PORTLAND, Oregon — There are many ways people choose to do good in the world. Different processes often glean different results and change. Philanthropy is one of these ways for change. Philanthropy is the desire to promote positive change through generous donations. While philanthropy is generally viewed from the perspective of groups or companies, individuals who donate can be categorized as philanthropists as well. In fact, individual people donated more than $280 billion in 2016. That is more than double what foundations, bequests and corporations contributed, combined. Which organization to give to depends on a number of factors, beginning with how these agencies work — or work against — the issues, especially class issues. How philanthropists choose to fight poverty can affect the world and the problems at hand. One such philanthropist organization trying to help is The Lemelson Foundation.
Inventing Ways to Give Back
Based in Portland, Oregon, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson started the Lemelson Foundation in 1995 as a private family foundation. It focuses on improving the world through invention. Over the past 25 years, the family has contributed more than $290 million.
The foundation supports educational opportunities that help would-be inventors take an idea and transform it into something scalable and sustainable that can actually makes a difference in the world not just in the United States but in developing countries as well.
Jennifer Burran is the grants management director for The Lemelson Foundation. She says the job involves “reviewing grant proposals, conducting due diligence on grantees, writing grant agreement letters (and) creating and managing our grants management system for tracking all of the grants.” She oversees all the foundations’ spending and grants to organizations that undergo considerable scrutiny before they can cash a single check.
The Lemelson Foundation “only funds organizations/projects that serve the U.S., Kenya, India and Uganda,” Burran told The Borgen Project. “We then have U.S. laws and regulations that we must follow that guide the selection process. We select projects using additional criteria such as how much potential impact the project will have, how they might leverage our funding for other grants from other funders, how might they become sustainable and what might we learn about our approach to grant-making by funding the project.”
How Philanthropists Fight Poverty
Philanthropy’s goal is mainly to improve the quality of life and alleviate poverty. One strategy philanthropy takes to ease poverty is through job creation, which in turn creates economic growth. “One way we help alleviate poverty is by supporting invention-based businesses in low and middle-income countries,” Burran said. “These businesses create jobs, and oftentimes, the invention is something that improves the livelihood of an impoverished community.”
Philanthropy may also take a more traditional approach as well through donations to direct service organizations such as food banks or homeless shelters. And yet, donations do not always come in monetary form. People donate time, money and labor to help many projects they believe in. Sometimes, those dollars are most needed when other sources of funding fall through, like government subsidies that were victims of budget cuts.
Concerns About Philanthropy
Despite the upsides, philanthropy does have its pitfalls. The main problem arises when organizations rely on philanthropists too much and fail to diversify other funding sources. This puts an organization in a vulnerable position if the philanthropist shifts strategy or decides to cut its giving programs.
While philanthropists generally mean to alleviate poverty, sometimes public policies can get in the way, like those designed to encourage philanthropy to widen wage gaps between socioeconomic classes. These inequalities can lead to a greater reliance between classes on philanthropy. “There are trends that I follow in philanthropy,” Burran said. “One is an effort to ‘decolonize philanthropy.’ While definitions vary on what this means, it is essentially shifting power back to communities in which it was taken from in the first place.”
Finding Success Stories
“We funded an invention that is a milk chiller that is needed in rural communities in India to ensure nutritious, unspoiled milk would reach villages even during the hottest times of the year,” Burran said. That company, Promethean Power Systems, has served more than 60,000 farmers.
Burran added, “We provided a grant to an inventor in the form of a loan to support a mobile lab, which is an alternative way of diagnostic procedures at the point of care in physician’s offices, primary health centers and intensive care units for the largely underserved, rural and poor populations in India.”
How philanthropists choose to fight poverty is constantly changing. While there will always be some concerns and issues, in general, philanthropists focus on how to improve the lives of many. Furthermore, philanthropists prove even individuals can change many lives. Many find success stories to tell nearly every day.
– Audrey Burran