Larry Palmer

By:Cori Plotkin and Jane McGillem Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

Approaching Philanthropy with Open Ears


To be a successful philanthropist, one might assume that it only takes an open heart. Ambassador Larry Palmer would tell you differently. From his extensive experience as a diplomat and philanthropic inspiration, he knows that to truly make a difference, one must approach philanthropy with open ears. As President of the Inter-American Foundation, Ambassador Palmer leads the independently run U.S. government agency according to the mantra of “Tell us, and we’ll provide.” This open-ear approach to philanthropy has led to the agency’s successful funding of over 5,000 projects, to the tune of $750 million, each focused on establishing sustainable and participatory self-help programs that promote philanthropy and community stability in Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Ambassador Palmer took a few minutes to share some advice from his years of experience identifying and facilitating opportunities for philanthropic support in the world’s most vulnerable communities. He shared insights into the world of cross-cultural philanthropy and adopting grass-roots thinking as key to making a sustainable impact.

For over 40 years, Ambassador Palmer’s impressive career has been filled with positions where collaboration was a necessity. Starting his professional path as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1971, Ambassador Palmer entered the Foreign Service in 1982, serving in the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Ambassador Palmer went on to work in the U.S. State Department and eventually served as the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras – a post he proudly held until October 2005. Following his diplomatic service, Ambassador Palmer took on the role of President of the Inter-American Foundation where he led the philanthropic agency in providing funding for partnerships among grassroots and non-profit organizations, businesses and local governments. Representing an agency striving to improve quality of life and strengthen participation, accountability and democratic practices, this position was well suited for him and reflected the charitable spirit that has always driven his professional and personal endeavors. Ambassador Palmer could not stress enough the importance of listening to the needs of communities before implementing plans for change.

More recently, Ambassador Palmer’s cross-cultural understanding and ability to innovatively respond to international needs were once again recognized when President Barack Obama nominated him as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela in June, 2010. Ambassador Palmer’s experience no doubt qualifies him as one of the Western Hemisphere’s most knowledgeable individuals when it comes to understanding the importance of collaboration in a world where cultural sustainability and quality of life are challenged on a daily basis.

With decades of experience successfully addressing some of the developing world’s most challenging issues, Ambassador Palmer could not stress enough the importance of listening to the needs of communities before implementing plans for change. As stated by Ambassador Palmer, “We (the Inter-American Foundation) are a responsive organization. We listen to the communities we serve, hear their problems, and fund the most compelling proposals with the most realistic plans for sustainable improvements.” The philosophy of the Inter-American Foundation is that people in need know what tools they require to achieve long-term success; thus the Foundation does not just fund vulnerable communities, but it collaborates with beneficiaries to ensure sustainability. Knowing that government agencies more often than not implement from the top-down, Ambassador Palmer believes strongly that the reverse approach is more effective. He states, “We fund from the bottom-up…the grass-roots approach has always been the most successful for us.”

In a world where need is far greater than available resources, the old adage "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime” could not ring more true. Ambassador Palmer shared a poignant story that demonstrated the relevance of this saying. The Foundation once funded a project where Mexican goat farmers received educational training from international experts on effective milking and herding methods. One of the recipient farmers reported incremental increases in productivity from his small farm and shared with Ambassador Palmer that “(he) used to be a goat farmer – now (he) is a citizen of Mexico.” This transformation from individual farmer to contributor to the greater good was an intended result of the project, founded on collaboration between nations and bringing expertise to needy communities for the purpose of sustainable change.

When asked how this open-ear approach to philanthropy could apply in the United States, Ambassador Palmer’s response was direct. “It is America’s job to listen. Listen to the people in our communities – they know best what they need to make lasting changes. Our people are capable, but we must instill in them a certain amount of trust if any sustainable progress is going to be made.”