I have always remembered a Talmudic story my father once told me of an old man planting a carob tree whilst a passer-by looked on. The passerby knowingly asked the old man when the tree would bear fruit and the old man replied, “Seventy years.” The passer-by laughed and asked the old man if he really expected to live to see the tree blossom. The old man answered that he had greatly enjoyed the fruit of carob trees planted by his grandfather and his great grandfather before him and now he himself was fulfilling his role by doing the same for his own grandchildren and great grandchildren after them. It is the spirit of this tale that inspires my own philanthropy.
Philanthropy is about engagement and there are as many ways to approach it as there are individuals! With my wife Sarah, we have always followed our instincts and focussed on those areas of need which have truly inspired us and pulled us into a deeper personal engagement. It is not only important to us to “do good” or to have “good intentions,” it is also important to enjoy our opportunity to participate.
“Fulfilling philanthropy” is a skill which develops over time, but still starts, like all skills, in a closely proximate comfort zone. As Sarah and I have become more practiced, and thereby more confident, we have moved further afield and followed our passions to areas less directly relevant to us but equally as engaging. That is one of the great pleasures of committing to philanthropy early on in one’s life – with confidence, many more doors open up to a host of social change activities which can be truly world-changing.
We tend to be very open about the possibility of getting involved. If a friend approaches us with an opportunity to give to an organisation, we will pretty much always give something. This allows us to see beyond what is immediately visible to us. Second, we have learned not to be shy about pushing in, asking questions and seeking a deeper engagement. We avoid the fears most people typically have early on - “I don’t want to be too forward” or “they must hate answering that question so many times” or “I don’t want to get too close too soon as they may expect something of me” – and we get active in exploring what the charity is doing, how they are doing it and what impact they are having on our community. That is exactly how I became involved in Impetus Trust where I am now Chairman of the Board. Executives of charitable organisations like the team I first met at Impetus do their jobs out of a genuine commitment to their cause, which means they are more than willing to engage on it, explain it and enthuse about it!
Impact is very important and making sure that the impact an organisation has can be scaled is also a key to my assessment of whether or not to place a priority on my support. And measurement, while sometimes difficult and, depending on the situation a bit amorphous, is still the only way to establish if a result is actually happening. Too often, philanthropically-minded people make commitments out of a sense of obligation or emotion and fail to focus on the purpose of the charity and what “investment criteria” should be required. In giving to a charity, whether that be one’s money or one’s time, donors should not be afraid to ask how well contributions are being utilised or what that organisation has really accomplished. At Impetus, “measurement of result” is an extremely important value which is applied in two ways for us. First, we require the portfolio charities we support to report regularly to us on key performance indicators which we identify and agree with them at the start of the relationship. Second, we collate and publish our own key performance indicators to ensure our constituents also understand fully the impact we ourselves are having.
The number one piece of advice I can offer to others wishing to make a difference to the world is to GET GOING! There are so many ways to generate excuses about why it cannot be done – not enough time, not the right time, not the right charity, not the right cause, not enough money, too much money, etc, etc, etc. But by focussing simply on the act of planting that carob tree, more than its purpose or its potential success or failure, the process of engagement begins and one’s ability to focus, develop, manage and accelerate a set of philanthropic activities becomes easier and more enjoyable.
And number two is GET INVOLVED! The more one is involved in the charitable organisation itself, or in the cause, the more fulfilling the activity of supporting that cause or organisation will be. And that is what it is all about – enjoying being a part of a better future, in whatever direction that future ultimately manifests itself.
Philanthropy is one of life’s great pleasures, like having children. And like having children, the pleasure cannot be explained, yet is so clear when one experiences it for oneself. How great it is to be actively involved in making the world a better place, no matter how small the change!
Louis G. Elson
Louis G. Elson, chairman of Impetus Trust, is the managing partner of Palamon Capital Partners, a private equity firm he co-founded in 1999. He has been an active member of the European private equity industry for more than twenty years. He is on the Development Executive of The Prince’s Trust, where he heads philanthropic initiatives, and also serves as a Trustee of the Education Endowment Foundation and The Voices Foundation. Additionally, he is a member of the Advisory Board of the British Film Institute.