Guest Introduction: Giving and Volunteering in The Americas

by | May 14, 2002

While philanthropy in Latin America is still in evolution, institutionalized private philanthropy is a growing and increasingly significant reality. In every country a culturally specific concept and term for what we call philanthropy exists. Interestingly, this concept has historically been more developed in poor communities, rural and urban, than among the wealthy. In Mexico it is known by the Indian word “takio”; in Ecuador, by the indigenous term “minga”. These terms imply more than giving money–as does philanthropy. The meanings encompass mutual self-help and community action for the good of the whole. The intent, however, is very much the same as philanthropy: love of humanity.

To the extent that wealthy Latin Americans have been involved in philanthropy, it has, until recently mainly been with a charitable orientation: supporting orphanages or hospitals for the poor. Some support has also gone to cultural institutions such as art museums, symphony orchestras or ballet. It has often been the wives of wealthy individuals, most of whom until recently inherited their wealth through family businesses, who occupied themselves with charitable activities, bringing in their husband’s money and, where necessary, his connections.

This situation is changing quite dramatically, however. In Brazil and Mexico, a more institutionalized, development–as opposed to charity-oriented philanthropic ethos–is emerging among many wealthy individuals and corporations.

One factor in this change is the growing extent to which the gap between rich and poor is making life untenable for rich and poor alike. In Brazil, for example, the fact that people had to surround themselves with bodyguards day and night for fear of robbery and kidnapping had an impact. Many wealthy individuals and corporate leaders realized they had to involve themselves beyond charity to address these problems. This has led to the emergence of strong and innovative foundations such as the ABRINQ Foundation and of a corporate social responsibility group called Ethos.

A second trend affecting the growth of strategic philanthropy in many countries has been the increasing possibility for partnership and dialogue across different sectors and, to a lesser degree, levels of society. After the confrontational decades of the ’60s and ’70s, a belief in partnership approaches emerged in the United States. It was not until the late ’80s that this same trend started to take hold in Latin American countries, perhaps partly inspired by the sense of desperation caused by the effects of the growing gap between rich and poor mentioned above. It was probably also facilitated because civil society organizations (non-governmental organizations, church groups, labor unions, community organizations, etc.) took on a more prominent role in many countries, as democracies reestablished themselves. This phenomenon may also be attributed to growing numbers of “cross-over” individuals (or couples) with one foot in government or business and another in the civil society, capable of bringing different groups together.

A third trend is the emergence of community foundations. These foundations respond to the needs of people in poor communities and involve multiple donors. Bringing people from diverse backgrounds onto their boards and exposing them to community development issues has educated key people about ways to make a difference, as in Ecuador’s Fundación Esquel. It has also helped foundation staff learn management and financial skills that had traditionally been lacking in the NGO world. While initial funding may come largely from foreign sources, over time they stimulate local philanthropy.

Finally, in the past few years, The Council on Foundations and The European Foundation Centre have stimulated interaction among Southern and Northern philanthropists, both individual and institutional. This has exposed many potential Southern philanthropists to options for involvement that had not previously been part of their culture. In part through peer influence, more Latin Americans have gone far beyond their traditional philanthropy. Countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have now established their own associations of foundations to further stimulate organized philanthropy within those countries.

To inspire further growth in philanthropy in Latin America, changes must occur in the regulatory and tax frameworks. Where taxes are not paid, people are reluctant to draw attention to themselves by making contributions. And lack of tax exemptions for charitable contributions constitute disincentives for giving.

Philanthropy has started to make a difference in Latin American communities and can be a far more significant force in the future as donors, recognizing the need to address issues of poverty become more strategic in their giving.

Spring 2002Volume I, Number 3

Peggy Dulany is Founder and Chair of The Synergos Institute, which promotes philanthropy and partnership to address poverty issues in Latin America and elsewhere. She is also a member of the DRCLAS Advisory Committee.

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