Relying on philanthropy to end poverty is tinkering at the margins.
By John Elkington
Without a GPS system that tracks political change, we use leading and lagging indicators to get a sense of the pace of progress. One of my favorite lagging indicators of change has been the coverage—and, indeed, the covers—of Forbes magazine, a champion of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism.
If you want a sense of the lagging edge of change, read what editor-in-chief Steve Forbes writes. In the December issue, he went head-to-head with those who argue that more inflation would be good for growth, concluding that, “Most economic thinking is bankrupt.” Well, there’s something we agree on, but much more interesting was the magazine’s cover and no less than 46 pages of its content.
Forbes: Philanthropy is the Path to Ending Poverty
The cover asserted, “Entrepreneurs Can Save the World.” Governments can’t erase poverty, it said, nor can big corporations. So who can?
The answer, Forbes concluded in this philanthropy special issue, is a mix of ultra-wealthy impact investors (Bill Gates and hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones appeared on the front cover), socially minded celebrities (ditto rock frontman Bono), forward-thinking politicians (Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the fourth smiling figure) and social entrepreneurs (represented by microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus).
Kicking off the survey of poverty solutions was an interview with Gates and Bono, in which the former recalled that the two of them had first met in 2002, at a World Economic Forum summit in New York. This was the first time the Forum had held its annual summit somewhere else than Davos, signaling support for the Big Apple after 9/11.
The meeting between the capitalist who had become an activist and the activist who had become a capitalist went very well, Gates recalls, and “ever since then we’ve been big partners in crime.” By that he means his foundation has helped Bono with his RED campaign to tackle HIV/AIDS and other initiatives.
Moving the Change Conversation Forward
Having taken part in that New York summit in 2002, I am struck by how far the needle has moved since. The Gates-Bono conversation may have caught fire, but that wasn’t the case with the WEF session we organized that same week to bring together the world’s leading social entrepreneurs with business and investors. Some high-powered speakers turned up, but the glittering ballroom in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel was conspicuously empty.
Security and geopolitics were top of mind for most people, scarcely surprising in the circumstances. But since that time we have seen a fairly rapid awakening among the world’s elites to the potential for leveraging the efforts of social entrepreneurs to tackle pressing environmental, social and governance challenges.
The timing—and scale—of the recent Forbes coverage suggests that the 2002 agenda has finally arrived, though its focus on philanthropy also signals that the leaders of world capitalism still see this as something to be tackled via philanthropic dollars, euros and renminbis, rather than as something that must be built into the very DNA of markets, finance and business.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Yunus pops up repeatedly in the Forbes special issue, having accepted the inaugural Forbes Lifetime Achievement Award for Social Entrepreneurship. He told his audience, representing almost a third of a trillion dollars in personal net worth, that for him it was “a Cinderella moment.”
Tinkering at the Margins
Clearly, every Cinderella should have their moment and this was pitched as a philanthropy special issue, so no great surprise that the focus was on how charitable efforts can be supercharged.
But the spotlight here is still on innovation at the margins of today’s capitalist system, on the basis that unless society’s grand challenges are tackled, quickly and effectively, capitalism could come badly unstuck. And it is striking how little space is devoted in such business media to any theories of change explaining how these pioneering efforts can replicate and scale to the point where they become the mainstream economy.
Bridging Social Entrepreneurship and Mainstream Business
Still, it was fascinating to read the story of Tsitsi Masiyiwa, whose husband was initially denied a mobile telecom license in Zimbabwe. When Strive Masiyiwa then sued the government, and won in 1997, he used some of the wealth created by EcoNet Wireless to fund the Higher Life Foundation. Run by his wife, this now has a 120-person staff and feeds, educates and teaches life skills to 40,000 “History Makers,” which is what they call orphans, to give them a sense of a brighter future.
And it was also interesting to read about Liesel Pritzker Simmons, who sued her father to access her inheritance—and, having won, is experimenting with impact investment in for-profit enterprises, aiming for financial, social and environmental returns.
We have been working for years to bridge between the worlds of social entrepreneurs and of mainstream business. Part of the early funding came from the foundation formed by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll.
He appears on page 54 of the special issue, explaining what drove him to start Participant Media in 2004, the studio that has made socially focused hit movies like Good Night and Good Luck, An Inconvenient Truth and The Kite Runner. Every film is paired with a social action campaign, he notes, “that puts its issue front and center. We put the campaigns online through TakePart, our digital home for social activists, which gets about four million unique users a month.”
Phenomenal, but this is still a Cinderella world, aching for change. Skoll’s “On My Mind” column focused on the need for stronger and engaging narrative lines to inspire and compel change.
What it would take to transform Forbes into a leading indicator of change, in my mind, would be for the magazine to rapidly follow up with a special issue on how to take breakthrough change into the pumping heart of capitalism.