Bill Gates shows the way for active philanthropy

Last year there were just 205 cases of naturally occurring poliovirus, compared with 650 cases in 2011 and a staggering 350,000 a quarter of a century ago.

Bill Gates, delivering the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby lecture last week, claimed polio could be eradicated throughout the world by 2018. That’s if the world supplies “the necessary funds, political commitment, and resolve”.

Of course everyone knows about the inspirational Gates Foundation, and the incredible work it does in fighting and preventing diseases. But there are plenty of smaller, equally-focused foundations that are doing amazing work at a local or international level, whose founders recognise the importance of philanthropy and are trying to provide the necessary funds, commitment and resolve.

Many of us who run such organisations, no matter how modest, are inspired by what the Gates Foundation has achieved. As Gates recently said, “Our giving is based on the simple premise that everyone deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

Thanks to Gates’ efforts there are now only three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – where transmission of polio has never been halted, compared to 125 countries in the late 1980s. India has been polio-free for two years – a remarkable achievement.

The Gates Foundation’s success is an example of a far more active form of philanthropy than we have seen in the past.  Active philanthropy is emphatically not about writing cheques for some vaguely deserving cause, and leaving the work to others. It is about carefully selecting areas of interest and investing in it for the long-term.

And so we see donors rightly conducting due diligence of the projects they invest in, considering the scalability of the programme and whether it can be ported to other, equally deserving areas, and ensuring that outcomes can be accurately measured and meet agreed outcomes.

Impact measurement, monitoring and evaluation are becoming increasingly important. The language of business now applies to philanthropy: return on capital, leveraging investments, constant assessment, target definition and accountability to stake-holders are all part of the lexicon, because philanthropists recognise that if they can prove the merits of their work they can engage more people in its success.

It’s also about investing effort. Because active philanthropists are more likely to take a personal interest in the work they fund, they take a more hands-on role and engage on a more than financial level. They can also invest in areas where governments can’t or won’t, or where there is a vacuum or failure in the marketplace.

An example of this is my own Tej Kohli Foundation, which focuses primarily on treating curable blindness in India, my home country. It’s a huge problem, but an entirely fixable one with the right interventions. Our active approach to philanthropy sees us working alongside experts on the ground to make sure as many people as possible can benefit from free health checks, glasses, treatments and surgery where necessary. We believe the benefits of restoring sight go farther than the treated individual: their family, their community and society as a whole benefits – and that’s where we see return on the investment.

And, importantly, I believe that the term active philanthropy is fully inclusive so that people without the financial resources to set up charitable organisations can also contribute to the philanthropic cause. Indeed, money alone won’t deliver commitment, and resolve.

Active philanthropy isn’t just about the glorious names of the past like Getty and Carnegie, Rowntree and Rockefeller or the wealthy of today such as Li Ka-Shing, Warren Buffet and, of course, Bill Gates. It’s about people from all strata of society being encouraged to contribute something – be it ideas, skills, expertise, or simply time. Active philanthropy gives everyone a chance to get involved.

As Gates said in his lecture last week, “By doing something really hard for each other, we will demonstrate what is best about humanity. And that will inspire us to be more ambitious about what is possible in all our endeavours.”

The Gates Foundation is achieving this and leading the way for others to follow.

Tej Kohli is founder of the Tej Kohli Foundation, which operates in India to eradicate corneal blindness and Costa Rica, where it runs educational and nutritional programmes for underprivileged children