"Today's students are tomorrow's philanthropists"

Tom Tierney
Tom Tierney helps philanthropists decide on the most effective causes.

“Colombia has a history of solidarity, social concern, and community engagement”, assures Tom Tierney, one of the world’s leading experts on philanthropy and co-author of ‘Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results’: a guide to learn to donate intelligently.

Tierney participated in the forum “Philanthropy 2.0: how to maximize the impact of your social investments”, which was organized last October by the Universidad de los Andes. The country really impressed him; he thought that Colombia is “one of the planet’s gems that is especially interested in conservation, which is extremely important today”.

The American is cofounder of the Bridgespan Group: a global non-profit organization that consults for non-profit organizations and philanthropists, particularly on causes related to education, children, young people and families, public health, and global development.

Tierney believes that today’s youth are more worried about changing the world than any other previous generation. In an interview with Uniandes, he explained the direction that twenty-first century philanthropy is going in.

Why did you decide to leave behind your life as a businessman to dedicate your time to helping others to learn how to donate effectively?

For many years I was the director of an international company in Boston. I loved my company, but I began to ask myself what else I could do with my life and in what way I could help others. My father taught me that what you have is not the only thing that matters; what you give to others is also important. For this reason, the spirit of helping is important for me. While I thought about this, I came up with the idea of creating an organization that provided consultancy to non-profit organizations and philanthropists. Eighteen years ago, I started this project with a cofounder.

What are the challenges you encountered when trying to put your idea into action?

Like any other venture, I probably got about 50% right and 50% wrong. We were lucky but we didn’t imagine how difficult it would be to generate results in society. It is so much easier to offer a product or a service than it is to change the life of a child or solve an environmental problem.

What was your motivation to write the book ‘Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results’?

My journey through the world of social causes began in 2000, and, after about ten years, I felt more and more interested in what millionaires and millionaire-families could do to use their money more effectively. It is difficult to donate intelligently. Many people asked me to investigate this and to write about this, and this is how ‘Give smart’ began. It is a guide about how to give money to improve society; I give people advice on how to increase their impact on the world.

What did the people you know say when you abandoned everything for this dream?

I am a businessman who left this life behind at 44 and tried to dedicate 100% of his time to being useful for society. Many people criticized me when I made this decision. They told me to, “Do it when you get to seventy as something to do with your retirement”, but I felt the calling to serve. “If you only had ten years left to live, what would you do? Would you continue in business or would you change what you do to serve society? A friend of mine, John Gardner asked me this, and it was clear for me that I had to change direction. In business we create jobs, but that is not the same.

Do you think that donating brings you any psychological benefit?

I have seen many people, especially seventy or eighty year-olds, trying to understand what it is that makes life meaningful. What I can say is that there are two important things in life. The first is friends and family. The second is leaving the world a little better than when we found it. This can be through philanthropy, not only with money, but with leadership, reputation, or contacts. Putting all available means at the service of others is one of the most gratifying experiences for a human being. The millionaires with whom I have had the privilege of working would say that philanthropy is one of the most valuable aspects of their lives as they can also do it as a family. Partners, parents, and children, all from different generations, can share this experience: it can bring families together.

Do you think that only donating money is a wrong idea?

When we did the research for this book, we discovered that this is not just about money. The reality is that people also give their time and not just their checks. My point of view is that time is something we all have. We can always help out our neighbor; in reality, philanthropy is a combination of ingredients.

In Colombia we do not have an idea of philanthropy that goes beyond money and multimillionaires such as Bill Gates. How can a normal person contribute with their time and knowledge?

If there was an earthquake right now, we would all try to save the victims. This is because human beings have the intrinsic desire to help others. In fact, in Colombia there is a long history of generosity linked to religion, and this is based on charity, which is a powerful cultural concept and an important part of philanthropy. But this is very different to what currently happens in the United States where people with a lot of money want to not only donate, but to do it intelligently. There is another type of philanthropy that has arisen over the past twenty years and that worries about resolving social problems. Some call it ‘strategic philanthropy’.

There is crisis of crisis of confidence in Colombia and people are afraid of giving money and it not directly going to the person who needs it. What can we do about this?

There are organizations and leaders who can be trusted, but you need to be very careful when deciding who to help. It takes time to trust when someone starts to donate. I advise those who have doubts to research and analyze the risks as if they were going to invest in something. If it was a business, they wouldn’t simply give money to anybody. When they discover who is reliable, they can give a small amount of money without worrying. Then they can come back in a several years and see what happened. If this donation worked, they can give a little more. Over time it can be seen if they did what was promised or not.

Can philanthropy be frustrating?

Yes. People give money to causes that they like or with which they identify, but there is no such emotion in business. Philanthropy is very personal, and this can be disastrous because one part of the brain wants results while the other wants to feel happiness. This can go wrong because the donors can fall in love with really bad ideas and projects as well as falling into the trap of people who tell them what they want to hear. In business there is client feedback on a daily basis, but in philanthropy there is not. This is very distorted and for this you need to be more aggressive and conscious of finding out what works and what does not.

What is better: supporting one cause or many at the same time?

One of the mistakes people make is not knowing how to say ‘no’. There are hungry children, environmental problems, a lack of being able to access education…it is difficult to not give everyone the help they need. But money disappears if it is invested in many causes. Although it is difficult to focus on something specific, it is important to stick to a maximum of two or three projects.


Why is it important to help young people access universities?

Because today’s students are tomorrow’s philanthropists. What I have noticed is that the young people of today, more than any previous generation, want to make the world a better place. They understand that we have to help each other as no one is going to come from Mars to help us. They know that when they help someone it feels great and they have naturalized this feeling, which anyone can do. We can all do something.

Does technology help social causes?<

Yes, technology is a great ally of philanthropy and social change as it helps us to know what works and what does not. This helps us to solve all types of social problems. People can find causes to help online and connect with people who share the same worries.


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