The budding philanthropists putting Ireland first

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

IRELAND HAS NEVER been too keen on philanthropy. Big-time giving, long a feature of the United States, is a bit of an alien concept here. Irish people give generously to the Third World and disaster appeals, but when it comes to education and social services we have mostly been content for the Government or the Catholic Church to pick up the tab.

In the US, for example, about 2 per cent of gross domestic product – an eye-watering $300 billion (€225 billion) – is given in the form of donations or philanthropy. In Ireland the figure is 0.7 per cent.

The Ireland Funds, a global network of philanthropists, is seeking to change that. On Tuesday night more than 100 members of its Young Leaders programme will gather at the Gravity Bar, high above the Guinness brewery in Dublin, as part of a series of events around the world aimed at nabbing potential philanthropists early in life.

At one level it’s a glitzy cross between a networking and an entertainment event. The comedian Barry Murphy will be attending, and the rugby star Brian O’Driscoll will receive a “spirit of Ireland” award.

But it’s also a hard-headed bid to tap into a generation of up-and-coming young people who are likely to have much deeper pockets in the near future. This week’s event in Dublin is just one of the Young Leaders meetings. Dozens of others are taking place over the coming months across the US and Australia.

“These are young professionals who are well educated and are either starting out in business or establishing their careers,” says Kieran McLoughlin, the Ireland Funds’ worldwide chief executive. “If we get them young, secure their commitment to support Ireland philanthropically, we hope they will give very generously over the course of their lives.” You don’t need to have a bank balance to rival Chuck Feeney’s in order to join.

Most are aged between 25 and 40 and give according to their means. Membership of the Young Leaders group costs between $100 and $1,000 a year; members are encouraged to make additional gifts or donations to specific projects.

The funding goes towards a range of projects in Ireland focused on disadvantaged young people, the elderly, culture and education, as well as the peace process.

“Membership requires philanthropic support: you have to pay to play,” McLoughlin says. “When people see the impact of their gifts they become even more committed, and giving becomes a serial activity.”

Today about 400 Young Leaders have signed up as members in Ireland, the US and Australia; the organisation says that thousands more attend regular fundraising functions. So far they have raised more than $1 million, with funds going to support projects such as Belvedere Youth Club, in Dublin’s north inner city, and the National Institute for Intellectual Disability, based at Trinity College Dublin.

The Young Leaders initiative was first established several years ago, in the US, largely because those involved in fundraising were worried that future generations of Irish-Americans wouldn’t have as strong a bond with their ancestral homeland as their parents did.

McLoughlin says many young people abroad with links to Ireland are responding positively and want to connect with the country. They don’t have a John Hinde view of the country, he insists; instead they see Ireland as a modern country seeking to grapple with social and educational issues.

Inevitably, the economic downturn has hit the Ireland Funds. Donations dipped after the economic shocks of recent years, but they are on the way back up again. And it hasn’t dented the ambition of the organisation. It plans to raise $100 million worldwide by the end of next year as part of its Promising Ireland campaign. It’s already a year ahead of target.

“We want this to continue into the future, which is why young people are so important,” says McLoughlin. “It’s not as if all the young people who support us have pots of money. But they have enthusiasm, belief and are giving disproportionately generously . . . and that’s something we want to encourage.”

Shane Naughton

NEW YORK

Naughton, who is 38, grew up in Roscommon, then studied at Trinity College Dublin before emigrating to the US in the late 1990s.

He is now chief executive of Inundata Venture, a company he set up in New York to focus on investing in early-stage start-up technology companies.

Though based outside Ireland for more than 15 years, he still feels a strong connection to home. He says he got involved with the Young Leaders initiative because of the Ireland Funds’ record in supporting worthy causes.

“I have a personal passion for projects that have an educational track to them,” he says. “Two projects that we supported that particularly interest me are the Peace Players International Project, using basketball as a medium through which peace and reconciliation could be taught to Northern Ireland children, and the National Institute of Intellectual Disability in Trinity College, promoting inclusion for people with intellectual disability.”

Erica Rosengrave

IRELAND

Rosengrave, who is 34, is co-chair of the Young Leaders initiative in Ireland and in charge of Coca-Cola’s corporate-affairs programme in Ireland.

“I’m just an ordinary taxpayer. I don’t have any millions by any means,” she says. “But what attracted me to this was the fact that the cause is Ireland. It’s not just for arts, children or cancer: it’s all about celebrating Ireland and ensuring we thrive into the future.”

She says the energy and ambition of the fundraising group are infectious – and it’s also a chance to meet and network with other young people from Ireland and abroad.

“The organisation has achieved an awful lot, but its continued existence rests on the next generation getting involved, who will be torch-bearers into the future.”

Nick Parrish

CHICAGO

Parrish, who is 32, is vice-president of business development at Grosvenor Capital Management, a $24 billion hedge fund advisory firm based in Chicago.

While from a family that is “as American as they come”, he became interested in Ireland, he says, as a student of history and politics. His links with the Ireland Funds came through a work colleague who is involved with fundraising.

“I believe it’s important to find a cause that you are passionate about. I believe it is also important, though, to assess where you can have the greatest impact on people’s lives,” he says. “Private philanthropy will need to play an important role in helping Ireland get back on its feet. The primary source of funding for many of these organisations – the Government – cannot provide the support necessary to sustain these programs.”