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In his 2024 annual letter, Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), calls on philanthropists to give more and to give now to meet the world’s most urgent human needs. In his related essay for The Chronicle of Philanthropy in January 2024, Suzman cites “significant backsliding” in global health and development, such as the rise in tuberculosis and malaria and the doubling of the child poverty rate in the U.S. “More urgency, more resources, and more bold new ideas from around the world” are needed, he says, to “realize the full potential of philanthropy at the moment when the world needs it most.”

What can we learn from the example that BMGF is setting, its commitment to giving aggressively and doing so while its principals are living? No matter what the scale of your giving is, the inspiration to give now, to give more and to address today’s urgent needs resonates for all philanthropists. Rather than focusing on required minimum levels of giving (the floor), let’s focus on the depths of the problems and how private foundations can help accelerate solutions (the ceiling).

Why Give Now?

Traditional estate planning might call for bequeathing a substantial portion of your resources to philanthropic purposes upon death. Plenty of financial planning arguments can be made to support this approach (maximize wealth first, give later…) but what these plans overlook is the experience of giving now and the role that a philanthropist can play in shaping the impact of their own philanthropy.

Leaders make critical choices about how to run their businesses, parent children and engage friends, family and community…and they have the opportunity to see the effect of these decisions in real time. When it comes to deploying a substantial proportion of one’s wealth for charitable purposes, why would you leave it to an uncertain future when you have the chance to influence the impact of your support during your lifetime? Giving while living introduces the fulfillment of philanthropy, the opportunity to shape one’s giving and the ability to understand what can be accomplished with intentional decisions. It also provides the chance to share that philanthropic vision with others, whether peers in the funding community who can also offer support, family members, or those who may lead this philanthropic work in the future. And, finally, an often-overlooked benefit of giving now is witnessing the excellent work of nonprofit leaders, the people who dedicate themselves to improving the lives of others, who work diligently to identify lasting solutions, and who ultimately deploy philanthropic resources for community benefit.

There are many creative options for how to give, and private foundations offer the most flexibility and creativity for giving. For example, in additional to making grants, you can award scholarships and prizes, engage in impact investing by issuing program-related loans and making mission-related investments, or conduct direct charitable activities like starting a shelter for victims of domestic violence or running a tutoring program for children in need. Learn more ways that you can give with a private foundation.

Why Give More?

In the face of urgent and growing social needs across the globe, why would individuals and institutions with means choose the slow lane for the difference they can make in improving the lives of others? Intractable problems often require bold innovations and solutions, and the latter depend on aggressive support rather than incremental funding that lags behind need.

It is easy to view the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its funding counterparts as otherworldly: we don’t have the resources they do, we can’t do that kind of thing, etc. Perhaps…but this may be missing the point. The inspiration any funder can take from BMGF and others is the ambition to effect change in a way that aligns with your values, your foundation’s priorities or the needs of your neighborhood. It is not about giving as much as them, but giving as much as you can and daring to challenge old problems with new solutions.

The goal here is to aim high, bend those spreadsheets to your will and extend giving as much as possible. In this case, inspiration comes from an entirely different end of the financial spectrum. In the face of worsening global poverty, individual remittances are on the rise. People with arguably few financial resources (certainly when compared to philanthropists or funding entities) are finding it within their power to send money home to their families: to give and to give now.

Look also to your own funding peers. Over the course of more than 10 years, Foundation Source has found that its foundation clients persistently give more than the minimum that is required by the IRS. In 2021, for example, smaller foundations gave 19.2% of assets in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Can Our Support Achieve?

Also in his 2024 letter, Suzman emphasizes that a greater proportion of high-net-worth giving goes to elite universities and cultural institutions than to addressing urgent societal needs. He commends philanthropists who either do both equally (adopting what he calls “yes, and” philanthropy) or who prioritize current and pressing needs over all else.

Rather than considering this an either/or decision, identify urgent needs in your priority program areas and geographies and incorporate support for these issues into your giving plan alongside support of existing cultural or educational institutions. Identify the funding gaps that Suzman discusses in the context of your own giving. Discover where your resources can have the greatest impact.

The choice to give now and to give more means that your support can help address urgent needs, accelerate solutions and prevent the worsening of systemic community problems. Where you choose to deploy your dollars is entirely your own decision; there is, however, no question that maximizing your support of urgent needs will help to mitigate and, ultimately, eliminate intractable social challenges.

Next door and across the globe, societal hardship is abundant. No matter the size and scale of your giving, you can make a difference by taking bold steps to maximize and accelerate your charitable donations. Aim high and hit the fast lane.

Elizabeth Wong is Head of Philanthropic Advisory Services for Foundation Source.

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Elizabeth Wong

Elizabeth Wong

Head of Philanthropic Advisory Services