Building Francophone philanthropy on an international scale

(To read the original piece in French, please click here.)

Charles Sellen[1]

International philanthropy dominated by the Anglophone world

Philanthropy, in the sense of private voluntary engagement to further the public good (Payton & Moody, 2008), has been historically dominated by Anglophone countries or countries with an Anglophone tradition. This state of affairs stems from a faith in market mechanisms and in the individual’s right to self-enrichment with, in exchange, the moral obligation to give back to one’s community (alma mater, place of residence, country of origin, etc.) some of the fruits of one’s success. Communication on such instances of generosity is demonstrative, at times even theatrical, accompanied by a host of annual rankings. It nonetheless has the virtue of popular pedagogy in that it preaches a culture of giving across all strata of society. Charitable giving is also studied at university as a genuine “science,” and in numerous research laboratories.

The Francophone world at sixes and sevens

Of course, philanthropy also exists in the Francophone world. Yet, it is relatively discreet and seems to be less buoyant. The actors are still too fragmented, too scattered, too little recognized. It would certainly be worthwhile to remedy this situation by helping them identify themselves, interconnect, come together and raise their profile to convey their message more effectively.

Although Francophone NGOs have shown their know-how and daring (like the famous French “Doctors Without Borders,” recipients of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize) for many years now, internationally active Francophone foundations are still few and far between, and barely visible. They do, however, have the power, as yet not fully explored, to engage the international community.

When it comes to individuals, the philanthropy of diasporas will be a key resource for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over the next 15 years, and new technologies for remittance transfers will play a major role in this. Yet, full mobilization of this philanthropic potential supposes adapting the legal and fiscal rules across the countries of departure, transit and arrival of these flows of generosity. We, Francophones, can and must contribute to this harmonization among our respective countries.

The ultra-wealthy called on to set the example

In the Anglo-Saxon world, almost all wealthy people give generously, either directly to beneficiaries, or by creating their own family foundation to manage their charitable activities. In the United States, 91 percent of high-net-worth individuals (those with investible assets of over USD 1 million) gave to charity (Osili et al., 2016). In France, only 14 percent of the wealthiest households (assets over €1.3 million) reported a donation to the tax authorities in 2015 (Observatoire de la Philanthropie, 2018). This relatively weaker private generosity of Francophones is also found in Quebec, compared to Canada’s Anglophone provinces. Speakers of the language of Molière thus seem to have considerable scope for progress on this count. This scope is all the greater as the number of millionaires is constantly on the rise, as is the volume of their assets, and Francophone regions are fully reaping the benefits of this expansion.

Yet so far, among the very wealthy Francophones, not one––with the notable exception of Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and a Paris-born American citizen––has signed the Giving Pledge, which is a manifesto calling for philanthropy launched in 2010 by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who pledged to give most of their fortune to charitable causes during their lifetime. As of today, over 180 of their peers have joined them. Of course, signing this pledge is not a prerequisite for becoming a great philanthropist “à la française” (Rozier & de Laurens, 2012), but the absence of Francophones in this movement does raise some questions…

Not one German has taken this well-mediatized vow either. But the widely-followed tradition of Germany’s great fortunes requires giving around 10 percent of one’s wealth, in the utmost discretion. The concern for restraint in communicating on giving, as opposed to what is perceived as vulgar showcasing, is a common feature of philanthropists across Europe (Wiepking & Handy, 2015). Yet, engagement that remains totally unpublicized is necessarily inexistent in the eyes of the general public. At a time when inequalities are widening and resentment against the privileged classes seemingly on the rise, the wealthy would have much to gain if they communicated their giving more effectively, more genuinely and frankly, at the risk of sparking passing opprobrium, yet with the courageous goal of seeding a publicly assumed momentum for altruism.

An idea for the large family of Francophones

Today, Francophone regions are in need of three stimuli. First, heighten the awareness and recognition of the nobility of engaging in philanthropy. In fact, the notion of philanthropy derives originally from the Greek term philanthrōpía (love of mankind), which was first revived by the unjustly forgotten French humanists: first rediscovered in the 14th Century by a learned counsellor of the French King Charles the Wise, then taken up by Fénelon in the early 18th Century, and later popularized by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Secondly, establish links between the Francophone philanthropic actors in order to internationalize the solutions that they have successfully tested locally. Thirdly, make efforts to influence the way in which the world views the contribution of private actors (individuals, families, foundations, associations, and businesses) to the public good. Particularly by following the example of the Anglophones, who have a real ability to rally other linguistic and cultural areas: Chinese, Russian, Indian, Brazilian billionaires have joined the Giving Pledge.

To reach these three goals, why not imagine a network of Francophone philanthropic cells that would be interlinked yet autonomous, so as to preserve and foster their “biodiversity.” Each would simultaneously provide its national civil society with: a database of resources and information, a research hub, a hatchery for innovative projects, a firm anchor for often isolated actors, and opportunities for international links with the network.

This network could obviously establish ties with the galaxy of organizations in the institutional word of La Francophonie (e.g., OIF, AUF, Alliances françaises, Instituts français) by bringing extra added value specifically targeted at increasing the level of private engagement. To do so, it could draw not only on the experience acquired by networks such as WINGS, which are working to consolidate the “philanthropic infrastructure,” but also on the academic expertise of the new leading Francophone research centers (in Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Liège, Montreal, Paris, Quebec, etc.). It would be part of a dynamic dialogue among the leaders of the philanthropy sector, whose first steps are promising and deserve support: a first meeting on the theme of Francophone philanthropy was held in Ottawa in 2017 in the framework of a Community Foundations Canada’s annual conference.

This does not mean re-inventing structures that already exist and have proved successful. What is lacking is a “catalyst system” to energetically encourage the circulation of ideas, visions, solutions, initiatives, and innovations among “Francophone cousins.” This would provide a valuable and powerful engine enjoining Francophone areas to shine more brightly and bring their original and visible contribution to the philanthropic momentum that is sweeping the planet. This is all the more necessary as French remains a widely spoken language, the world’s second most-taught language, and undoubtedly a vehicle for universal values.

So how can this networking be financed? Let’s suppose that a Francophone billionaire is looking for opportunities to stand out in the eyes of his (her) contemporaries and leave his (her) mark on history. And, emulating Carnegie, (s)he donates the equivalent of 1 billion euros to a foundation in order to extend the influence of the Francophone cultures of philanthropy. A similar historical precedent exists: in 1997, billionaire Ted Turner decided to endow The United Nations Foundation with USD 1 billion of his own funds to launch the Foundation’s activities. Embedding his engagement a long-term perspective, Turner has chaired this foundation for twenty years. His initial donation has been more than doubled over the years thanks to additional funds from partners. Since then, in this age of giga-philanthropy, much larger amounts have been donated.

The endowed funds of this new foundation would be invested in assets yielding a threefold return (economic, social, environmental) and only the investment income would be spent. The legal arrangements could be inventive and flexible, based for instance on a temporary usufruct donation, whereby the founding member would have the guarantee of safeguarding his assets. The foundation would define an exemplary ethical investment policy with the highest possible standards, for example, along the lines of Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. In addition, it would actively contribute to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), a platform where Francophones are certainly present, but apparently barely audible: the PRI website does not even have a French-language version despite the fact that it lists 183 signatory companies of French origin (not counting those from other Francophone countries).

If astutely invested, these billion euros would generate at least €50 million per year for grants, based on the U.S. foundation payout ratio, which legally requires private foundations in the United Sates to disburse 5 percent of their assets annually. Factoring out non-grant-related overheads, the distributed wealth (€42 million) would guarantee 500,000 euros of annual resources for 84 centers, to be set up in each of the 84 Member States and observers of the International Organisation of La Francophonie. A new fully private network would thus have access to sustainable funding to work on expanding Francophone philanthropy over the long term.

We are living in times when there has never before been so much capital available for a multitude of solidarity-based projects that require funds for starting out or scaling up. One billion would not be impossible to mobilize, given the wealth rankings that report increasingly extravagant amounts with each passing year,especially if several sources of private financing contributed jointly to such an initiative. If this amount proves difficult to raise outright, it would of course be possible to try the idea out on a more modest scale, in a limited number of countries, before widening the circle. The limiting factor is undoubtedly not so much the money, as the will. So, faced with the immensity of the needs, why wait? When will we dare to say: “Francophone philanthropists of the world, unite”?


This article was translated by Gill Gladstone.

Sellen Circle Picture

[1] Charles Sellen holds a doctorate in economics (Sciences Po Paris) and has been researching in the field of philanthropy both in France and internationally since 2004.

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