Vistra Insights

Philanthropy and its role in major global issues

Heba Al Emara, Managing Director, Middle East, examines how families are increasingly getting involved in projects that are helping provide solutions for global challenges

Extensive media coverage, the proliferation of technology and people travelling more widely pre-pandemic have contributed to a much broader understanding of the world we live in. For philanthropists, this has led to much more global approach to giving, one that only looks set to accelerate in the wake of Covid-19. Here, Heba Al Emara answers some of the key questions around this significant trend.

Do you think that individuals and families consider their philanthropy from a far more global perspective than in the past?

Most definitely. The world today is so much more connected than ever before and we're all able to get information in real time and source it through multiple channels. For those interested in philanthropy, that means being able to access projects more easily. Originally people only had the news, then came the internet, and now, as global travel has boomed – outside of the pandemic, of course – people are able to go to these communities and countries and see things and be involved first-hand. 

What’s more, philanthropic communities can also connect in many different ways – they’re able to do much more together, and not only are their minds coming together collectively, so are their resources and networks. 

As well as looking at projects in different regions of the world, do you find that philanthropists are now looking to address global issues? Naturally Covid-19 springs to mind here.

Vistra’s recent ‘Global Private Wealth and the Future of Philanthropy 2021’ report, which came out earlier this year, showed a major shift towards high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) and ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UNHWIs) moving their philanthropic efforts towards healthcare and the environment in the last year – so that certainly would seem to be the case. 

The coronavirus has really woken people up to the fact that you can't think in a siloed way. If I was in the UK and was going to only vaccinate my community, that won't really make a difference globally. It doesn't work that way. These are things that affect us all.

Environment is another perfect example – the climate crisis is huge and has an impact on everyone. People want to be the source of change and they want to make that change globally. What's more, they can do something quickly and can see that it is having an immediate effect – the Covid vaccine programme being a very clear example of that.

Is this shift towards these bigger issues a reflection of the fact that philanthropists increasingly view themselves as global citizens? 
Most philanthropists that I speak to make sure their community is OK, but they are global thinkers. They outwardly go and listen to ideas and seek areas where they can make a difference beyond their existence. There are no borders and their aim is to help make the world a better place.

Families we speak to and support are always on the lookout for new projects to get involved with, and that could be anywhere in the world. I think the problems we’re dealing with globally are much more sophisticated than they've ever been before, but so are the solutions. 

Do you find that philanthropists are far more hands-on than in the past?

Absolutely. Our report showed that 86% prefer to be hands-on with their projects, while 100% expect to see some form of tangible outcome. This also aligns with a broad shift towards impact investing that we’re also seeing.

But these philanthropists are also very pragmatic. Many may have business or professional skills that they can bring to the table, while others will build a team to find a solution. Quite often it’s a combination of both – so the impact is much bigger than just giving funds. 

And so often now it’s about the bigger picture. So, it’s not about just building a hospital, it’s about making sure the right technology is there and that might entail going back to the scientists and engineers behind it. 

In the Middle East, where I’m based, for example, families are increasing their activities in supporting frontline healthcare and scientific research. As a result, the region is developing into a key player in global public health. 
 
This trend is likely to grow, with Arab philanthropists becoming bolder in their giving as they seek out new opportunities and approaches – teaming up to pool expertise, time and resources in an effort to turbocharge their impact.

Where does the next generation fit into this picture?

Many of these large global projects have long timelines, so that means involving the next generation in conversations. If the matriarchs and patriarchs are going to start a project, then it’s the next generation that are going to carry on the legacy.

And that's why with many families today, that conversation is had very early on. When you’re setting up a foundation to support a particular cause, it’s the family name that’s on it. So, in the early stages of a structure being set up, that conversation between the principals and the young family members is had together. 

With the next generation taking the reins of their family legacies, we can expect to see more focus on transparency around how funding is allocated as well as a rising awareness about the importance of measuring impact and outcomes. Social media and technology will play a big role in getting the message across.

As you’ve said, the challenges are becoming more sophisticated and therefore you need more sophisticated solutions. Families are now aware of the impact they can have on a global scale – the genie is out of the bottle.

Exactly. But those families also know that as well as going it alone, if they choose to do so, there is a global network of people who are ready, willing and able – and have the wherewithal – to tackle these sophisticated problems. As a result, they can reach a solution, or at least deal with it far better than in the past. 

They know they can make a difference, but the scale seems to be so much bigger now. From a Middle Eastern perspective, when families start to think about solutions in the region, they quickly look at how they can really move the needle. How they can work with others, work with the network, and pull the knowledge and expertise together – and that’s global.

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