Strengthening Philanthropy in Latin America

by | Apr 7, 1999

Conditions in Latin America, at first glance, present a discouraging picture for those considering how to foster philanthropic giving. In some prominent cases, corruption has given philanthropy a bad name. The media may not be entirely receptive to coverage of the nonprofit or the “third” sector. Legislation may be outdated and cumbersome, hindering rather than helping wealthy individuals who want to give.

At the same time, Latin America has witnessed a massive emergence of civil society and voluntary organizations, many of them over the past decade. This is a sector of great dynamism, energy, and innovation. These developments have created new opportunities to rethink what philanthropy means in the Latin American context and explore innovative approaches, including partnerships among business, government, and the third sector for addressing important social needs.

More than forty people from the Latin America and the United States participated in a February 12 conference on “Strengthening Philanthropy in Latin America,” sponsored jointly by DRCLAS and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. The meeting, organized at the suggestion of the DRCLAS Advisory Committee, drew representatives from the private sector, local and international foundations, nonprofit institutions, and multilateral organizations, as well as Harvard faculty who work on issues of corporate social responsibility, partnerships, and philanthropy.

The Harvard workshop is one of a number of regional conferences that have begun to highlight the Latin American experience in private philanthropy. The conference included testimonies of representatives from foundations, ranging from the Fundación Poma in El Salvador to the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Colombia. These stories, and the exchange of experiences that followed, demonstrated the extensive learning that has recently taken place.

Participants pointed out that Latin American philanthropy, “solidarity,” and charity have a long history, even though they may have been practiced differently and called by different names. There are many success stories from the region, particularly at the local level, and part of the challenge is to identify and disseminate these successes more systematically.

At the conference, DRCLAS Director John Coatsworth outlined the daunting challenges facing Latin American economies and societies. While Latin American countries have undergone dramatic transformations with democratization and policies of privatization and decentralization, an enormous social deficit still plagues much of the region.

Other participants noted the obstacles facing organizations that engage in philanthropy in Latin America today. Periods of crisis impose serious constraints on building sustainable institutions. There is a need for legal and tax frameworks that support philanthropic participation and institutionalization among third sector organizations.

One of the fundamental disincentives to philanthropic giving in Latin America is the mutual distrust among the three sectors: business, government, and civil society. Innovative strategies do exist, however. Ariel Fiszbein of The World Bank described research on partnerships between the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, and their contribution to reducing poverty. Jim Austin of the Harvard Business School presented a parallel model of successful partnerships between business and nonprofit organizations in the United States.

Christine Letts of the Kennedy School of Government provided a “landscape” of philanthropy in the United States as one point of departure for thinking about philanthropy in Latin America. At the same time, participants recognized the need for sensitivity in Harvard’s trying to foster “philanthropy,” an inherently American idea, in a region with a very different institutional and cultural setting.

There is general consensus that raising awareness of philanthropy and the third sector is fundamental in overcoming barriers to change. Alicia Cytrynblum recalled the initial confusion that took place in launching the magazine Tercer Sector. Today, in contrast, she described how journalists rely on the magazine for their coverage of civil society in Argentina. Jay Winsten, director of the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, described successful models for enhancing public awareness, in the case of a national mentoring campaign and a campaign against drunk driving widely disseminated in the United States.

The philanthropy workshop demonstrated a tremendous will on the part of those dedicated to making change, even in countries presently under severe economic and financial constraints. Speakers such as Manuel Arango of Mexico, Roberto Cezar de Andrade and Evelyn Ioschpe of Brazil, Ricardo Poma of El Salvador and Pablo Pulido of Venezuela, among others, all expressed their commitment to creating a new vision for philanthropy and corporate and civic engagement in their countries. Furthermore, it became clear that from the point of view of the private sector, there are enormous business and political benefits attached to involvement in social causes.

The conference ended with some concrete suggestions for action. Practitioners in Latin America whose responsibilities give them little time to reflect need a setting where they can advance research and thinking on philanthropy and the third sector. There was a nearly unanimous call for further research on tax legislation as it affects nonprofit organizations and giving. Other participants requested Harvard faculty involved in philanthropy-related initiatives to provide training in nonprofit management.

As Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations Director Mark Moore noted, the workshop involved the crossing of many boundaries, not only institutional, between research centers at Harvard, but international, between the United States and Latin America. Philanthropy can bring enormous rewards; its development will require building on lessons from the region and a clear understanding of what makes Latin America unique.

Spring 1999

Hilary Burger, DRCLAS outreach coordinator, recently completed her PhD in Latin American History at Harvard. Fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, she has close ties to Cambridge’s Brazilian and Salvadoran communities and has a broad range of interests from Latino popular music to immigration rights. 

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