Achieving Transformative Philanthropy: Promises and Challenges for Colombia

This post is written by Skoll Centre Director Pamela Hartigan, ampoule who has just returned from Colombia.

When Felipe Medina emailed me eight months ago inviting me to keynote a meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, sales on “Transformational Philanthropy”, I needed little persuading. Colombia is my favourite country on the planet –well, okay – definitely my favourite country in North and South America.  Perhaps it is because I lived and thrived there for 7 years between the ages of 10 and 17, formative ones for any young woman.  Perhaps it is because it is just so beautiful, its people so warm, its history so rich and fascinating.  Yet this lovely country is the best kept secret in the region given that most tourists are scared away by its reputation for drug trafficking and violence.  But the situation has been changing.

I’ve been back “home” many times since I lived there, and it is always a treat.  But this time I was looking forward also to connecting with old friends, pioneers in leading a broader vision for philanthropy than just writing checks.  Among them:

However, I was not sure what to expect in terms of the state of evolution in Colombia of “transformational philanthropy”. Certainly, if my long experience with Latin American countries in this sphere was any guide, I expected that wealthy individuals would still be focused on supporting palliative and unsustainable approaches to assuage the suffering of the poor and the otherwise marginalized.  Latin American philanthropy in most cases has been very much coloured by a paternalistic (or maternalistic) approach – and a deep suspicion about mixing business and charity.

Granted this is a generalization, but that has been the tendency.

But at this meeting in Cartagena (a gorgeous place to vacation, by the way), I was very surprised to find that all 200 or so invited guests were convinced that business can be a powerful lever in addressing the multiple social and environmental challenges the country faces.  And while there was recognition that charitable approaches will always be needed in certain situations, the role that these Colombians want their philanthropy to play is to prepare those community driven efforts that are market-based to be investment ready.

Admittedly, Felipe had hand-picked the participants.  He himself is a Goldman Sachs investment banker who is dedicating a good portion of his time to strategic philanthropy and impact investing space.  Thus, many of those attending had similar mindsets.

But besides my happy discovery of the way in which highly influential Colombian businessmen and women are thinking about their philanthropy, I was struck by the strong presence of senior government officials throughout the event.

Indeed, President Santos himself gave a superb video-conference presentation that even if it had been scripted, whoever scripted it certainly knows what strategic philanthropy and impact investing are all about.   We always struggle with securing high level government participation at the Skoll World Forum – but of course, which government representatives do you invite, given the Forum is a global event?  In the case of this national event, the case is clear.

And it was heartening to see how many of these public sector leaders were as passionate as any of us about the importance of transforming the opportunities for the 45% of Colombians who live in poverty.  In fact, I was horrified to learn that Colombia is the most inequitable country in the region, having edged out Brazil for this unfortunate status three years ago. However, it is not a poor country.  The economy of the country has grown 5% annually since 1995 – the same period that inequality grew.

The government has now focused on those 1 in 6 Colombians living in extreme poverty.  It is thus very keen to decrease fragmentation of effort and create synergies with the business and philanthropic community to focus activities.  Will it succeed?

As I listened to Samuel Azout, the President’s Advisor for Social Prosperity who left his life as a highly successful businessman to lead this cross-ministerial effort, I was struck by his passionate speech and captivated by his power of persuasion.  Impressed, I turned to the Colombians sitting at my table, expressing my admiration.  They smiled and shrugged.  Yes, they admitted, Sammy is impressive and believes strongly in what he is doing.  We like him.  But….

There is the small matter of “confianza” – “trust”.  The level of corruption is such in the public sector that no matter how much people want to work with the government to the benefit of their country, they simply don’t believe the funds will be put to the use for which they are intended.  Indeed, just a few weeks before, the Mayor of Bogota had resigned because of corruption.   But corruption also permeates the business sector.  Only 34% of Colombia businesses comply with the law.

Until Colombia’s public and business sectors abide by the rule of law, no amount of philanthropy and market based entrepreneurial solutions will allow the country to shine as the beautiful and promising nation it has the potential to be.

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