Questioning Big Philanthropy At The Skoll World Forum

Questioning Big Philanthropy At The Skoll World Forum

by Kerry A. Dolan

At a conference about nonprofit endeavors and the people who run them, big philanthropy came under the microscope.

Last week at the Skoll World Forum, 1,200 people from 81 countries gathered at the University of Oxford, England, to celebrate those deemed to be the world’s most promising social entrepreneurs—people on a mission to make a positive change in areas that governments and for-profit businesses have overlooked, ignored or failed at. There were CEOs of billionaire-backed foundations, philanthropy consultants and hundreds of smart, risk-taking individuals working on solutions to a host of knotty problems. Call it Davos for the nonprofit set.

There are 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the U.S., 66% of which have expenses under $500,000 a year, said panelist Ella Gudwin, president of VisionSpring, which provides eyeglasses for the world’s poorest. Gudwin, citing data from the Urban Institute, explained that just 5% of U.S. nonprofits have annual revenues of $10 million or more, and this group accounts for 87% of charitable expenditures. In other words, a small number of nonprofits get the lion’s share of charitable grants each year.  

Part of this hierarchy among nonprofits arises from a lack of information about “which organizations are making a meaningful difference in the communities they serve,” Gudwin said, adding, “On the philanthropists’ side of the equation, it can be hard to penetrate the market and find top performers. On the charity side, it can be hard to break through and get noticed by philanthropic investors.” Organizations doing wonderful work may be starved for capital, merely because the information about their success is not communicated to those with philanthropic dollars.

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