In the past, philanthropy was often a matter of simply giving money away. Charity was seen as a privilege and was frequently limited to a very select group of people. Today, the world is experiencing what Mathew Bishop – New York bureau chief for The Economist – refers to in his book Philanthrocapitalism as the Fifth Golden Age of Philanthropy. This new age in charity is being led by “hyper agents” who have the capacity to accomplish critical goals much better than anyone else. Bishop refers to these “hyper agents” as philanthrocapitalists and explains why they serve as an integral part in solving major problems in our world.
Philanthrocapitalists do not face elections every few years or suffer the pressures of shareholder demands for increasing quarterly profits. Nor do they have to dedicate substantial amounts of time and resources to raising money. This provides them with the ability to: “think long-term, go against conventional wisdom, to take up ideas too risky for government, to deploy substantial resources quickly when the situation demands it. Above all, to try something new.” The spirit of philanthrocapitalists can easily be traced back to the times of Andrew Carnegie. In his essay “Wealth” which first appeared in The North American Review in 1889 he stated: “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.” Bishop explains how many of today’s ultra rich and the hyper agents of our time see Carnegie’s message as a holy scripture of sorts. Today the problem is again the distribution of wealth. “Carnegie’s approach to that problem” Bishop explains, “is hugely appealing to the successful entrepreneurs who are embracing philanthropy today [because] the solution is in their hands.”
Those entrepreneurs who have harnessed new technologies and the power of globalization to earn stunning fortunes can be seen as “social investors.” They use business-style strategies to effect social change and expect “results and accountability to match.” In this sense Bishop explains, these hyper agents have managed to create and amass an extraordinary amount of wealth. It is only logical that they would be the best-suited individuals to distribute it. Leading the way is Bill Gates, the ultimate philanthrocapitalist. Having already donated billions, he now dedicates his time entirely to his foundation, which by 2009 plans to employ 1,000 people and donate around $3 billion every year.
But for Gates, money alone is simply not enough. “To me, it has to do with the scale of the problem. We’ve got to have the resources and employees because of the diseases.” Gates’ goal is to eradicate the world of curable diseases through philanthrocapitalism. “Go get 0.1 percent of the scientists working on erectile dysfunction to come and work on malaria and you will be making a huge contribution.” To him, it is not enough merely to give and monitor; philanthropy has to be approached as a business and success has to be based on results. In the same way that an entrepreneur is motivated by high returns on investment or increased profit margins, a philanthrocapitalist must gauge how effectively he/she is distributing wealth. Many of the world’s leading NGOs and charitable foundations do not meet their goals because they fail to effectively assess the impact or results over the funds they’ve allocated. “It’s too easy for things to fall through the cracks, [and] not everyone possesses the skills required” explains Gates.
The worlds of music and philanthrocapitalism, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Some of the world’s biggest artists are also incredibly talented philanthrocapitalists that have managed to combine their fame, monies and resources in hopes of raising awareness and funding various foundations and charities. “Celebrities can grab the attention of the public like nobody else, giving them a powerful pulpit from which to advocate change.” Perhaps the best example of a musician turned philanthrocapitalist today is Bono. The Irish Rock musician was behind one of the most businesslike approaches to philanthropy; a foundation called DATA. The organization -which stands for both Debt, Aid, Trade, Africa and for Democracy, Accountability, Transparency, Africa- is responsible for raising awareness in G8 countries about the case for a large package of debt cancellation, additional aid, and trade reform. Bono was also behind the launching of Product (RED), a for-profit venture that channels a proportion of revenues from leading companies (Nike, Gap, Motorola, Apple) towards the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Other musicians that have been paramount in raising awareness as well as amassing funds for distribution include Madonna, Bob Geldof and the late George Harrison. However, celebrity activism has brought with it a certain level of cynicism. In 2005, an article written by Paul Theroux likened Bono to the Dickens character Mrs. Jellby. “In Bleak House” Theroux notes, “Mrs. Jellby talks constantly about her adopted village on the River Niger'” and “tries to save the Africans; all the while badgering people for money.” Theroux went as far as calling Bono “a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat hectoring about African Development.” Nevertheless, “most celebrities who engage in philanthropy” details Bishop, “go about it in the sort of businesslike, professional way that is the essence of philanthrocapitalism.”
But the world of philanthrocapitalism is not limited to the biggest stars and richest musicians. In 2007, Philadelphia based DJ/Producer Diplo created an organization called Heaps Decent. His goal was to seek out indigenous and underprivileged kids in Australia and aid them by establishing music studios and DJ workshops. Supported by Apple and Serato, Diplo’s Heaps Decent has ambitious goals: “At the moment Heaps Decent is a studio space filled with exciting new production equipment. Give us a month or two and Heaps Decent will become an artist development program for young indigenous and underprivileged musicians. A few months later and Heaps Decent plans to become groundbreaking new record label that releases the most innovative club music in the country.”
Learning from these types of initiatives is how today’s musicians –even up and coming ones- can contribute to fighting major world problems. We do not need to headline Madison Square Garden or have top 10 hits on Billboard in order help. Granted, we cannot expect to have an enormous impact without some type of credible success. But in this sense we should begin to consider how our success as musicians could not just improve our fortune but possibly many other people’s future. For this is where we as musicians can attain a particular edge: brand credibility. With the expansion of new and global media, the causes that we choose to support can certainly have a mounting reach. We should strive to achieve big things in music and attain the highest level of success possible, for our success could ultimately propel us to a position in which we can change the world.
By Eyal Agai