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Empathy means equality

16 October 2019

The new generation of philanthropists is motivated by the desire to break down walls and treat everyone as equals, says Sara Ojjeh

Over 15 years ago, when my family embarked on our philanthropic journey, we set a founding principle of democratic decision-making and deep-rooted equality.

This remains as important to us today as it was then – and it continues to define how we deal with one another and the people we encounter in our work.

When my siblings and I were teenagers, our parents encouraged us to engage in philanthropic giving with their support, but not their control. That was crucial because it gave us the opportunity to fail and to learn from our mistakes.

This pairing of free rein and failure promoted both conversation and an ability to make decisions as equals. As a board consisting of three sisters and our younger brother, we first had to address our own issues of gender and age, in the process of establishing the core value of equality.

Birth order, matriarchy and patriarchy can stifle innovation

Through philanthropy we developed new means of communication and equal expression, regardless of our individual place in the family dynamic. This approach, we learned, leads to innovation and growth while building confidence in decision-making, which in turn improves the stewardship of wealth.

From hierarchy to humanity

For the past two decades, there has been a steadily rising hum of philanthropic activity alongside estate planning and wealth transfers. Nearly three-quarters of charitable foundations worldwide have been established in the past 25 years, according to researchers at Harvard.

Meanwhile, most of the record amount of wealth that will be transferred in the coming decades will go to women. These changes highlight the importance of equality as the foundational value of the new generation’s philanthropy.

As inheritors become more active in family endeavours at a younger age, especially in the philanthropic sector, the focus needs to shift from hierarchy to humanity.

We need to eliminate the divide between donor and recipient as part of our acknowledgement that every life has the same value. This shift begins within our own families and institutions.

In our case, at each board meeting, sitting at our dining-room table with the walls covered in Post-it notes, doodles and other visualisations of our brainstorming sessions, we learned how to exchange ideas and connect with beneficiaries as individuals and equals, not numbers at a distance.

Democratic decision-making

We have always made family decisions through a democratic process, reaching agreement by listening to each other equally. Birth order, matriarchy and patriarchy, by contrast, can stifle innovation.

There is no room for “us” and “them” in philanthropic exchanges, which call for a collective approach that empowers all participants equally.

Charity begins at home, but philanthropy starts with partnership, which means placing just as much importance on addressing the finances as the growth and evolution of the project itself.

Charity begins at home, but philanthropy starts with partnership

It helps that we live in a connected age, in the human as well as digital sense. Recently, I worked on a passion project in maternal health, using advocacy efforts to help save the lives of mothers in Uganda.

It was crucial to share my time equally between the team on the ground, the implementing NGO and my partners as decision-makers, as well as the midwives in rural clinics and expectant mothers.

Deep-rooted equality

In 2017, my sisters and I founded our company, Ethos Philanthropies Consulting, with the aim of engaging and encouraging families, individuals and companies to set out on the path of philanthropy as equals with their partners.

We need to eliminate the divide between donor and recipient… every life has the same value

Change has to be co-created. It cannot be imposed if it is to be sustainable. By setting consistent guidelines and promoting impactful, research-based methods of giving, we aim to foster a movement of engaged philanthropists and global partnerships.

At its base, philanthropy exists because there is inequality. But it is our duty to ensure that, in our efforts to create sustainable impact, we treat people as equals.

We are equal voices as equal members of the human race; each just one link in a long and hopeful chain for change. One which can grow ever stronger so long as we encourage an environment of equality around the table, all the way from the dining room to the boardroom.

Sara Ojjeh is co-founder of Ojjeh Family Fund and co-founder and director of Ethos Philanthropies Consulting

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