In early 2001, Jane Wales ’70 and two friends who shared her commitment to international philanthropy sat down to discuss their concerns about the United States’s economic downturn. After years working for the nation’s top foundations and in the upper echelons of government, Wales had a profound sense of the transnational dangers that affect us no matter where we live and a clear commitment to addressing both policy concerns and philanthropy. “We knew we were facing a long, deep recession and that philanthropists would, by necessity, have to cut back on their giving,” Wales remembers.“We were fearful that the first things to go would be anything that was abstract or geographically remote: issues like global climate change, the diseases of the poor and human rights.”
So Wales and her two compatriots got to work, forming the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), a yearly conference that convenes more than 500 American philanthropists and foundations. The GPF conference includes social entrepreneurs and NGO leaders who offer their insight and expertise on some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental concerns. Now in its fourth year, the gathering connects like-minded donors from across the country and across social strata—from third- and fourth-generation humanitarians to first-time givers.
The results? A recent study by McKinsey and Company reveals that since 2001, philanthropists who attended the conference attribute $36 million in entirely new giving—not money redirected from other causes—to their participation in the GPF.
The response leaves Wales thrilled and surprised. The group was never intended as a fundraising organization (and no fundraising is allowed at GPF events); Wales says she and her colleagues simply wanted to build a lasting learning community. They’ve done that, but the economic and political context in which the forum was born provided conditions ideal for significant giving. “There were two factors,” says Wales of the fiscal and social successes of the GPF. The first was the recession. “There were venture capitalists and others with a significant amount of wealth and no place to invest. They were able to take this energy, this focus and this desire to be change agents and apply it in the philanthropic sector.”
And the second factor was September 11th, when Americans realized they could no longer remain aloof from world events.
Wales’s work with the GPF seems a natural evolutionary step. She was national executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility—which shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize—and served in various capacities at foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation. She worked in the State Department during the Carter administration and on the National Security Council staff and in the Office of Science and Technology during the Clinton presidency. For the past six years, she’s been president and CEO of the San Francisco-based World Affairs Council (WAC), a nonprofit focused on engaging U.S. citizens in an exploration of our country’s role in the world.
Wales is clearly driven, putting in long hours at a highly demanding job and with a hobby that’s become a force for change.
In the end, she sums it up simply: “This is incredibly joyful work.”