sense of optimism here."

And it's not just manifest in the spirit and ideas. Clinton, in his role as "hyper agent," has required that each participant make a pledge to address one problem over the next year. If they fail, they won't be invited back next year.

Dr. Charash's pledge: to create a new foundation called "Doc to Dock," which will allow the American medical community to donate extra resources directly to colleagues in developing nations, as well as set up an internet forum for collegial advice.

"We can get cardiologists to donate stethoscopes one year - 10,000 or 20,000 of them - the next year we can get orthopedic surgeons to donate plaster and splinting materials," he says. "Clearly, there's been a great suspicion when donating to other nations, particularly, as to how much goes to the needy. This conference can find a better way to give direct access because there are some structural problems with [current] fundraising mechanisms."

The commitments made here were as diverse as the almost 1,000 participants from around the world. Some involved tens of millions of dollars, like the decision of the former head of Cel-Tel Africa, Mohamed Ibrahim, to give $100 million of his own to create the African Enterprise Private Investment Fund that will help nurture small- and medium-size businesses in Africa. Other pledges were more personal but no less compelling.

Vision for an 'adopt a family' program

Retired United Nations staffer Muriel Glasgow, who now owns a public relations and marketing firm, wants to create an "adopt a family" program.

"Many agencies help individual children, but children come with a group, they have family, and there are many families in poverty in developing countries," says Ms. Glasgow. "When you put people-to-people with people-for-people, things change."

That sense of confidence and determination to make the world a better place was on display all weekend. For many it was a refreshing renewal, as well as a reminder of how much work needs to be done.

"On the one side, the stakes have never been higher, but on the other, very positive side, the possibilities have never been greater," says José Maria Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica. "To see so many different people coming together in a much more action-driven agenda is a terrific way to do things."

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