The Philanthropic Evolution

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

Collaborative Solutions for Pressing Needs In Our Most Vulnerable Communities


To understand philanthropy, you must remove the old notion from your mind that only the wealthiest of individuals have the capacity to make a difference. As we move farther into the 21st century, like so much of our society’s customs, the concept of philanthropy has followed an evolutionary course. With the trying economic times casting a dark shadow on the charitable sector, not just nationwide but around the world, the definition of “philanthropist” has shifted. Today, the smallest of gifts can make a difference and the contributions of valuable human time and talent have become the foundation and strengthening force for many of the world’s charitable organizations. In this changing world, it is safe to say that everyone has the capacity to be a philanthropist.

As American philanthropy evolves, countries around the world are establishing customs that bring new meaning to the act of giving. Like so many past movements that have crossed cultural boundaries, success has only been achieved as a result of strong leadership. American society would be remiss not to recognize that the time has come for collaboration with other nations if we are to successfully support the charitable sector on a grander scale.

The concept of collaboration among nations was ever present throughout a moving panel discussion on the power of worldwide philanthropy during the month-long Biennial of the Americas this past July. This unique event presented the combined voices of international philanthropic leaders, each addressing the same question – How can philanthropists, government leaders, and international aid agencies work in a more integrated fashion, both within their own countries and abroad, on behalf of other nations? In line with the spirit of the Biennial, the discussion enforced the belief that nations of the Western Hemisphere must listen to each other’s needs and collaboratively identify methods for support. Also stressed was the importance of considering cross-cultural boundaries and paying respect, not offense, to cultural differences – without this important factor, sustainable change can never be made.

On July 6, 2010, nearly 1,000 observers joined together in Denver’s historic Ellie Caulkins Opera House as one-by-one an eclectic group of world leaders walked onto the stage. Each impressive individual represented an important faction of the Western Hemisphere’s philanthropic sector. Welcoming the audience, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Timothy Schultz, president & executive director of the Denver-based Boettcher Foundation, shared brief remarks on how partnerships and strategic collaboration between the public, private and governmental sectors have shaped the Denver community over the last few decades. Mayor Hickenlooper’s words in particular set a platform for the discussion by creating a sense of pride for the philanthropic and collaborative accomplishments that we, as a society, have achieved in the last decade.

Introduced one by one, the moderator welcomed to the stage the first tier of panelists: U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan; Ambassador Larry Palmer, current President of the Inter-American Foundation and recently nominated U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela; Harriet Fulbright, President of the J. William and Harriet Fulbright Center; Steve Vetter, CEO of Partners of America; Rigoberta Menchú Tum, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala; and Lisa Quiroz, Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility with Time Warner.

Secretary Donovan spoke first, recalling a time in the late 1970's when widespread riots led to the destruction of a Bronx neighborhood in New York. He remembered, “The rebuilding of this neighborhood was my first experience in seeing public and private entities partnering for community benefit and development.” As this approach evolved into a model for neighborhood revitalization, so did the understanding that collaboration plays a key role in achieving success through philanthropy. Mr. Donovan then segued to the topic at hand and the discussion quickly turned to understanding the current and cross-cultural definition of philanthropy based on decades of evolutionary changes in perception.

It was Ambassador Larry Palmer who was the first to say that, “The concept of philanthropy is not new; it is evolving.” As the primary representative from the American business sector, Lisa Quiroz from Time Warner agreed that, “Philanthropy is not a new idea… it is an idea that has been built from quintessential American values.” It was Ms. Quiroz who also shared the belief that as a leader in philanthropic thinking and successful endeavors, the United States has an obligation to participate in and facilitate strategic partnerships between public, government, and private sectors that help meet community needs on a global scale. Bringing together leaders from culturally differing nations is a first step in this mutual understanding – and, as made clear from the sentiment that afternoon, the United States is well positioned to take the lead in establishing a global network of philanthropic endeavors.

With the audience intrigued, a second set of panelists joined the group and brought with it a fresh perspective. Representing varying nations and cultures, this group of individuals added an additional cross-cultural element to the discussion. The individuals included Dr. Paul Latortue, Dean of the Graduate School of Business, Universidad de Puerto Rico; Martha Smith de Rangel, Interim CEO of the United States/Mexico Foundation; Diana Campoamor, President of the U.S.-based Hispanics in Philanthropy; Juan Fernando Fonseca, Columbian singer and songwriter; and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter. With the welcoming of the new panelists came a shifted focus to the shared belief that citizens of the world are all interconnected, and therefore must work together to find solutions for pressing needs in our collective nations’ most vulnerable communities.

Along with the sharing of thoughtful information on the current state of the charitable sector, each panelist raised poignant questions about the future of philanthropy: What does it look like and who are the drivers? How can we, as leaders in this game, encourage our communities not to dwell on the past, but instead remain hopeful for the future? Diana Campoamor of Hispanics in Philanthropy remarked quite simply, “Philanthropists are not just rich people – we are all philanthropists… The act of philanthropy is about all of us delivering action through interconnectedness and knowing that we have the capacity to change the world… We need to gather citizens of the world together – when we shift our minds, we shift the world with our actions.”

While there is no lack of goodwill in societies, what is missing worldwide is the ability to connect individuals. It is clear from this experience in the presence of great philanthropic minds that we, each with our own stake in this world, must take it upon ourselves to listen to the needs of our communities, and instill the capacity to take action. Although the definition of philanthropy is organic, the need for support has not changed. As we move farther into the future, we must identify how we as societies and cultures can work together to share best practices for sustainable growth. “We need to acknowledge the accomplishments that have already been made,” said Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, “We make progress every year and this should give the people of the world hope.”

Cori Plotkin and Jane McGillem both work for Galloway Group, a Denver-based community and public relations firm. Cori holds an M.S. in public relations from the University of Denver and, as VP of Communications for Galloway Group, enjoys working with both businesses and non-profit organizations identifying ways for increasing community support. As the newest member of the Galloway Group team, Jane holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of Denver and has a particular interest in using the written word for strategic communications. To contact Cori and Jane visit or email