Interview with Joan Spero, author, ‘philanthropy in BRIC countries’

This article originally appeared on PhilanTopic, a Foundation Center blog, on 29 April 2014. The original article can be found here.

News that Jack Ma and Joe Tsa, co-founders of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, have created philanthropic trusts worth as much as $3 billion is another reminder that wealth creation begets philanthropy as surely as May flowers follow April showers. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of Globalization 3.0, that’s as true in emerging market countries as it is in the United States, with its well-established tradition of individual and institutional philanthropy.

Earlier this month, PND caught up with Joan Spero, a former president of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and author of a new report that looks at philanthropy in the BRIC countries, to get her take on the spread of Western-style philanthropy to other parts of the globe. Written and researched in collaboration with WINGS (Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support), a global network of grantmaker associations and philanthropic support organizations, the report, Charity and Philanthropy in Russia, China, India, and Brazil (26 pages, PDF), identifies the cultural, economic, social, and political forces that are shaping giving in the BRICs and examines the growth of the philanthropic sector in each of the four countries.

headshot_joan_speroPhilanthropy News Digest: What was your aim in researching and writing the report?

Joan Spero: The report is an outgrowth of my study, The Global Role of U.S. Foundations (56 pages, PDF), published by the Foundation Center in 2010. That report, which documented and analyzed the growth of international giving by American foundations, led to my interest in the rise and role of philanthropy in emerging market countries. I knew from my research that a number of U.S. foundations have supported the development of philanthropy and civil society outside the United States. I also knew from my research and from the work of the Foundation Center with the China Foundation Center and WINGS that philanthropy was growing in the emerging markets. As someone with a background in international political economy, I wanted to understand the historical, social, political, and economic setting in which this new philanthropy is taking place.

PND: Tell us a little about the methodology behind the report. What kinds of data were readily available, and how would you characterize the state of philanthropic data collection in the four countries covered by the report?

JS: I began with a survey of the literature on philanthropy in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. I was greatly helped in this literature search by a research assistant whose language skills in Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew complemented my knowledge of English and French. From that research, I concluded I would have to narrow my focus to several key countries. The emergence of the BRICs seemed the best way to do that. These countries have very different histories, cultures, and political systems. At the same time, they all seemed to have the right conditions for the growth of philanthropy: rapid economic development and wealth accumulation along with political and social change.

While there are numerous primary sources on economic development and wealth accumulation, I soon discovered that basic data—not even mentioning comparable data—on philanthropy and civil society simply did not exist. So, I had to be creative about finding primary sources. With help from my research assistant, I searched in a variety of places: counterparts of the Foundation Center in the BRIC countries that were beginning to gather data, albeit sketchy data; studies and surveys by research organizations, including academic institutions and business consulting firms; legal reports; et cetera. In the report, I point out the difficulty of finding accurate, complete, and comparable data. Nevertheless, I felt I was able to unearth enough information to reach the conclusions outlined in the report.

PND: The four countries you look at in the report are so different in so many respects. With respect to philanthropy and civil society, do they have anything in common?

JS: All have a religious tradition of giving, although in Russia and China organized religion and charitable organizations have been repressed by the state. Currently, all have the right conditions for the growth of philanthropy: rapid economic development and wealth accumulation along with political and social change. As a result, as I point out in the report, the amount of giving and the formation of organized charitable entities have increased significantly in all four countries, although grantmaking remains directed primarily at traditional charitable causes such as disaster relief, helping the poor, and providing health and other services. It’s also difficult to separate personal, family, and corporate philanthropy.

PND: What was the biggest surprise in your findings?

JS: I was not surprised but I was impressed by the critical role of political culture, including the nature and scope of civil society, in the countries I studied. In particular, the attitudes of the public about the legitimacy of philanthropic and civil society organizations definitely shape philanthropy in the BRICs.

PND: How might a global philanthropy network like WINGS be instrumental in building awareness and understanding of the diversity and challenges of civil society in BRIC countries?

JS: I conclude my report with several challenges facing foundations and civil society organizations in emerging markets: improving the legal, regulatory, and tax environment; fostering greater openness and transparency about the activities of foundations; capacity building, including best practices in governance and management; and building public trust. I believe that a global philanthropic network could help address all these challenges by, for example, developing principles of behavior, including transparency; creating standards for and promotion of data collection; training in and research on philanthropy; and generally sharing best practices. I truly hope my report and the recent WINGSForum in Istanbul are the beginning of such a global effort.

— Mitch Nauffts

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