The earthquake in Haiti somberly reminds us how fragile our hold on the planet is. The short tremor caused untold damage, killing hundreds of thousands of people and wrecking the lives of many others.
The world has taken notice and is sending food, clean water and medicine. Governments, former American presidents, companies, everyday individuals and even many children are helping Haiti, whether through donations, services or events.
In the midst of this tremendous reaction, one of the biggest tasks has been to coordinate all the resources and funding to make sure they get to the front lines in an effective and timely manner.
The Haiti challenge reminds us that to solve the biggest problems, there must be a strong combination of governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations and individuals working together. It is an effective and powerful mix, so long as it is informed by people on the front lines.
For a brighter future, building better working models of philanthropy is critical.
While the financial crisis of the past 18 months has in some cases reduced the funds that many in the nonprofit sector counted on, it has also prompted the latest generation of philanthropists to look at how to work more effectively together to ensure that the best initiatives do the most good on as large a scale as possible.
For example, Jeff Skoll, one of the founders of eBay, used his entrepreneurial skills to establish Participant, a new film company that focuses on combining entertainment with building awareness of major issues. His films range from "An Inconvenient Truth," the great documentary about climate change, and "The Soloist," a beautiful film highlighting the issue of homelessness in the United States, to "Countdown to Zero," a film about the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Fortunes larger than the gross domestic product of many countries have been created in the past 20 years. In response we need a more benevolent form of capitalism – one that creates wealth and also uses some of that wealth more responsibly. Business has a new sense of purpose: to prove that capitalism on its own is not enough; we must turn a profit while making the world a better place.
For some people this has involved creating large foundations to distribute wealth; for others, it has meant putting social responsibility and good business practices at the heart of the organization.
Occasionally, it has spelled the demise of the golden charity check and the birth of new, entrepreneurial approaches to giving. The debate continues about whether pure charity is better than giving that fosters economic growth – but the debate is futile. The world needs all the help it can get right now to tackle the scale of the environmental and social problems we are facing.
A few years ago, we created a not-for-profit foundation, Virgin Unite, for our businesses and partners. It is, simply, about connecting people who can tackle tough challenges using entrepreneurial approaches. We want to be catalysts for new ways to deal with providing health care on a large scale, encouraging peace and diminishing factors that contribute to climate change.
We helped establish The Elders, a group of wise men and women including Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson, to name a few, who work quietly behind the scenes seeking to resolve global conflicts.
We are working to set up a Disease Control Hub in partnership with the South African government and health leaders to help eradicate suffering from preventable and treatable diseases. We have also helped set up a Carbon War Room to scale new business models to tackle climate change.
Since we don't have all the answers, we work with great partners and experts to make sure we are always informed by the people who actually face the issues. Often, they know the answers but have not had the chance for their voices to be heard.
It is exciting to see different sectors of civic life forge new and even unlikely partnerships to tackle big challenges. Coupled with technology that truly interconnects the world, our initiatives can succeed on a larger scale than ever. As the growth of globalization increases the divide between the rich and the poor, we must harness technology and entrepreneurial skills to build a more prosperous and healthy world for everyone.
That requires us – with a great sense of humility and respect – to engage with partners and people on the front lines. We always get as much as we give. Solutions can come at a low cost if we keep this generation of philanthropists engaged and involved.
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Image credit: American Red Cross