The Future of Philanthropy by Wallis Annenberg

I’ve spent a great deal of my life as a philanthropist. I believe very deeply that when you’re fortunate in your own circumstances, some form of giving back is an obligation, a responsibility. Winston Churchill once said that “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” […]

September 22, 2013
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Wallis Annenberg with her three children (L to R) Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, Charles Annenberg, and Lauren Bon

I’ve spent a great deal of my life as a philanthropist. I believe very deeply that when you’re fortunate in your own circumstances, some form of giving back is an obligation, a responsibility. Winston Churchill once said that “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” I’ve certainly found that to be true.

And as gratifying as it is, it’s important work too. From emergency food and housing for those reeling from national disasters, to free health clinics for those whose only alternative is showing up at an emergency room, to truly heroic efforts to reduce HIV and AIDS around the world – philanthropies and nonprofits are a lifeline for millions.

But in a time of shrinking government budgets, what should philanthropy’s role be in meeting our most pressing public challenges? And in a still-weakened economy, how can philanthropists ensure that each dollar is spent as meaningfully and as effectively as possible? These are questions I think about almost every day.

Some have made the argument that philanthropies and nonprofits play such a strong role, we can do without government’s role in these same areas. I believe this is a grave misunderstanding of philanthropy’s purpose and importance. The greatest philanthropic efforts are a drop in the bucket when you consider the scale of our problems. That’s true even for the Annenberg Foundation, one of the top private philanthropies in the country. There’s no way for us to say, “We’re falling behind in global reading and math scores; here’s a check to solve that problem.” We couldn’t put enough zeros on a check to do it.

What we can do is something that government, for all its red tape and risk aversion, very often cannot. We can find and reward true innovation. We can fund people and institutions that are advancing bold new ideas, breaking new ground.

That’s why we have supported pioneering non-profits in areas ranging from neighborhood-based health care, to the protection of at-risk children, to international diplomacy, to women’s rights and empowerment around the world.

In certain select cases, we’ve even helped to fund and create brand-new, cutting-edge institutions—such as a journalism school that weaves new media and technology into the fabric of daily instruction, and photography and performance arts spaces that are unusually open and interactive and inclusive of their communities.

Supporting great new ideas and institutions sounds promising enough. But how do we find them, and how do we nurture and encourage them? At the Annenberg Foundation, we’ve found that the most effective non-profits tend to be those with strong, visionary leaders, and with a bold new approach to getting the job done. So we don’t just go looking for them. We try to nurture and grow them.

What we can do is something that government, for all its red tape and risk aversion, very often cannot. We can find and reward true innovation. We can fund people and institutions that are advancing bold new ideas, breaking new ground.

That’s why we created the Annenberg Alchemy initiative, which has already trained 1,400 nonprofit leaders in this country – helping them to run their organizations better, raise millions more in crucially-needed funds, and communicate their needs and goals more clearly and fully. And we recently created a network of civic leaders called LA n Sync, which aims to get LA’s civic community working much more collaboratively and productively toward our common goals.

Philanthropy always has to change with the changing times. The basic causes the Annenberg Foundation supported when my father created it nearly 25 years ago – improving communication and understanding around the world, strengthening education and the arts – are still critical. But the best ways to support those causes have changed dramatically, especially with the explosion of the internet, the shrinking of world economies, and the increasing globalization of our world.

For this reason, I’m especially proud that my own children, Lauren Bon, Gregory Weingarten, and Charles Annenberg, have taken an active role in the Annenberg Foundation. Gregory, based in Paris, brings a global environmental perspective—a passion for protecting earth across all borders – as well as a strong cultural commitment. Lauren has led us to focus more deeply on art, education, public health, and the environment at the community level, in the neighborhoods where people live their lives, and where targeted programs can really make a difference right away. And Charles brings a photographer’s and filmmaker’s eye to the work that is being done by the nonprofit leaders around the world – how we tell their stories and magnify their impact. Each one of them is devoted to the Foundation’s central, unchanging ideals. But each one of them looks forward as well—to the unique challenges they see on the horizon, and their own unique ways of meeting them.

To me, the future of philanthropy – the true value of philanthropy in a world of massive needs—comes down to a single, simple word: innovation. Finding it, supporting it, growing as much of it as possible.

If we can constantly find new and better ways to meet our most fundamental goals – if we can spread those ideas around the world – then we truly can create a better, fairer, more just world for all of us.

Wallis Annenberg is President and Chairman of the Board of the Annenberg Foundation, a multi-billion dollar philanthropic organization in Los Angeles.

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