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Is this the new face of philanthropy?

Parienti photo

Still in his 30s, Yonathan Parienti is a straggle-haired ex-banker in blue jeans. Now his mission is to bring social activists together via the Internet. For under-35s there's no paradox. They don't have their parents' hangups about the public vs private sector. The Occupy Me generation also believe in action for causes they support. That's the rationale behind SiGEF2015, the second Social Innovation and Global Ethics Forum held in Geneva on 23-25 October.

By Peter Hulm

Philanthropy won't save the world. But it might save those who give as well as those who receive and those who deliver the aid.

That was one message from SiGEF2015 in Geneva, a three-day conference on social entrepreneurship and global ethics, bringing together some NGOs, philanthropy experts, and up to 5000 visitors from 23 until 25 October in the old Force Motrices powerstation on the Rhone.

The Gen Y conference par excellence

But first people have to hear the message. And too few of them were there on Friday to do anything about spreading the word, unless they were all blogging like crazy. Judging from the white lights of the computer screens and cellphones in the darkened conference hall, despite the sparse audience, they may well have been doing that.

For this was the Generation Y (under-35s) conference par excellence, or maybe Generation Z (those born after 1990). Its French-born promoter, Yonathan Parienti, blessed with what one newspaper described as a 'John Lennon look' (I bet he's embarrassed about that: there's no indication he is imitating anyone), sports a bio that includes wealth management stints in JP Morgan Chase, Bank of China and Julius Baer.

Getting it right

He is now CEO of the Geneva-based NGO Horyou (humanity or you, geddit: www.horyou.com), launched in January 2014. Behind him he has a young enthusiastic and laid-back team -- some in New York, some in Geneva -- who seem to do everything right.

The closing session is a media event: a SeGIF award for a promising NGO*. Entry was free for students and pensioners, and only CHF120 for three days for anyone else. The conference audio, lighting and video were first-class.

The NGOs each had a stall to present and set out their wares. SiGEF staff in orange (I know, it is the new black) were everywhere but didn't get in the way. The SiGEF website told you all you needed to know, and Horyou broadcast sessions live to the world on the Internet. The audience was encouraged to tweet its reactions to panellists as the discussions took place. Twitter posts covered Horyou videos on the NGO presentations.

Spreading good ideas

Even more important, there was good advice on social entrepreneurship, particularly from the women participants (perhaps that's a characteristic of Generation Z as well as Generation A for Alzheimers: women still have to be twice as good as the men to get noticed).

For example, Sylvia Bastante, Head of the Philanthropy Advisory at UBS Switzerland, said social entrepreneurs have advantages over governments or business. They do not have to prove themselves to voters and they do not have to answer to shareholders.

What then, should social NGOs be focusing on? Their competitive advantage is to innovate. But few of them do. She could only think of two major innovative programmes of social innovation: the micro-credit movement and the Gates Foundation's action to eradicate polio.

Donors no longer decide philanthropy

Philanthropy may not have changed, but the philanthropic world has changed. It need not be dominated by big donors (who, though she did not say it, often have their own narrow agendas). Generation Y millennials do not care whether an organization is part of the public or private sector, provided it delivers.

And they put every aspect of their life online, Bastante noted. Far from being a drawback, this can be an advantage. "They can inspire others."

They need, though, to discover what causes are worth giving to. Once they do, they can mobilize quickly, internationally, and in huge numbers, with staggering amounts (look at the U.S. Democratic Presidential candidates or the U.K. Labour Party leadership election). This is just the political end of a crowd-funding movement that social NGOs are still learning to exploit so that contributors can feel good about doing good.

Philanthropy is still marginal

But philanthropy will always remain marginal compared to governmental and multilateral or business investment, panellists insisted, and NGOs should learn to trade on their competitive advantage.

Karen Wilson of the Development Cooperation Directorate of OECD, the 'rich nations club' known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, reported on a recent OECD study of Social Impact Investment: http://www.oecd.org/sti/ind/social-impact-investment.htm). It found investment banks are now becoming interested in funding projects that meet social needs.

Business is communication, stupid

Generation Y entrepreneurs who presented their projects on the first day ranged from a Swiss natural fruit-juice producer to a South African skills-training activist. What tied them together was the integration of communications into their businesses at a fundamental level.

The fruit-juice entrepreneur, Sofia de Meyer, a former corporate lawyer, is financing her business by getting retail buyers, distributors and customers to invest in the outfit for a couple of months at a time.

The South African organizer of Nunnovation.com, Khathu Mathau, emphasizes the importance of letting Africans tell their own stories via the Internet, in contrast to outsiders who think that Ghana's experience is automatically relevant to South Africa 16,000 kilometres away, he noted with disgust.

So what kind of skills training does South Africa need? In renewable energy, water management and sanitation, mining, and computers, he argued.

But education in South Africa is now more expensive than at the end of apartheid in 1994. "There's an uprising" that many people outside SA don't know about, he declared. Students are demanding a better deal -- not free education but an affordable one: "an uprising that I support."

Crowd-sourcing social change

His organization believes the answer to tackling the society's problems is crowd-sourcing, but applying it to solving issues on the ground.

Maybe it wasn't a surprise that the presentations on new media and social campaigning weren't that interesting. The proof of today's digital pudding is in the eating, not the recipes or rules someone else makes up. Horyou's website serves up dishes that satisfy much more than any words from the debating platform.

Even Parienti was uninspiring, except to point out that social NGOs need to do more than simply communicate. "If we want to have an impact," he observed, "we need to have meaningful interaction and connections."

This is what Horyou tries to offer, with a mix of individual members, NGOs like Terre des Hommes, and celebrities with expertise.

Spurred by the 2008 crisis

Parienti came to philanthropy after 12 years in private banking. He told the Swiss newspaper Le Temps that the 2008 financial crisis brought home to him the fragility of the system, where billions of dollars are generated by speculation while billions of people cannot afford to buy basic commodities.

He decided to set up a 21st-century template for solidarity through a website and a foundation, where people to share positive stories with likeminded activists across the world.

SiGEF (it's so new panellists couldn't agree on whether to call it SighJeff or SeeJeff) seeks to bring those people together in the real world.

On the Internet, it has already proved its worth.  In the organization world, it can claim some major successes. Its business partners range from TESLA and UNESCO's Green Citizens to Webster University and Nespresso. It has 50 media partners, some local such as LeNews and WRS, some important in the NGO world such as Fundraiser Magazine.

But in the physical world, it is still taking baby steps.

Generation X meets Generation Y and Z

Where were the media flashbulbs and mikes to record every banal utterance from a celebrity? Where were the fund managers with open chequebooks to underwrite interesting projects?

Where were the conference circuit gurus to tell us what it all means?

Where was the advance publicity in the local and international press?

I think part of the explanation is that old media don't really get new media. And Generation X journalists don't get Generation Y or Z. Bill Gates the philanthropist is an enigma to them while Bill Gates the businessman makes perfect sense. They don't see why a social activist would be quite content with an Internet presence though they do feel the earthquake building up under the broadcasting and print business.

It could be as important for an NGO to talk to likeminded activists as meeting the press in the flesh.

Our first Web networking conference?

SiGEF might be the first real Web-based networking conference of its kind, where what goes on across the Internet is more important than what takes place in the conference hall.

So don't write SiGEF off, with Parienti's obvious networking skills and open-door policy. The World Economic Forum, likewise a success with European business leaders from the beginning, took 20 years to really take off into its present stratospheric political heights.

And one day after the conference, Horyou went to the United Nations Geneva with the China Charity Alliance on 26 October to meet with UNICEF.

* The award when to Humansrelais, a French organization that offers a computer app for people to hook up with a homeless person nearby who needs help.

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