Wealth Leaders: Rob Rosen

Interview by Jeff Moore

Rob Rosen is the director of the philanthropic partnerships team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The team’s aim is to increase the quantity and quality of generosity by all people – from high net worth individuals to “everyday givers” – which will ultimately result in accelerated progress toward tackling the world’s most pressing issues.

The Philanthropic Partnerships Team advises and collaborates with high-net-worth individuals to help accelerate and encourage their effective giving and, when appropriate, makes connections to foundation issues. It also works with partners to help remove barriers to giving by supporting norms, policies, insights and tools that will serve to build a stronger, smarter philanthropic sector in the U.S., China, India, and the Middle East.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. As Director of the Philanthropic Partnerships initiative for the Gates Foundation, can you tell us why the foundation has chosen, strategically, to focus on the role of the individual philanthropist? What do you all see as the role for individuals with great financial means?

We are focused there because of the potential for impact. If you think about it, this is a collection of individuals that have an incredible potential to make real and positive change. And we are looking across the gamut, from those who have the capacity to be extraordinarily generous because of the wealth they have accumulated to every individual. There is great possibility here – and that is why we are focusing on this community of individuals. But while the potential for impact is high, there is often great complexity in achieving the kind of impact that these individuals set out to have, and that can be a barrier. So we think that there are many pathways for us as a foundation to work in partnership with others to address those barriers and unleash the potential and turn it into reality.

So let’s talk a little bit about the pathway of moving a potential donor to an active donor. Can you say a bit more about the complexity that you find along that spectrum? Are there specific barriers that stand in the way of that progression?

Yes, there are. So let’s start with the mindset of an individual who has come to the conclusion that he or she wants to put their wealth to use in a particular way – they have the clear intent to be a donor. But there are individual and systemic barriers that are going to create complexity.

First, we have to realize that we are talking about individual givers and that brings the potential for an almost infinite number of important considerations about where to focus, and the kind of impact they seek to have. With that comes the challenge of time and the need to find enough time to navigate the sheer number of choices about where to focus and through what organizations. They are thinking about how they can deploy their capital to have the greatest impact. So the complexity of giving is really quite extraordinary.

Then we have to think about family dynamics. When we are talking about an individual who has the financial ability to be extraordinarily generous, they often need to think about whether they are doing this alone, or with a spouse, a partner, or perhaps children. Will they have a divide and conquer approach? I think one of the barriers that we then find in this space is that all these considerations can lead to some inertia. The desire is there, but you take a look at all the considerations to getting going and you decide, “OK this is something to solve next year.” This is particularly hard – and this is something I worry about every day – that we are often dealing with people still in the prime of their careers and generating wealth. They are extraordinarily busy. And I think this is one of the biggest barriers that we face. They set out with right intent. But this is not an easy path. They are committed to making an impact but, when they look at all the complexities, things get punted either in terms of actually getting the donor engaged or getting them engaged at the right depth.

So time starts to intervene?

Right – you think that the donor should be on a particular pathway in terms of their giving. But because of these barriers I have mentioned, maybe they are one-quarter or one-fifth of where they had wanted to be in their giving. They feel, of course, like they can maybe make it up next year, but actually time is moving on rather quickly and we are seeing a loss of that resource – both in the financial impact they could be having as well as in their mindshare and their voice. So that is a loss that starts to be hard to recover from. So whatever we can do to help the donor expedite this process is just really important.

So what systemic barriers do you see?

Actually just navigating this space is really difficult. Think about the role information has to play – getting to the right data. This is incredibly complex and takes time. There is great work in this area and we are seeing lots of new opportunities – things that the Foundation Center and Guidestar are doing are great and making it easier. But it is important to be thinking about what could happen with tools like Facebook or other platforms that haven’t even been invented yet. At its core, the issue really is about the marketplace. The marketplace between those with capital and those who can help to deploy it effectively, in the philanthropic sector, it is simply not mature. So we need to think about ways that we can leverage technology to connect funders and recipients in ways that ease this process and help build confidence in the donor and help them get over the inertia that is holding them back. This is really critical.

Let me come back to the individual barriers you spoke of. So, making this decision to become an individual philanthropist isn’t easy. There are lots of barriers. But do you see a difference between those who come to this process with a very strong sense of a cause they want to advance and those who come with a sense of a role they want to play as a philanthropist? Is it easier for one over the other to keep moving forward?

No. Honestly we don’t. There are different points of entry, of course. For some people it is a cause and they come to this with a very compelling, direct personal experience that drives them toward a cause. For others, they come from a more analytical place thinking about the role they can play to make impact in one cause or another. Each pathway has its own complexity. We don’t see one pathway being easier than the other. It all does sort of come back to this question of whether it is “the head or the heart.” But the answer is that it has to be both. And our job is to make sure that the right supporting infrastructure is around these people – regardless of which path they are on. And we have seen lots of people then make those critical decisions and have the ultimate impact on society that can really be quite extraordinary.

So let’s talk about how it is that you facilitate that leap that the individual needs to make. How do you get him or her to the point of making that jump, despite all of the barriers we have been talking about?

Well, in some ways, talking about this as a “great leap” may actually do a bit of a disservice. In many ways, what we need to be focused on is getting a step – then followed by a series of steps to follow.

Part of the fundamental problem, in fact, is that mindset that you have to take a leap of faith if you want to put your wealth to work in this way. You know, when the barrier is inertia, the best thing is to take a first step toward forward progress. And then of course we want to ask, “Okay, so now can you go from a walk to a run?” The challenge here, for anyone who is on the edge of making a decision to move forward, is to get the balance right between a deep understanding of the seriousness and importance of the work and the appropriateness of risk. We want to make sure that that complexity of the work is understood – for sure. We know that the risk of squandering resources can be high and we want to avoid that because the cost can be so significant. But neither do we want to create a psychological sense that you need to have absolute perfection or you shouldn’t try. We don’t see that in the business world. We don’t see it in basic science experimentation.

Quite frankly, I don’t think we do a good enough job in the sector helping people know that it is okay to take calculated risks, knowing that sometimes we fail. I think we sometimes see a skepticism around those with great wealth and that makes it harder if they put their money to work in a particular way and it doesn’t work out. That can be really hard to overcome. I think, broadly, the sector needs to do a better job of encouraging people to make smart leaps. This isn’t about encouraging thoughtlessness in any way – but we need to honor that smart risk taking. If it works, great, let’s build on it. If it doesn’t, that is okay, what can we learn? When we don’t think in this way, it can have a chilling effect on people getting in.

Do you see any issues on the horizon when you think about federal level policies and their impact on the donors you are trying to cultivate?

Well, it is an election year, and so, of course, we always want to be paying attention and monitoring what is being thought about and talked about. But at the moment, we don’t see any big concerns about the policy infrastructure that supports giving. You know, thoughtful, charitable giving is pretty deeply embedded in the American culture and I am confident, even with all the complexity of our politics and our electoral politics, that the case for promoting giving remains incredibly strong. So we will continue to be diligent in making that case and be vigilant to anything that might become an issue. But right now I don’t have a major concern.

What we do see as interesting is what is happening globally because the team here also thinks about what this is starting to look like in China and India and the other emerging markets. What we see is that the world is starting to coalesce around this idea of individual giving. And so there is an opportunity, really, for others to start learning from what has worked well in the US and how we can find ways to have similar policy incentives to ease the complexities of cross-border giving. So we are definitely focused on this.

Do you see some of that knowledge and experience transfer actually happening?

What we see right now is a strong desire. In so many ways this is a great opportunity to create a laboratory. Let’s look really hard at what has worked in the U.S. context and begin to identify ways to modify those policies and incentives to work in a new cultural context. So, do I think China will replicate what has been done in the US? No. But can they learn from what has worked here and adapt those policy frameworks in ways that work for them and unleash the potential in their context? Yes, and we see a strong desire coming from them to do that. We are seeing that play out in real time.

Let’s just take a step back. We talked earlier about the “north star” for the Gates Foundation being the need to unlock the potential of these givers. So, can you talk a bit about what kind of big social changes you believe we could see as a result of your work to engage these wealth leaders?

Absolutely. First, let’s be sure to frame this contextually. This is a long-term play. It is critically important to remember that we are not talking about the next 3 or 5 years, but rather this is a 10, 20, or even a 50-year play. If we want to narrow this down to the U.S. to begin, let’s remember that we could potentially be talking about a $3 trillion opportunity here depending on how you do the math. And we think this is a relatively conservative way of looking at the opportunity. So, let’s think for a minute about those who are engaged in The Giving Pledge, or could be. If we get a significant portion of them having the right opportunities for peer to peer learning and support, and they get inspired to do more, do it sooner, and do it better – then put that potential for focused giving against any social issue in the United States you see that the benefit to society could be enormous. So we take an approach that is focused on helping this group set a norm among themselves to strive for the greatest impact in their individual giving. And we have a richness and diversity in this group when it comes to the issues they want to focus on. We are not looking to focus them on a certain set of topics.

The Gates Foundation has a set of issues that we are concentrated on, and that is understood, but we don’t have a monopoly on a single set of crucial issues to solve. So we want to honor and encourage the richness and diversity of interests and passions that we see in this group.

We are also thinking about our diversity of givers, not only engaging those with enormous wealth to put to work, but thinking about how we reach across the spectrum of givers so can recognize the potential of givers of all financial capabilities. We believe there is equally significant potential here and maybe they haven’t had the kind of support they should. To bring it to a more personal level, I think about how I, as an individual, or my family, or others like me can be more informed, can be more active givers and can be a part of this reinforcing cycle we have been talking about. We think that is really important.

So The Gates Foundation has our core focus and that is really great – but an important part of this is about working with our partners to think about how we are reaching the next generations and types of givers and finding ways to support them.

So is The Giving Pledge going to move toward a broader focus on individual donors of various means?

Well, let’s look at the strategy of the Gates Philanthropic Partnerships effort more broadly. We have a component of that in The Giving Pledge that is focused as we have said on donors with the highest levels of wealth. And there are some particular outcomes we are focused on there. We want to establish giving as a norm in this group and there is some real progress in this regard. We are seeing an uptick nationally and globally of people with extraordinary wealth moving toward this norm of giving a large percentage of it away. And then we want to be sure that once they have made that commitment to give wealth away, that we are putting platforms and programs in place to help them have the greatest possible impact through their giving.

At the same time, you know, there is a pyramid when you think about wealth in the U.S., right? So we absolutely do believe that there is equal opportunity for impact across the entire spectrum of givers of all incomes. We are looking now at what opportunities there might be for us to have a positive influence on giving by people all across that pyramid. There are lots of others who play a role in this area and we are still actively exploring what our role in this area, if any, might be. It’s a work in progress.

What keeps you going in this work, Rob?

The overall thing that keeps all of us here incredibly motivated is the extraordinary generosity we see coming from donors across the entire spectrum of wealth, both in the U.S. and globally. It is extraordinary. But, you know, as we have been talking about, there are lots of personal and systemic barriers that get in the way of deploying that potential. So I wake up every morning thinking about what we can do to help all of these donors have the greatest impact possible. And I think a lot about what the larger philanthropic sector can do to help address these gaps and improve the marketplace for all types of givers. It would be great if what we saw from all this was a push from the broader sector to make widely available the kinds of products and services people need to match their motivation and their potential to make impact.

Jeff Moore is the VP of Strategy at Independent Sector.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: International and Foreign Affairs, IS Member, ISQ, Nonprofit Capital, Organizational Relationships