At the beginning of the 20th Century, the first truly spectacularly wealthy multimillionaires emerged in American society. Figures like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford had so much cash that they founded philanthropic organizations to give away their wealth to charitable causes.
Since then, however, the process of philanthropy has remained largely unchanged. It’s a simple formula: A wealthy person or corporation writes a sizable check to a charity group and then walks away. It’s up to the non-profit workers and organizers to put the money to effective use.
In recent years, a new concept has been emerging. It’s called catalytic philanthropy. The idea behind it is that when a wealthy entity decides to contribute money to a chosen cause, they stick around to get involved in all aspects of rolling out the program they are paying for.
Consider, though, that a catalytic philanthropic effort might skip donating to a particular charity altogether to create an all-new program.
A good example is when Montana-based Thomas Siebel, a multimillionaire software developer, became deeply concerned about the growth of meth use in his state. People were dying, prisons were filling up with dealers and whole communities were being torn apart.
Siebel wanted to help so he bankrolled an ambitious effort designed by himself from the ground up. He first spent time personally studying the meth phenomenon in Montana. He discovered that most meth addicts start as teenagers. He reasoned that if he could get to teens before they could get involved with drug use, he could cut off the meth problem from its point of origin.
Siebel brought in a top San Francisco ad firm to create a hard-hitting ad campaign that targeted Montana youth. The effort managed to target 80% of Montana’s young people with a media message they were certain to see three times every week. The ads were enormously expensive — from $500,000 to $1 million each. He brought in a top Academy Award-winning director from Hollywood to create the anti-meth media packages.
Siebel’s catalytic philanthropy project was a stunning success. In two years, Montana meth use dropped 45% among teens and 72% among adults. Meth-related criminal activity dropped 62%.
Another clear-cut example of catalytic philanthropy is Bill Gates and his multifaceted and aggressive effort to develop a vaccine for malaria.