Ireland could become world leader in philanthropy, Clinton says

Former US president addresses forum on philanthropy in Dublin

Ireland can exploit new technology to become a world leader in philanthropy, former US president Bill Clinton told an audience in Dublin tonight.

Lending his support to the One Percent Difference campaign, America’s 42nd president, a long-time advocate of philanthropy, said the financial crisis underlined the need for a stronger contribution from corporate Ireland and high-wealth individuals to the charity sector.

One of the main reasons for giving, he said, was to help meet “social needs in Ireland that would otherwise have to be met by the Government at a time of severe budgetary constraints - or would not be met at all”.

Private philanthropy would also help support the 100,000 people working in the non-profit sector, and help the country tackle unforeseen eventualities.


Extreme weather

Citing the threat of more extreme weather events in the midst of global warming, he suggested philanthropists in Ireland could pick the areas most likely to be hit by flooding or other natural disasters and plan to support them.

After sacrificing so much in achieving Ireland’s economic recovery, “the last thing you want to do is lose another year or two because of a natural disaster”.

Mr Clinton kept the guests waiting about an hour for his speech as he completed a round of private meetings, including one with Taoiseach Enda Kenny earlier in the afternoon.

He arrived in the function room in the Conrad Hotel a little incongruously - to 'Soul Bossa Nova', better known as the Austin Powers theme tune - and delivered just a few trademark asides in a politics-free, 20-minute address.

There was a tinge of disappointment at the absence of any Bono impressions, like those Mr Clinton delivered a fortnight ago in New York at the annual meeting of his think-tank, the Clinton Global Initiative. Nonetheless, he earned three standing ovations before being heralded out of the room ahead of the dinner.

Mr Clinton said when he was president - now almost 13 years ago, when “the average cell phone weighed 5lbs” - the median contribution to a disaster fundraiser could have been up to been $500.

At the time of the Asian tsunami in 2004, the median charity donation was $56, a figure which had been driven down by donations on the internet. In 2010, for the earthquake in Haiti, the median donation had dropped to $26, as many more people donated through mobile phone payments.

“You’ve got all this crowdfunding, soon it [the median] will be lower. You are a small enough country that you can organise this,” he said, suggesting that charities should look at micropayments to fund projects over the long term.

Such payments held up despite the financial crisis, he pointed out. “When the financial crisis hit many of us were worried that we would all fall off the philanthropy cliff. In our foundation, a lot of our donors had lost 70-80 per cent of their net worth and literally could not afford their commitments that they had previously made, which we all understood. But interestingly enough, throughout all of that, small contributions tended to hang on and endure.”

Innovative ideas

He said philanthropy should also be seen by donors as a way of introducing innovative ideas to age-old problems. Citing the recent shootings in Washington by an man with a history of serious mental illness, he said the incident highlighted a mismanagement with psychiatric institutions in the US.

“The problem is when we emptied the institutions out we did not first make sure we had enough community centres or there were half-way houses or anything else… This is perfect now for innovative philanthropic work.”

The former president said adapting in this field “is not a big heavy lift for you”, as Ireland had already a proud tradition in giving. When he started fighting Aids and had a “crazy idea” to fund cheaper drugs, “Ireland was the first to give…. You should be really proud of that.”

Mr Clinton was delivering the annual Ray Murphy memorial lecture which was organised by the state-sponsored Forum on Philanthropy and Philanthropy Ireland, the umbrella group for private donors in Ireland.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column