Talking Philanthropy 2017. Day overview

Ted Turner and Lloyd Dorfman CBE are two titanic philanthropists. They also proved to be supremely good at being distinguished bookends at Global Philanthropic’s Talking Philanthropy symposium, a day brimming with the sort of content related to philanthropy that could begin to fill a university library.

It was Turner who brought proceedings at the now annual occasion to a close with a rallying call to all those who today make up the world that he ignited with a $1 billion donation to the United Nations now 20 years ago. In turn, Lloyd Dorfman opened the London gathering, attended by representatives from the worlds of education, finance, museums, art, politics, and medicine with his own take on philanthropy’s five key roles; donor, fundraiser, sponsor, chairman and trustee. In-between these two industry pillars featured intense workshops where the merits of two appeals were critiqued by the many specialists in attendance, a distinguished panel session considering what is culture in philanthropy, and GP’s Asia and Pacific president and chief executive Nick Jaffer on how changing an organization can unleash the means to change the world. There was also a splash of stardust in Darcey Bussell CBE, who quick-stepped away from the rigours of Strictly Come Dancing to present the occasion’s new philanthropy award to Geoff Holt, to mark his success in establishing Wetwheels, a charity that ensures those in wheelchairs are never landlocked.

If this seems to transcend the same occasion last year, 2017 was indeed double in size compared to the inaugural staging in 2016. That was a hugely innovative – and successful – “Home-Posium” at GP founder Ben Morton Wright’s Suffolk abode. “Talking Philanthropy” 12 months on was bolstered by a new partnership between Global Philanthropic and Kleinwort Hambros, part of the Societe Generale Group, whose head of private banking, Jean-Francois Mazaud, welcomed the three-figure attendance. Incidentally, all had been expecting to be at the Royal Automobile Club. A seamless relocation to Haymarket’s nearby Sofitel hotel was testimony to GP’s nimble thinking, the like of which has long been behind the approach to philanthropy that is the signature of both Turner and Dorfman.

Dorfman, who has been a donor, fundraiser, sponsor, chairman and trustee (usually simultaneously), enjoying every angle of philanthropy, gave a 360 degree perspective on what is his passion. He can boast two eight-figure donations, including £10m to the National Theatre, and support for a range of causes from Westminster Abbey to the north London JW3 centre, at the same time viewing philanthropy from all four corners of the ring.

From a donor’s perspective, he stressed that a cause must resonate. “It is not just about the money,” he maintained. Regarding fundraising, he urged organisations to remember to say thank you. “Ask people who have made donations to ask others,” he added.

Dorfman’s philanthropy developed alongside the growth of his business, Travelex, which he set up in 1976. Drawing on Travelex’s days of sponsorship, from the National Theatre ticket scheme to the Australian national cricket team, he emphasized the importance of making deals “win-win” for both parties. “Stay close with renewal in mind,” he added. As for his many roles as a trustee, he underlined the importance of professional expertise. “Have an accountant and a lawyer on the board,” he advised. Things can become more complicated than you might think, he rued.

Ahead of workshops to consider strengths and weaknesses of their pitches, Angus Forbes of Bankers without Boundaries and Anthony Wilkinson, a trustee of the Wimbledon Concert Hall project, shared their hopes – and dreams – for the two respective causes. The pair then regrouped in separate rooms where delegates, split into two groups, gave them the benefit of their experience ahead of findings being shared collectively.

For Forbes and Wilkinson, the weekend that followed the Friday symposium was a chance to regroup after sometimes very direct – but always constructive – criticism. BwB will have benefited simply from this occasion being the organisation’s first shared presentation. Wilkinson, meanwhile, will stress even more the community benefits of the concert hall, which was to many a key selling point, not least with planning permission in mind. Ben Morton Wright had warned the pair that soliciting criticism in this way could have a brutal kick back. By the end of the day both Forbes and Wilkinson were ordering the many positives they drew from the experience of having their cherished plans considered by specialists. This was a brains trust which knew acutely that only the most robust ideas for philanthropic causes have much of a chance out there amid the world’s noise and climatic uncertainty, with the point conveyed in the relative quiet and secluded Sofitel Hotel basement that was home for the day.

If the ride for Forbes and Wilkinson was sometimes bumpy, Nick Jaffer’s words after lunch on culture were supremely smooth and substantial both in terms of content and delivery. Within them was the message that you might need to change your organization if you want to change the world. Morton Wright for one pledged to listen to his GP team, as Nick urged all chief executives to do.

The panel that followed Nick offered a truly global reach. Su-Mei Thompson, chief executive of MediaTrust, considered philanthropy in Hong Kong and China, while Astrid von Soosten, head of resource development at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, provided expertise about habits and trends on mainland Europe. Dr. Pamela Davis, GP’s senior consultant with vast experience of fund raising in both Britain and the US, straddled the Atlantic offering insight from her time both in America and the UK while, on the invitation of Kirsty Lang, one of radio 4 pre-eminent voices on culture who was the day’s master of ceremonies, Jon Needham, Kleinwort Hambros’ group head of wealth planning and fiduciary services, took responsibility for the rest of the world.

Su-Mei offered rare and much valued insight into hopes for philanthropy in Hong Kong, rated 20th in the list of national donations as a percentage of GDP, compared to China in 144th place (out of 145). In Hong Kong, around 63% of the population give money, she confided. All on the panel – with a healthily split three to one in favour of women – agreed that the need for single-gender philanthropic groups was increasingly redundant. They also expressed united admiration for the WarChild model for raising money in which a donation becomes viewed more as an investment, to positive effect.

Few would even begin to dispute the positives of exposure to the abundant star quality that Darcey Bussell, patron of no less than 15 charities, always brings with her like an extended train to the sort of ball gown you might see on “Strictly”. As Ben Morton Wright suggested in his closing address, all in attendance had enjoyed a brush with true celebrity.

At the same time, Darcey would certainly have given way to Ted Turner, whom Morton Wright maintained had “reset the dial” as far as philanthropy is concerned (to be followed, he added, in this by Lloyd Dorfman). The grain and colour of a video of the moment Ted Turner stunned an audience in 1997 by committing to give $1 billion to a worthy cause reminded those captivated that this transformative event was now two decades ago. A letter from Turner to those in attendance 20 years on brought matters up to date. “Go Big,” wrote the game changer. “And be part of a solution… at what is a make or break moment” for the world.

Talking Philanthropy had indeed gone big, building on last year. By attending, everyone in the room had certainly declared their intention to be part of a solution.

Photo credit: Andy Paradise