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An interview with Brad Smith: Can data sharing help build better cities?
With philanthropic organisations tending to take a more focused and often more international outlook in recent years, the need for reliable data has grown in tandem – it enables foundations to plan and implement their projects more effectively, and helps avoid duplication of resources. Few people can claim more experience in this field than Bradford K Smith, who will lead one of the discussion sessions at the Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum in Hong Kong from 22-23 September this year. Since 2008, he has been President of the Foundation Center, which is recognised as a leading source of information on philanthropy worldwide and also conducts research, education and training programmes designed to advance knowledge of philanthropy internationally. His work with the New York-based organisation and previous roles with the Oak Foundation and the Ford Foundation have involved him in philanthropic projects in more than 40 countries worldwide.
Brad Smith is a busy man as you can imagine, but we managed to catch up with him briefly before he boarded a flight to Seattle to seek his thoughts on how social issues affecting Asian cities differed from those elsewhere in the world, and the growing importance of technology in philanthropic projects today.
Q: What is your impression of some of the social issues facing cities in developing countries, compared with those in more industrialised economies?
Smith: The major issues that all big cities face today tend to be quite similar – they revolve around public health, safety and environmental issues like sanitation and safe drinking water. But what’s interesting about developing countries compared with industrialised economies is that their cities have become very densely populated in a short time, with large disparities in infrastructure. And unlike older cities which often have ageing infrastructure that is costly to upgrade, these developing cities can leapfrog directly to more modern technologies – for example advanced subway systems and the mainstream use of cellular communications.
Q: What about densely populated cities like Hong Kong? Any particular nuances there?
Smith: From my observations, the densely-concentrated cities in developing economies tend to have more vibrant city centres, unlike older cities where the population has often emptied out to the suburbs. They can be very lively and sophisticated in the centre, with poverty only seen on the periphery. Urban density presents both problems and opportunities. The main reason people are in the cities is access to employment and services, which is much easier to provide to densely-packed urban populations than very spread-out communities.
Q: What do you see as the unique role that data can play in the betterment of cities?
Smith: One thing we need to understand about philanthropy is that it’s largely – though not exclusively – an urban phenomenon. Urban philanthropy is one of the important, and growing, financial flows needed ti improve cities around the world. But in most countries, far more is known about government programmes than about philanthropic efforts. It’s important to ensure that initiatives by different foundations complement each other and avoid duplication, which means having good access to data. If a foundation doesn’t have data available, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist.
Q: How can we convince philanthropists to be more comfortable with giving out information, especially in Asia when many successful people prefer to be low-key and pragmatic in their giving?
Smith: I don’t think this is just an Asian phenomenon – philanthropists around the world generally profess modesty, humility and a low-key approach. But they all want to do good in the world and make a difference – and if you don’t share information on what you do, you may be unique in your own mind but you won’t be unique in reality. You need to understand where your work fits to avoid missing out on impact and scale, and to move from boutique philanthropy to making a real difference. The biggest case for sharing information is that it can help philanthropists be more effective and multiply the impact of their resources.
Q: How can the advancement of technology help in all this?
Smith: Regardless of how you might perceive transparency, it’s the way of the modern world. If we want to find information on anything nowadays we can Google it or we can find it through social media 24/7 – and each time we access information, we are also leaving a data trail. In the US, even the tax data of non-profits is now becoming available online, and you can expect this to spread to philanthropy. Technology makes it a lot easier for people to know about foundations. So it’s no longer really a question of whether you share information, but developing a strategy around it and deciding how you want to be seen.
Q: What would be your advice to foundation leaders who want to make more effective use of data?
Smith: Use your young staff! They are using data-sharing technologies in their daily lives and know how to make the best out of them. They also understand that you need to share data to access data. Some foundations try to go from zero to sixty overnight in data sharing, which puts an enormous burden on them. Before starting the process, you have to take time to decide what you really need to collect, share and access. The younger generation see foundations in a different way and don’t feel they have to subscribe to old ideas.
Q: On that subject, are we starting to see youth-generated philanthropic initiatives emerge outside foundations?
Smith: Yes, very much so. As it happens, The Foundation Center has been developing a new, web-based portal which will connect youth giving experiments around the world. It was launched on June 26 and can be found at www.youthgiving.org.
An Interview with Rip Rapson: Six Key Roles Foundations can Play in Building Better Cities
When it comes to discussing how philanthropy can contribute to the social regeneration of cities, few people can claim the rich experience of Rip Rapson, President and CEO of the US-based Kresge Foundation, who will be a keynote speaker at the Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum in Hong Kong from 22-23 September this year. During 2014 he was one of the architects of the ‘Grand Bargain’ which helped his adopted home city of Detroit exit bankruptcy, whereby a group of philanthropic foundations developed a plan and contributed nearly US$400 million to soften the blow of pension cuts among civic retirees while preventing liquidation of cultural treasures at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Two decades earlier, while serving as Deputy Mayor of Minneapolis, Rapson was a catalyst to the city’s 20-year, US$400 million Neighbourhood Revitalisation Programme, designed to rejuvenate and strengthen its deprived areas.
At September’s Forum, Rapson will lead a session on the expanding – and sometimes uncomfortable – role foundations are assuming to tackle social issues in American cities. We asked him to outline the role philanthropy can play in building better cities, and what main hurdles need to be overcome.
Q: What are the major social issues confronting modern cities today? What are the key components that make a city healthy, competitive and sustainable?
Rapson: ‘Inclusive growth’ is a major focus of current philanthropic efforts. We’re highly interested in how increased prosperity can be shared more inclusively and broadly across the population. Implementing patterns that make growth fair lies at the heart of successful change; you can put a real sense of optimism in place. The challenge is extending the benefits from a few to a much broader population. If you cannot do that, it has huge implications for social and political order – it can generate racial divides and distrust. Today we are seeing so much energy created around the return of young people and market capital to cities, and we’re focused on how to best harness it.
Q: In the light of structural changes in society, especially the ageing population trend, is it a higher priority to tackle the current concerns or look ten years or more ahead?
Rapson: Whether you’re a city planner, an elected official or a philanthropist, you really have to look to the longer term. Especially in Detroit, we’ve tried hard to lay the foundations for a much longer-term view, for example conceptualising ideas about land use. The skill is to get the right balance of tipping toward short-term measures while keeping your focus on the longer-term.
Q: What are the unique roles that foundations can play in the betterment of cities?
Rapson: One of the things I’ve found is that for each different challenge, I tend to focus less on specific strategies and more on what roles our foundation can play. I would say there are six key roles in most cases.
First, our neutrality as a foundation permits us to set the table and look for connections – we can make sure the right questions are being asked. Second, foundations have the ability to supplement civic capacity and work with municipal governments to add the experience they need; and third, we can take a level of risk in areas where the market is not always willing to go. We can provide that higher risk to get the flywheel going.
Fourth, the involvement of major foundations can serve as a guarantor of value, a signal to the markets that the value of their investments is real, especially when committing to projects like light rail systems, waterfront reclamation, public parks, libraries and so on. In addition, we can work as a bridge between local and national resources, which has been a powerful factor in Detroit.
Last but not least, philanthropy can become the guardian of what I would call ‘fragile ecologies.’ For example, market investors might not see arts and cultural activities as a high priority, but these activities can make a big contribution to community life and create an inclusive society. If you put all these six roles together, it becomes quite a powerful package.
Q: Evidence suggests, though, that genuine collaboration between philanthropists, governments and market investors is still quite difficult to achieve – is that your experience? This is one of the reasons why we’re so keen to host this forum and bring different parties together.
Rapson: I agree, and for that reason it will be very valuable to have the Detroit experience in the mix of your discussions in September. It was difficult at first, since each party had its own mission. But gradually we were able to build momentum as the parties found themselves attracted to different projects, and now we’ve managed to achieve quite powerful cross-sector collaboration to take the plans forward. We also have a better understanding of why the crisis happened in Detroit and what we can do collectively to preclude similar problems elsewhere.
Of course, Asian cities have a very different mix of cultures and there are differing appetites for risk, so not all the challenges you face will be the same – but in my mind, there is also a lot of common ground. I’m really looking forward to coming to Hong Kong in September to hear and learn more.
Press Conference of the Hong Kong International Philanthropy and Social Enterprise Week 2016