Maggi Alexander, who has spent her career in the national and international philanthropic sectors, joined The Philanthropic Initiative in September to head up its Center for Global Philanthropy. A unit of the Boston Foundation, TPI advises companies, foundations, families and individuals interested in charitable giving.

Alexander recently spoke about changes she has seen in international philanthropy, trends that are emerging and demands on advisors to wealthy donors.

“Americans will continue to play a key leadership role [in global philanthropy], but as more and more wealth accumulates around the world, we’ll see philanthropy moving in different directions,” Alexander said.

A wide spectrum of donors is active in overseas philanthropy, she said. “As we age and accumulate more disposable wealth, we’re able to give more philanthropically. Particularly in the international arena, age is the factor you see.”

But what’s not in the statistics, Alexander said, is that young philanthropists are playing an important role. “We’ll see them contributing more and more as they have more means to do so. They’re starting trends that will go into the future, such as online giving and the use of social media. And many very large donors have families, and are engaging the next generation along with them.”

As well, philanthropists are becoming more female, she said. “Certainly for the U.S. that’s true, with women giving on average 26% more than men in the major donor category.” Women also have a different quality to their philanthropy. “They’re very relational in their giving. The way people are partnering globally is taking on a different feel.”

Alexander said the face of global philanthropy has changed over the past 30 years. People are much more globally aware. Today, most international donors have traveled outside the U.S., and most have spent time volunteering or working in a community.

In addition, the increasing visibility of what lives are like even in the remotest parts of the world is increasing donors’ sophistication, she said, “a movement away from a welfare kind of charitable approach to much more sophisticated types of giving that are very much rooted in long-term development strategies.”

Important Causes

 

Alexander works with donors who have the capacity to give a few million dollars a year. Although the dollar amount they can give may be limited compared with the deep pockets of mega donors, oftentimes they are a valuable contribution by giving their time and expertise to causes.

Among the mid-level international donors she works with, she said, there is a great interest in education, global health and children’s issues. Women and girls is also a huge area of interest. “That seems to be increasing in its sophistication. People really understand the importance of investing in girls and women, and they’re doing it in much more sophisticated ways than even 10 years ago.”

Alexander said the environment was an interesting issue because donors in this category often did not know how to make a difference. “Donors who are interested in the environment are making a contribution, but that tends not to rank as high as the other areas.”

That has to do in part with emotion, she said. “It’s clear and easy to connect with issues such as education. So many of the donors themselves have benefited from education and see the power of that.”

Where environmental issues are connected with human lives, donors are able to engage more with the environment: water and sanitation, for example, or related livelihoods in the rain forests. “If it’s related to community, people see a way in,” she said.

Synergies

Alexander said mid-level donors are getting much better at learning how to collaborate with mega donors, those at the level of Bill and Melinda Gates or George Soros. She said this happens most effectively when people come together around a place-based or a sector-based strategy.

For example, she and her colleagues are working to bring together all the donors who are interested in a particular geographical location, for example, the southeastern African country of Malawi, to see how they can complement one another to support what the community really needs and is asking for.

Another approach is working together in a particular sector, for example, agriculture or education. “The larger foundations and larger donors can play an important role in helping to map out the landscape, and invest in infrastructure kinds of investments. They can help with the scaling up of things.”

At the same time, mid-level donors “can play an incredibly important role in that their dollars and investments are usually more flexible. They can be more agile and responsive to the critical missing component of a Gates or a Kellogg or a Ford.”

Often, the latter are driven by institutional priorities and strategies that may not be as responsive to what the community or organization needs at a particular time, whereas an individual family foundation can make a decision that may roughly fit within their theory of change, but is more responsive.

Advisors

Alexander said that as donors continue to become globally engaged, advisors will need more tools in their tool box. “Certainly, they need the same capabilities of a good philanthropic advisor that would understand where a family or an individual is in their philanthropic journey, how to tell them the nuts and bolts of the different vehicles available, the tax stuff.”

But in the international sphere, advisors will need much deeper knowledge and experience, she said. “We’re going to need people who have spent time working in other countries, have spent time in international development, who understand how to work across cultures, how not to do harm, how giving to the organization within a community can upset things if it’s not the right organization.”

An advisor to an international donor must understand what is happening on the ground and how organizations are able (or not) to absorb fund inflows, and not to overburden them with too many funds at any given time.

In seeking out advice, she said, donors will have to decide whether there is a match between their values and the advisor. “So much of it will have to do with chemistry and the advisor’s ability to listen well and understand what the philanthropist’s values are and their theory of change, how they think their philanthropy is going to have the type of impact they want to have, and to be able to be smart and strategic.”

Alexander said many international philanthropists are strategic and smart, so they need someone who can help them move beyond what they can do themselves. That takes individuals who understand organizational and international development, who can help families or individuals partner strategically with other philanthropists so they’re not just looking at that foundation or person in isolation, but with the larger ecosystem.