Melissa Berman Interview: “China is part of global philanthropy now, no question”

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1) RPA by its name, is associated with the Rockefeller family. How is it related to the Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the other charitable organizations in the Rockefeller nonprofit family? What is RPA’s unique role?

The Rockefeller family has been active in philanthropy and public service for more than 100 years. During that time they’ve created around 100 organizations around the world, several focused on philanthropy, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, which was founded in 1913 and operates largely independent of the family. There is only one family member on the board. Many years ago, the founders of the Rockefeller Foundation decided board members should be experts and not just family members. In the 1950s, the Rockefeller Family created the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and most of its board members are family members. In the 1970s, they created the Rockefeller Family Fund and all of its board members are family members.

The roots of our organization go back to the Rockefeller family office, which managed their business affairs and philanthropic operations. About a dozen years ago, the Rockefeller family thought it would be good to launch an NGO to help more people, foundations and corporations do philanthropy well, and established Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors in 2002. RPA represents the heritage and values of the Rockefeller family, but we operate as a social enterprise that is independent, self-sustaining and nonprofit and thus have no owners. We are in close contact with the Rockefeller group of organizations but are not tied together in any formal way. The Rockefeller family has always felt that each organization it founded should have its independence and not be tied together in a formal way that might reduce the potential of each organization. Our role is to help donors around the world create thoughtful, effective philanthropy. We work with all kinds of donors – individuals, families, corporations, trusts. It’s not our job to tell philanthropists what they should fund, but rather to help them achieve their philanthropic goals as effectively as possible. We do represent some core values of the Rockefeller family over the last hundred years in philanthropy and public service: taking a long-term view; respecting diverse opinions; trusting the nonprofit sector; and valuing independence both for the donors and for NGOs. We think it’s best if organizations can avoid becoming overly dependent on any one funder. J.D. Rockefeller, for example, recognized early on that the University of Chicago would become a much more important institution if it had other funders besides him. In addition, Rockefeller University was spun out of the Rockefeller Foundation and became a much more important institution than if it had been entirely funded by Rockefeller. So independence is a core principle for the Rockefeller family in helping organizations achieve their full potential.

2) Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors currently serves more than 160 donors giving to more than 70 countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and North America” (RPA’s website). Over the last 14 years, you have traveled around the world on behalf of RPA to attend board meetings and give talks. What do you see as the most significant changes in global philanthropy over the last 10-15 years? Over the last five years?

We’ve seen a great deal of change in philanthropy over the last decade or so. We’ve seen the emergence of a global culture of giving not just in the wealthiest countries, but also in Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and even parts of Africa. All societies and cultures value charitable giving. But especially among those with the greatest resources, something of a global community is beginning to emerge through the World Economic Forum, which began to feature speakers on philanthropy in 2001, and the Clinton Global Initiative in the mid-2000s, as well as through interactions between global businesses and business leaders. Increasingly, they talk about their philanthropy and social involvement and so ideas spread that way. I think there is a growing conviction among wealth holders that philanthropy is an important part of their life and their involvement can go well beyond generosity. They are looking to understanding the core issues that they are funding and are providing other kinds of capital, not just donated capital but also human resources, networks, technical knowledge, and investment capital. I also think it’s important for many funders to think about how their philanthropy reflects their heritage and builds a legacy.

In terms of more recent changes over the last few years, we’ve see more interest in solutions-based philanthropy, in identifying ways to have leverage in solving problems rather than just providing immediate relief from suffering. As people recognize they want to be part of a solution to a large, complicated problem, they can’t do it all themselves. They need to have partnerships with other philanthropists, and with the private and public sectors. The work of foundations such as Gates in exploring malaria vaccines, Hewlett in promoting deeper learning in education, and Ford in protecting the rights of women, come to mind as examples of solution-based philanthropy.

3) Can you explain the purpose of RPA’s newly launched program Philanthropy Roadmap? How do you explain its long-term goal of creating “a new culture of great giving”?

The Philanthropy Roadmap was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its purpose is to give people just starting out on a serious philanthropy program a set of tools to shape their own program. It presents a framework, of a series of questions for each person or foundation to answer – what’s my focus going to be, how long do I want this program to exist, how do I want my family to be involved, how do I fund locally, how do I think about assessing impact. We’re not telling people how to do things but offering a framework for them to use to answer these questions themselves, and providing real world examples. We’ve presented these materials as a set of short guides that are available both online and in print. One has been rewritten in Chinese, and is available with local Chinese cases, and we hope to get more translated.

4) Why does RPA emphasize “thoughtful, effective”philanthropy? What are the major indicators of success in giving?

We worked very hard as an organization, with the board and staff, to choose this phrase. By thoughtful, we mean respecting a wide range of approaches to philanthropy, from traditional philanthropy to the newest tools. We believe all of these approaches have a place, but one’s decision should be a conscious one made after some reflection. By effective, we mean philanthropy that doesn’t just focus on strategy, but also on results. But everyone defines “effectiveness” differently and it’s important to respect those differences. Some philanthropists, like Ford, are institution builders. For them, it’s effective to build an institution that can carry out its purpose for a long period of time. Others define effectiveness in more quantitative terms such as, how many acres of land have been preserved, how many children have been fed. For still others, it has to do with how have public attitudes or policy been changed. All of these approaches are valid, but its important for funders to think about what will success look like.

In terms of indicators for success in giving, we were part of a working group supported by the Hewlett Foundation that developed a set of indicators to assess the thoughtfulness of a grant-making program. They included questions such as: Do you have a clear mission and strategy? Have you developed your program based on knowledge about a problem in the field? Are you aware of what other philanthropists are doing? Do you look for indicators of progress with your strategy? Do you review and adjust regularly? If you can say yes to all of these questions, then I think you can say you have a thoughtful program, and the chances for effectiveness will likely be greater.

5) In the US, there are many organizations and companies like RPA who provide consulting services to foundations and/or NGOs. How did they emerge and develop? What role do they play in the development of philanthropy in the U.S.? What do you think about the potential for the development of similar Chinese organizations or companies?

In the U.S., consulting organizations (also known as professional service organizations), both profit and nonprofit, have developed to help foundations and philanthropists and they succeed because they meet a market test. That test is that more and more funders want to make knowledge-based decisions, and need expertise that isn’t available to them personally or through their staff. Consulting organizations in philanthropy like RPA play an important role in spreading ideas and making connections among donors, and explaining philanthropy to the general public and stakeholders. We are an important source of information to people who advise wealth holders, to media, and sometimes to academic researchers who want to talk to practitioners.

I think the demand for consulting organizations will emerge in China and become part of the landscape of giving and philanthropy in China.

6) In recent years, RPA has received many visits from Chinese foundations and philanthropists and explored working with quite a few of them to help with strategic planning, grant-making, and other issues. How would you assess China’s philanthropy development and what do you see are the gaps or challenges?

We’ve been very impressed by the philanthropists and foundations we’ve met in China, and how fast philanthropy has developed, especially given the short amount of time they have had to develop, given that the legislation governing philanthropy is only about 10 years old. There are already regular conferences and publications on philanthropy in China, a high level of interest, and many of the Chinese foundations have significant resources and are addressing difficult challenges.

In terms of gaps and challenges in China, I would say that the NGO sector here isn’t as well developed as in other countries, and so many philanthropists operate their own programs rather than fund NGOs to carry them out, but I believe, over time, NGOs will develop and will start to have more capacity to work with donors. That’s a natural evolution. We saw this pattern in the U.S. when philanthropy began to operate at scale and big foundations had to operate their own programs but eventually they were able to put their funds into the hands of NGOs. I think it took a few decades for this change to happen in the U.S. The U.S. has always had a lot of nonprofits, but national NGOs only began to develop in the early 20th century.

I also think there is also more opportunity for more communication and exchange among Chinese philanthropists to coordinate their efforts, and share their knowledge.

7) Where do you see China in the dynamic global philanthropy landscape? What does the international community look for or expect from Chinese philanthropic organizations and NGOs? For example, what do they look for or expect in terms of their development? In terms of working with the international philanthropic community? What impact do you think Chinese philanthropy will have on global philanthropy?

China is part of global philanthropy now, no question. Most people in the international community would understand and expect that most Chinese philanthropists are more interested in helping their own country and that is very common everywhere in the world. It’s also common and expected that people who emigrate from their home country want to direct donations back to their home country. China and overseas Chinese are part of that process. Because China is such a large country, and has a scale and magnitude that is very hard for people outside of China to comprehend, some of the very big undertakings in China will be very influential.

8) Social impact investment is a popular word in China also. What do you see as the potential (both positive and negative) for SII compared with conventional philanthropy globally?

I think social impact investing is an important tool for solving social problems. But it’s only one of many tools and can often be used together with more traditional philanthropy. Some social impact bonds that have been launched in the U.S. and United Kingdom have components that are investment and components that are philanthropy. For social impact investment, the investment capital is generally the bigger component, but without the philanthropic capital, the deal doesn’t get done. So it’s not a question of either/or. It’s a question of what is the best financial tool to use in a particular situation. Sometimes it’s one tool, sometimes it’s the other, and other times, it’s both.

9) RPA serves donors by steering, educating and helping donors give. What advice would you give about working with Chinese donors who are getting more interested in philanthropy but have very little experience with giving and the idea of philanthropy? What do you think can be done to encourage Chinese to become engaged in philanthropy and to make more effective donations?

I think Chinese donors have a growing number of opportunities to work with one another, and with organizations that have developed in China, to think through their plans for philanthropy. I think it’s always helpful to hear examples from other countries, but ultimately, philanthropy in China has to be developed by China for China. In terms of encouraging more people to be more engaged in philanthropy, the more stories people read and get exposed to about philanthropy that has made a real difference, the more inspired they become. The more transparency among foundations and NGOs, the more trust gets built. This combination of inspiration and trust really helps philanthropy. Most people want to be generous, and inspiration and trust can help them act on that generosity.

10) How do you engage NGOs in your work? Do you experience any conflict between serving donors and the NGOs or communities who need the support? Based on RPA’s experience, what advice would you offer to Chinese NGOs in terms of attracting more support from donors, particularly donors that have limited experience with giving and little understanding of philanthropy?

In terms of serving NGOs, and the conflict between serving donors or NGOs, we made a conscious decision early on to work for donors, not for NGOs looking for grants. That way we don’t have a conflict of interest. We are happy to refer NGOs to organizations that could help them.

We do think it’s important for donors to treat NGOs with respect. The NGOs on the ground have an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise. Donors have knowledge and expertise too but each side should respect the other.

To attract support, NGOs need to be transparent about finances but also to be clear about how they’re helping to solve the problem. Too many NGOs try to raise funds by describing how terrible a problem is and how it’s getting worse. For donors interested in solving problems, that’s not a good way to put it. You’re essentially telling them there’s no solution. If there’s no solution, then why would donors want to fund the NGO’s work? So my advice to NGOs would be, don’t just present the problem, present the solution.

There is also often a gap between donors and NGOs in terms of culture, background, and even the language they use. It’s important for both sides to listen and respond to what people are saying, and not just giving prepared statements. I’ve been in a situation where an NGO came into talk to us and said, “We want to talk to you about how your foundation can help us.” I told him, we are not a foundation, but he went on anyway with his presentation, so he really wasted his own time and his time is valuable. So being willing to understand the framework, perspective and vocabulary of people with different backgrounds is very important.

11) What areas of work come up most when you advise philanthropists about giving?

In recent years, areas that are donors have expressed an interest in include poverty reduction, environment and climate change. There is also a growing interest in place-based philanthropy which means the funder looks at a certain geographic region which is very poor, and looks at it as a complete system and says, I want to help deal with health, education, environment and economic challenges in this region because they are all interconnected.


Date of interview: 21st February, 2014

In Brief

Melissa Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, talks to CDB’s Chen Yimei about Philanthropy and China.
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