Philanthropy - A Panacea?

The physical world is hardly a place of comfort for the majority of beings. Buddhist teachings call it a sea of suffering. Especially when more than a few claim more than their fair share, the others do not have enough to go by. Greed and delusion have always been a chronic disease. The Buddha's teachings have been studied and followed by only a tiny minority for more than two millennia. Humans keep inflicting suffering and disasters upon themselves and their fellow human beings.

In a family, when a brother/ sister faces hardship or has a low social status, what does the mother expect from her other children? Does she want them to despise and dominate over the lowly one? Does she wish to watch them maltreat or enslave him/ her? Similarly, the Divine Mother expects nothing but love. Those who are filial and pious are to help Her relieve the suffering of Her needy and disadvantaged children. These acts require neither the riches of a mogul nor the resources of a giant bureau. It only takes loving-kindness.

A Sea of Suffering

At the end of this earth cycle, as holy teachings no longer have much or any bearing on the mind and life of most people, their ill will and deeds are taking a very serious toll upon the earth. Disasters are striking large populations from East to West. The insatiable greed of capitalism and the wayward acts of the faithless particularly result in the most disastrous effects. Catastrophes keep playing themselves out, be they pandemics, floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.

To tackle these issues, world leaders have set long-term goals in 17 areas. Due to limited capacity, this writing focuses on highlights in the first three which provide a glimpse into how much suffering is inflicting humanity.

The first issue concerns poverty which has been reduced significantly in recent decades but is far from being eradicated. According to the UN, "one-in-five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.90 a day. Millions more make little more than this daily amount and are at risk of slipping back into extreme poverty." This situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Importantly, once falling below the poverty line, people are trapped and find it very difficult to escape. Although most acute in Africa and South Asia, poverty exists everywhere even in the richest countries.

The second issue, hunger, is often but not always a result of the first issue. Food in this world is enough to feed its population; food shortage thus does not come from a lack of resources but from other causes such as inappropriate distribution or consumption. While a large number do not have enough to eat, many are weighed down by obesity in other parts of the world. Even worse, food waste remains a common habit in many places. To further complicate it, "our soils, freshwater, oceans, forests, and biodiversity are being rapidly degraded. Climate change is putting even more pressure on the resources we depend on, increasing risks associated with disasters such as droughts and floods. Many rural women and men can no longer make ends meet on their land, forcing them to migrate to cities in search of opportunities."

As a basic necessity, healthcare has received a great level of investment and attention. Great strides have been made over the decades in many health-related areas to improve the well-being as well as the quality of life of global populations. Although the threats of both communicable and non-communicable diseases have been significantly reduced, the prevalence and seriousness of mental health issues have only recently been attended to. They are typically underreported and under-diagnosed. While at least 10% of the world population is affected by these issues, less than 1% of development assistance for health and less than 1% of philanthropic health funding is spent on this pressing issue. Pharmaceutical firms have capitalized on this lucrative market by selling drugs as a solution. The persistence of the issues means that new different solutions are required.

Philanthropy to the Rescue

Because of the ambitious nature of the SDGs, there is an estimated USD 2.5 trillion funding gap, and global philanthropy will have to be an important factor in closing that gap (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2020). In addition to governments, organizations particularly support big thinking, innovation, and risk-taking, but their impact can only be maximized through collaboration and partnership. Private sources contributed nearly four times the amount of ODA in 2018. The US continues to be by far the biggest source although outflows as a percentage of GNI are low across the board.

According to the Global Philanthropy Report, this sector has seen major growth only in the past 25 years. It results from the enormous increase in private wealth accumulation. While giving is good, the given money is questionable. Financing is highly concentrated in a small group of organizations, particularly international foundations. At an international level, the largest ten philanthropic organizations provided more than half of all cross-border financing.

Education is a top priority around the world for 35% of organizations. Other priorities include human services and social welfare (21%), health (20%), and arts and culture (18%). Most countries and organizations set their own priorities and programs, lacking close alignment with the SDGs. Collaboration among them is widespread but that with governments remains difficult. Strong collaborations over an extended time horizon are still lacking.

​Best countries for philanthropy

​Worst countries for philanthropy











United States











Nepal Qatar Saudi Arabia Turkey Vietnam

​Source: Global Philanthropy Environment Index, 2022

The biggest barrier is finding partners who have aligned interests. This indicates a lack of awareness among donors about each other’s objectives and priorities. Other barriers are the administrative costs of managing resources from multiple organizations, and the fact that formalizing a collaborative agreement, contractually, can be burdensome.

Barriers to Collaboration (Source: OECD)
Barriers to Collaboration (OECD, 2021)

Only around 50% of foundations have a dedicated evaluation person, unit, or department. Foundations’ evaluation efforts focus primarily on relevance and efficiency of program design and implementation. Impact evaluation remains the least used method due to its costliness, resource burden, and complications. A majority find it challenging to ensure that evaluations are of sufficiently high quality.

With the disruption of COVID and the proliferation of technologies, online and mobile giving are growing popular in many countries. This trend promises to further democratize philanthropy across geos and sectors. Organizations can probably learn from similar fields like e/m-commerce to improve their capabilities in this regard. Given that the top 1% hoard 50% of wealth, the remainder can still be mobilized by democratized venues.

Online giving by country
Online Giving by Country (Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2022)

Breaking out of the Philanthropy Mold

For a long time, relieving suffering or, to use a modern term, sustainable development has been equated with pouring money into lifting people out of their hardship. What is missing is the lack of understanding and addressing the psychological effects of hardship. Poverty and health issues often entail discrimination, inequity, and other adversities. Giving the poor and sick some money does nothing to change society's bias and scorn against them. Most SDGs only tackle physiological levels of needs while overlooking higher ones such as a sense of belonging, quality relationships, dignity, etc. Basic needs cannot be denied but a sole focus on them reduces human life to materialism which fuels competition, conflict, and destruction. Despite being good themselves, these goals fail to nurture love and goodness in each human being which are the key to a happy peaceful world. Furthermore, until humanity loves each other in the spirit of a universal family, love is only a matter of empty talk or at best kindness. Until then, world leaders continue to shepherd their flocks astray towards delusion or even dehumanization. As long as they cling to the wayward -isms to secure their wealth or power and flaunt philanthropy as compensation, they feed the wrong medicine to their starved spirits.


Digital for Good: A Global Study on Emerging Ways of Giving. The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2022.

Global Philanthropy Environment Index. Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 2022.

Johnson, Paula D. Global Philanthropy Report. The Hauser Institute for Civil Society, 2022.

Muller, Natasha. Mental health is health…and we cannot afford not to fund it. United Global Mental Health, 2022.

Private Philanthropy for Development – Second Edition: Data for Action, The Development Dimension, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2021.

Ritchie, Hannah. Global mental health: five key insights which emerge from the data. Our World in Data, 2018.

Ritchie, Roser, Mispy, Ortiz-Ospina. "Measuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.", website (2018).

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