A few weeks ago financial mogul and philanthropist George Soros made the largest commitment supporting human rights in world history. Soros’ $100 million dollar matching gift—$10,000,000 a year for ten years—is contingent upon Human Rights Watch’s ability to raise an equal sum each year in gifts. This is wonderful news for HRW and I wish them all the best in leveraging this amazing opportunity to its fullest possible extent.
What I find truly exciting, however, is not the prospect of a bigger and more impactful HRW, but what this gift might mean about shifting currents in philanthropy—American and, eventually, otherwise. Philanthropy as we know it is, like so many other cultural forces, a distinctly American phenomenon—and like Rock and Roll, the assembly line, and big box stores, it is also a major American export. It is little wonder, then, that American philanthropy is far and above the most vibrant, diverse, and largest and most impactful in the world.
Last year Americans gave just over $300 billion in philanthropic dollars. They gave to support communities of faith; arts and education; health care, human services, and environmental causes, to mention only the largest. But for those of us committed to the ideals expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the present allocation of American philanthropy is deeply distressing.
The figures speak for themselves: according to the 2009 report compiled by GivingUSA, gifts to International Affairs, under which gifts to human rights organizations fall, accounted for less than 3% of all giving. And since the lion’s share of such giving is for humanitian aid and relief programs, funding for human rights undoubtedly accounts for less than 1% of our nation’s philanthropic giving.
In the wake of the Gates and Buffett Giving Pledge—in which over forty American billionaires have pledged to give away half of their wealth within their lifetimes—one can only hope that Soros’ will not be the last, nor, ideally, the largest gift supporting global human rights in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century. Here’s hoping Soros’ mega-gift is the first of many, and that it succeeds in motiving thousands more to make international human rights part of their philanthropy.